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  • Writer's pictureNelson Sigelman

Remembering a Legacy of Public Access

Jack Sheppard died in March. Most people will not recognize the name. But if you ever walked the path to access Dogfish Bar in Aquinnah, launched a boat in Katama, Sengekontacket or the Lagoon, or cast a line from the Oak Bluffs fishing pier, you have Jack to thank.

Jack was one of those special civil servants who worked quietly, got the job done and let others take the credit over a 48 year career with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (DFW). Jack died on March 5 at the age of 76 only a month after his retirement. The April MassWildlife newsletter correctly said that “anyone who launches a motorboat, canoe, or kayak at a public boat access facility or casts a fishing line from a barrier-free fishing facility or shoreline access can thank Jack Sheppard, Director of the Office of Fishing and Boating Access (OFBA), for making their recreation experiences possible.”

As the head of the OFBA (formerly the Public Access Board), Jack was responsible for breaking down barriers and pulling down no trespassing signs. And he was not afraid to go toe-to-toe with indignant property owners or municipal officials who stood in the way of public access to the state’s beaches and waterways.

Interestingly, and not surprisingly given his low key style, when I did a search on Google for an image of Jack I found only two photos, and in each case he was not the center of attention. Forty-eight years and he didn’t pose front and center once. I had to grab this photo off the newsletter.

It was Jack’s agency that built the first pier on Martha’s Vineyard devoted solely and exclusively to fishing and the first pier of its type in the state’s coastal waters. And even that was a battle. But Jack had working class roots and he stood up for the average fisherman.

My new book, “Martha’s Vineyard Fish Tales, How to catch fish, rake clams, and jig squid, and entertaining tales about the sometimes crazy pursuit of fish” ($2495, Stackpole Books) includes a chapter on public access. I thought that the story about Dogfish Bar would be a fitting tribute.

Jack, goodbye my friend, it was a privilege to know you.

Closing Time at Dogfish Bar

Dogfish Bar in Aquinnah is another example of a renowned fishing spot that was at the center of a lengthy battle to secure what had always been an informal parking arrangement. For many years, fishermen in the know could travel down a dirt road in Gay Head — now known as Aquinnah — to a small parking lot. A pathway over the dunes led to Dogfish Bar. Property owner Dr. Jason Lew was fine with fishermen using his lot. On a good night the striped bass fishing could be legendary. But the informal arrangement, one similar to past conveniences that once provided fishing access around the Island, was too good to last.

Dr. Lew’s property went on the market. In 1996 the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank stepped in with an offer to buy the entire parcel that stretched from Lighthouse Road to the beach, and create a boardwalk path. Unfortunately, short-sighted Gay Headers who did not want to consider that one day their access could also disappear objected to the potential public incursion and the local Land Bank advisory board nixed the deal, citing fears of heavy use, traffic, impact on the environment, and community opinion.

I invited Division of Fisheries and Wildlife Commissioner John Phillips, who I had never met until he stepped off the ferry with a fly rod in hand, to visit me on the Island and fish Dogfish. He immediately recognized the value of this unique fishing spot. John asked Jack Sheppard, director of the Public Access Board, a true public servant, to step in and make a purchase deal. The state bought the 2.4-acre beach-front lot in 1996 for $160,000 even as private shares in an adjacent association parking lot were selling for $18,000 each (and later sold for about $70,000).

John Phillips and others in the state agency pledged that care would be taken to preserve the ecology and protect residents' interests. He asked the Island office of the Trustees of Reservations (TTOR) to handle local management details. And the Orvis Company, out of Manchester, Vermont, known for its commitment to the environment, pledged to contribute $40,000 towards management costs. Under the theory that no good deed goes unpunished, some Gay Headers saw a conspiracy. They said Orvis Company, which regularly devotes a percentage of its profits to projects, causes, and activities that benefit the environment, wanted to run a fly fishing school. It was untrue. Orvis was only interested in preserving access for the public. And The Trustees just wanted to be helpful. Orvis decided not to spend money where they were not wanted. The Trustees wanted no part of controversy. Great.

After much gnashing of teeth and a tussle between state wildlife officials and Gay Head leaders, there was a period of detente. The state did not improve the parking lot and everyone looked the other way, until an abutter once again tried to impede public access. The state stepped in and created a formalized well-delineated but limited parking area and path designated for fishing only. Once again, it is important to park tight to either side to provide as much space as possible and to not park outside the lot.

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1 Comment

Sep 23, 2020

What a great tribute to a man that I have benefited immensely from, but never knew. The natural beauty of our coastline is something we should all have access to and not be just for some of the more fortunate. That being said, we must respect that privilege as well.

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