The challenge of pesticides in Nantucket cranberry bog

Nantucket's beaches may be the island's biggest draw in the summertime, but come autumn, the cranberry bogs are where it's at.

In just a few weeks, it will be time to begin harvesting the crimson berries by flooding and corralling them. And camera-toting tourists will once again converge on this photogenic event.

But what the shutterbugs won't have seen is another common sight in the warmer months - a posted sign warning onlookers to stay away because of recent pesticide spraying.

"It's a necessary evil," says John Wilson, vice president of Northland Cranberry, which leases bogs from the Nantucket Conservation Foundation. "We only spray if we have to."

They first try to rid the plants of cranberry worms with Integrated Pest Management techniques, he explains, such as checking the egg count frequently and keeping it down with traps.

Nonetheless, Mr. Wilson says, spraying is "always controversial" with the neighbors.

Laura Hussey, who lived next to Windswept for many years, says she was concerned about her family's proximity to these pesticides. At one point, after taking a walk in the bog, she found several dead tadpoles.

She reported her findings to the town biologist, but he didn't seem worried. And tests of her drinking water always passed. She still wonders, however, why one worker walked off the job after he discovered exactly what materials were used. "No one would tell me," she says.

The UMass Cranberry Station in Wareham, Mass., which is responsible for spraying, did not return phone calls.

Bill Maple, director of the Maria Mitchell Association's natural science programs on Nantucket, shrugs off the controversy. "It's overblown," he tells a group of Teva-shod adults and children who have joined him for a look at the bogs. "The materials are biodegradable. They decay in the soil within one to two days, and they are applied in a way that minimizes impact on species."

The real issue, he adds, is the use of fertilizers and pesticides on lawns all over the island. It's been discussed among townspeople and the island's selectmen, but then ignored. "People with fancy homes are lobbying against [the ban on pesticides]," he explains.

Since 1857, after the decline of the whaling industry, cranberries have been an important part of the economy on this popular island 30 miles off the coast of Massachusetts. The 234-acre Milestone bog was the largest contiguous natural cranberry bog in the world until 1959, when water conservation efforts resulted in breaking it into smaller, more water-efficient units.

Today, the subdivided Milestone and the 40-acre Windswept cranberry bog, constructed at the turn of the century, are both cultivated for commercially sold juice, sauce, and berries.

Despite this summer's drought, the crop is still expected to be "good, though not record-breaking," Wilson says. The summer's dryness will actually be an advantage in preventing rot, he adds.

A visit to the Windswept bog earlier this summer showed a vastly different sight than that of harvest days. In late June and July, a blanket of pink flowers covers the meadow (see photo above). Early colonists decided the blossoms looked like the head of a crane and named the fruit "crane-berry."

Wearing leopard-spotted socks and cargo shorts with pockets full of nature guides, a stocky, bearded Mr. Maple talks glowingly about his work and the island where he's summered for the past 15 years.

When he's not leading nature walks on Nantucket, Maple teaches botany, ecology, and zoology at Bard College in New York. One of his favorite spots to escape the summer crowds on Nantucket is not Madaket Beach or the village of Sconset, but Windswept bog itself.

It's on this quiet land, adjoining woods and marshland, that he not only finds a refuge, but also catches a glimpse of spotted turtles, snakes, deer, and arethusa, a showy orchid with magenta flowers.

"Every time I go there, I see something new," he says. And soon, every visitor to the bogs will also see something new.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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