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Almanac Archive for Oct. 25, 2019

Conservation Almanac Special Edition

Environment Must be a Priority for the Island's "Lifeline"
As part of strategic plan development, Steamship Authority seeks feedback on new mission statement

Different strengths for different purposes: In 2007, the Islander, reliable in stormy weather, was replaced by the Island Home, a larger boat with more amenities, and capable of carrying more cars per trip – so long as it can run at all.

As the primary mode of transit to and from Martha’s Vineyard, the Steamship Authority has, in addition to performing its core function (and occasional slogan) as the “lifeline to the Islands,” undeniably shaped the trajectory of growth and development on our Island. If, over the decades, the SSA had adhered to a mission consistent with the purpose laid out in the opening section of its 1960 enabling legislation,

“. . . to provide adequate transportation of persons and necessaries of life for the islands of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard,”

then surely significant growth of the Island’s population and economy would have occurred anyway. Instead, though, SSA’s pursuit of its own organizational growth has accelerated the rapid pace of development seen in recent years that will, according to projections from the MV Commission, result in a loss of 80% of the Island’s unprotected open space. Extravagant new terminals, overly grand vessels (with more space and amenities but so much windage they cannot run in bad weather), along with the million-dollar advertising budget to fill said terminals and boats with paying customers, together demonstrate that while they may be merely “responding to demand” in the words of SSA’s management, from the perspective of the Island they are supplying the demand.

Therefore, for anyone concerned about how growth at the SSA is contributing to bottlenecked traffic, lost habitat and open space, or the high cost of housing due to a superheated real estate market, the time to make yourself heard is now. This Monday at 4:00 pm, at the MV Museum’s classroom space, SSA representatives will be available to hear public comments on their new draft mission statement. The mission statement is intended to be a first step toward developing a long-term strategic plan in the coming months, as recommended by the consulting firm hired to evaluate their operations.

While it seems perhaps more logical to develop a serious and detailed strategy first, and then refine it into the public-facing synopsis, the decision to do it the other way around suggests that the wording of the new mission statement may have some bearing on the more important plan to follow. So, in that spirit, we offer some thoughts on the draft statement:

Our mission is to operate a safe, efficient, and reliable transportation system for the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket in an environment committed to sustainability, accessibility, and community engagement.

Let’s just note up front that mission statements are hard to write. The simultaneous requirements of inclusion (you need some mention of every crucial value, function, and interest group), brevity (one fabulous run-on sentence is all you get), and a patina of grammatical coherence make for a nearly impossible balancing act – especially when it is being done by committee. At VCS, we last revised our own mission statement nine years ago, a perilous process we’re in no hurry to revisit. So, we sympathize.

That said, there is always room for improvement. Here are two areas in which we feel the draft statement is lacking, keyed to a couple phrases that were left under-defined.

Sustainability of what?
To “operate . . . in an environment committed to sustainability” does not mean the same thing as being “committed to environmental sustainability.” The wording here is unclear, and it leaves open an interpretation that “environment” refers to something akin to community, or corporate culture, and further, that the “sustainability” in question is that of the local or state economy, or even the boat line itself.

At the risk of being cynical, it looks as if there was (1) an imperative to incorporate the words “sustainability” and “environment” somewhere, but (2) a reticence to embrace real environmental sustainability, from limiting impacts on growth and development to efforts to reduce the organization's enormous carbon footprint, resulting in a vague phrasing intended to preserve maximum flexibility for future decisions. We should not accept this; luckily, the fix here is easy:

Our mission is to operate a safe, efficient, and reliable transportation system for the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket that is committed to environmental sustainability, accessibility, and community engagement.

Which community?
As addressed above, the entire “in an environment committed to” phrasing is vague; but even after streamlining and clarifying that, the final item, “community engagement” is itself fairly unclear. Of course the SSA will be “engaged” with the community – they are unavoidable! But more important, to whom does “community” refer? A better phrase, from the perspective of Islanders, would be something to the effect of “the well-being (or benefit, good, public interest, etc.) of the islands.”

This is revealing: the slogan that tops the SSA website today reads “Lowest fares to the Islands.” This is all well and good (who doesn’t want lower ticket prices?), but it certainly speaks to a different audience than “The lifeline to the Islands.”

It is not unreasonable to think that the SSA should be more responsive to the interests of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket residents than to the public at large. SSA should bear in mind their enabling legislation and original purpose, and consider this prioritization to be a fair trade for the legally-granted monopoly on auto traffic that they enjoy.

If you cannot attend Monday’s open house, or would rather submit comments in writing, they may be sent via email

p.s.: Fair is Fair Department –
Below is the VCS mission statement, last revised nine years ago. Drafting a mission statement is hard work and the result may never please everyone, or possibly anyone to 100% satisfaction. But we're comfortable that this still evokes the core mission as succinctly as possible.  

The Vineyard Conservation Society is a non-profit membership organization
dedicated to preserving the environment of Martha’s Vineyard
through advocacy, education, and the protection of the Island’s land and water.

Visit our Website          Follow us on Instagram          Become a VCS Member!
Moshup Trail heathlands in late September. (Photos by Brendan O'Neill)

Copyright © 2019 Vineyard Conservation Society, All rights reserved.

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