Why Moshup Trail Matters

by Brendan O'Neill

The Legend of Moshup is an ancient creation story from the Wampanoag oral tradition. It tells of the giant Moshup, the personification of the immense forces of nature, deciding to settle here after a long journey, and dragging his foot to separate Martha’s Vineyard from the mainland and plow up the Cliffs of Gay Head. Scraps from his dinner table are the fossilized bones and teeth of ancient life forms found there. The vast appetite of his cook fires is evidenced in the layers of petrified wood and coal visible in the cliffs and the treeless expanse that is Moshup Trail.

Today, geologists offer corroboration. At the terminus of its long journey, the Pleistocene glacial advance halted here some 10,000 years ago. It deposited alluvial plains to the east, rocky moraine to the west, and, in an extraordinary event, plowed up ancient strata laid down in a primordial sea, exposing 60 million year old cretaceous clays and 100 million year old lignite coal deposits at the Gay Head Cliffs.

Beneath the cliffs stretches the expanse of Moshup Trail, a wind-blasted, salt-spray-stunted, drought-prone place. Traveling along the trail, one experiences the wildness of this largely unspoiled landscape. Its open moors are recognized as an exceptionally rare type of habitat called the Northeast Coastal Heathlands, home to species adapted to, and molded by, the prevailing harsh conditions. They include the spotted turtle, Nantucket shadbush, Arethusa orchid, the northern harrier hawk, and a diversity of invertebrate species. Ecologists call Moshup Trail the most significant unprotected, undeveloped habitat in the New England region.

But conditions are unforgiving, and life there is tenuous. Additional stressors like development are not tolerated well. The most pressing threat to heathlands is habitat fragmentation in the form of road building, house construction, and impacts associated with human habitation like lights and noise and pets. The result is that more than 90 percent of coastal heathlands habitat in the Northeast is lost.

Because of Moshup Trail’s relative isolation, conservation of the precious natural heritage and spectacular scenic resource there is still possible. The people of Aquinnah, together with Island conservationists, have been working for decades to seize that opportunity.

During the 1970s, the town worked with the Vineyard Conservation Society and the Commonwealth to adopt coastal wetland regulations. In 1980, a strategic property near the cliffs was purchased, with more than half the money coming from town residents. Soon after, the town successfully designated 186 acres along Moshup Trail as a special zoning overlay district, a District of Critical Planning Concern (DCPC), later expanded to include the entire town.

Throughout the 1990s, VCS worked piece-by-piece to facilitate conservation of nearly 40 acres of the heathland habitat. The Moshup Sanctuary was assembled through donations of land, purchases of visually and ecologically critical parcels, and voluntary conservation restrictions on private holdings.

Since then, the emphasis shifted to legal defense of these conservation gains. Would-be developers of landlocked lots adjacent to the conserved lands sought to force subdivision access through the conservation lands. 

VCS and others responded, and we continue our vigorous defense of this special place. Two decades of litigation involving a series of cases in state and federal courts, including the Massachusetts Land Court and Supreme Judicial Court (plus a brief visit to the U.S. Supreme Court), has, more often than not, come out in favor of conservation and therefore strengthened the land's legal protection.

The seeds of this dispute were planted more than a century ago. In 1862, the Massachusetts General Court passed an Act Establishing Gay Head as a District, changing the way the state related to the Wampanoags’ ancient communal system of land tenure. Ownership of enclosed lands was recognized, common lands were divided, and hundreds of small lots were created and deeded to local Wampanoag people. Many of these “set-off” lots were later conveyed out of tribal hands. Nearly one hundred and fifty years later, some of the lots have been conserved, but others located in the heart of the Moshup heathlands remain vulnerable to development. (More details on the legal defense work here)

We are optimistic that recent indications of closure on the legal defense front mean the need for active litigation is behind us for now. More recently, our legal work has turned toward perfecting title to Moshup parcels gifted to VCS in 2013 by Red Gate Farm LLC.Much appreciation is due to the donors; their generosity will, once the legal work is done, add significantly to the protected habitat at the Moshup Sanctuary.