A View From The Overlook: Forbidden Islands

The Brownsville House was purchased by The Nature Conservancy in the 1960s to serve as the headquarters for its Virginia Coastal Reserve operations. To visit Hog Island, you need to take a sometimes bumpy six-mile boat ride. Photos by Joan Rubin.

Forbidden Islands have always fascinated people.

Why? Well, I don’t know. Perhaps due to both their mystery and privacy. If you totally own an island, your only neighbor is, well, God.

That must give the owner a feeling of confidence and power. Can’t blame a person for wanting to own an island. It sort of contradicts John Donne’s famous line, “No man is an island.” You are one if you own one.

Private forbidden islands are pretty rare, particularly in America. The largest private island is Niihau, a 6-mile-by-18-mile in Hawaii owned by the Robinson family. Then there is Kahoolawe Island, a 6-mile-by-11-mile Hawaiian cultural reserve that is off limits to non-native Hawaiians, except for work crews.

Smack dab in the jaws of Long Island’s Peconic Bay lies the very secret 435-acre Robin’s Island, purchased as a hunting preserve for $11 million in 1997 by the billionaire financier Louis Bacon. He does not feel the need for your company.

At the ocean end of Long Island is the even more mysterious 6-mile-by-3-mile, 3,300-acre Gardiner’s Island, owned by the Gardiner family for nearly 400 years. The Gardiners had uncanny skill at marrying money (Julia Gardiner married President John Tyler) so they could afford to be reclusive. Gardiner’s Island is renowned for the largest stand of old growth White oak left in North America and the site where Captain Kidd buried his treasure. (Yes, he really did! It was later dug up and used as evidence against him in his trial.)

Between the Massachusetts mainland and Martha’s Vineyard lie the Elizabeth Islands. This archipelago is the domain of the extended Forbes family, who are richer than God. (One of the extended family members is Senator John Kerry; a frequent visitor to the Elizabeths.) Still, the Forbes are not to be entirely envied; several of the islands are overrun with poison ivy and deer ticks carrying Lyme disease.

The Georgia Sea Islands with their pleasant winter climate lent themselves to baronial private ownership, as in the case of 16,500-acre Sapelo Island (The RJ Reynolds family) and 36,000-acre Cumberland Island (The Carnegie family).

Private islands are expensive to keep up, so Sapelo Island is now a biological research area owned by the University of Georgia, while Cumberland Island is now a unit of the National Park Service (Cumberland Island National Seashore). Interestingly enough, Cumberland Island National Seashore is one of the very few restricted natural area units of the NPS; requiring advance reservation for admittance. This may be a harbinger of the future, for sensitive areas such as Yosemite Valley.

The Nature Conservancy Owns More Than A Few Islands

Today, aside from the islands mentioned, about the only private islands of any size in America are owned by The Nature Conservancy and The Catalina Island Conservancy, which manages that Channel Island and which is open to the public.

What is The Nature Conservancy?

Well, if “The Episcopal Church is the Republican Party at prayer” as some have said, then The Nature Conservancy is the Republican Party at Conservation. Yes, neighbors, there was a time, before the advent of the reverse rapparee Congressman Paul Ryan, the late philosopher Ayn Rand, and, of course, Bishop Romney, when the Republicans were interested in the environment in a positive non greed-head manner.

Republicans such as John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, Theodore Roosevelt, Steve Mather, Horace Albright, and Russell Train come to mind.

The Nature Conservancy is a remnant and reflection of that time. Wealthy, shrewd, and well-managed; it is the Daddy Warbucks of conservation outfits. It is a rapid response private organization able to do things that the National Park Service and other government agencies are unable to do; that is, to move quickly and scientifically to acquire endangered critical habitat.

The NPS is somewhat hampered in this goal by (a) lack of funds, and (b) a desire on the part of its constituency, the American Public, for spectacular landscapes that tower, thunder, erupt, roar, challenge, awe, or stupefy the taxpayer.

TNC Does "Science," Not Necessarily "Pretty"

Unfortunately, Nature is not always spectacular, but is still deserving of preservation. This is where The Nature Conservancy comes in. “We don’t do pretty,” said one TNC biologist, “We do science.”

For example, TNC was able to purchase the 350,000-acre Gray Ranch in the boot-heel country of New Mexico and thus prevent the previous owner from subdividing it into 20-acre “ranchettes,” something which would have destroyed the ecological integrity of the ranch. Three years later, TNC sold the ranch to Drummond Hadley, the world’s only wealthy cowboy poet, who agreed to legally binding environmental easements that prevented the ranch from being subdivided and sees that it is operated as a working cattle ranch in a sustainable manner, with all biomes intact.

Through a masterful series of real estate deals, TNC was able to acquire and preserve most of the Virginia Barrier islands, some 14 islands in all, off the Virginia coast of the Delmarva peninsula that makes up the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay.

While only four of the 14 TNC islands are forbidden or off limits to the general public for a variety of reasons, the other ten islands are hard to access unless you have your own boat.

However, twice a year, usually in early spring or late fall to avoid the bugs, TNC would offer a weekend visit to 14 TNC members on a first-come, first-served basis. Understandably, these slots fill quickly. It is not quite as competitive as getting a berth at Great Smoky Mountain's Le Conte Lodge, or a slot on Wupatki’s Hole in the Rock Ruin Hike, but one must persevere. We were successful.

TNC’s Virginia Coastal Reserve Weekend starts at their headquarters on the mainland opposite Hog Island. TNC has its own bed-and-breakfast; the historic 1806 plantation headquarters Brownsville House. The 1,250-acre plantation has been in the same family since 1682 until its purchase by TNC in the 1960s. Although the plantation grew and shipped corn, it was perhaps most famous for an unusual crop—castor oil, used as a lubricant and in paints.

TNC selects its staff carefully, pays them well and treats them well and morale is correspondingly high. Mary Catherine was the liaison lady during the weekend and charmingly saw to everyone’s needs.

The Reserve’s chief scientist, Barry Truitt, was a large, extroverted “salt water cowboy” type who could answer any question, biological or historical, as he had grown up on or about the Virginia Barrier Islands. He was also the Reserve’s boat handler, taking us across the choppy 6-mile wide Hog Island Bay to Hog Island.

Since European settlement on the Virginia Barrier Islands dates back to the 17th century, the area is rich in history. The pirate Blackbeard careened his ship in one of the tidal creeks on Smith Island, now a TNC property.

I asked Barry if he ever found buried treasure.

“Oh, yes!” he laughed, one hand on the wheel. I thought he was kidding. He wasn’t.

His practiced biologist eye had noted a strange pattern in the dune grass on Hog Island. The Coast Guard was summoned. They dug up 1,000 kilos of hashish, neatly wrapped in plastic with a street value of upwards of $6 million dollars, deposited by a present-day Blackbeard.

“The main thing to realize is that the barrier islands are what we call, 'high speed real estate,'” said Barry as we stepped ashore on Hog Island. “The islands change shape year to year and even day to day. It has taken planners and realtors an incredibly long time to realize this. You enjoy these islands for what they are, a dynamic fluid ecosystem, but you do NOT put permanent infrastructure on them.”

A Preserve For Wildlife

That is just fine with the birds. The 40,000-acre reserve supports over 250 species, some nesting, but most as vital resting and feeding stops in migration. The most famous of their migrants are a species of shore bird called the Whimbrel (Curlews), which migrates between the Canadian Arctic and Venezuela, with stops along the way, notably at the Virginia Coast Reserve.

TNC has pioneered in satellite banding, in which a 1.5-gram transmitter is attached to a Whimbrel and you can track them in real time. “Hope,” a female Whimbrel, recently made a 3,200-mile non-stop journey from The Virginia Coastal Reserve to Great Pond on St. Croix in the American Virgin Islands. If you like, you can track the Whimbrels by Googling up Virginia Coastal Reserve and following directions.

So what will be the ultimate fate of this unique private reserve? Well, I don’t know. Perhaps if a rising sea does not take the reserve, the TNC might sell it to the Department of Interior for addition to their nearby Assateague and Chincoteague barrier island holdings. We shall see.

Comments

So let me get this straight: NPT puts out guidelines for Commenters to follow, but have none for the writers who submit articles? The first two paragraphs under "What is The Nature Conservancy" could have been discarded completely and then you would have had an unbiased and interesting article. These remarks serve no purpose other than to show the writer's politcal preferance.

As an aside, I wonder where all the money comes from to support the Nature Conservancy. Do only Democrats give to it? Could it be possible there is wealthy Democrats? OMG!

Dottie, it's an op-ed column.