3 Miles from Martha’s Vineyard Is an Empty Island Full of Bombs

Nomans Land is no man’s land.

A fighter plane flies over the island of Nomans Land
Wikipedia

The island of Nomans Land, Massachusetts, is unusual for the heavily populated New England coast. It could have ended up like a miniature version of Martha’s Vineyard, the upscale vacation destination that sits about three miles north. Instead it’s brimming with spotted turtles and myriad migratory birds—a de facto wildlife sanctuary with little human presence. And there’s a good reason for that: From 1943 to 1996, the island served as a bombing range for the U.S. Navy. In spite of previous cleanup efforts, Nomans Land remains littered with unexploded explosive ordnance, or UXO, and is closed to the public.

But despite a half century of destruction, life is now flourishing on the island. And area residents are embroiled in a question that’s at once philosophical and practical: what to do with Nomans Land.

Gus Ben David—a naturalist, biologist, and third-generation Martha’s Vineyard resident—first visited Nomans Land in 1973, when he was sent by the local newspaper to report on the state of the island. He has spent more time there than any other civilian, and today champions the view that the island should be left alone. Nomans Land has become a paradise for wildlife unbothered by humankind, Ben David says. If the remaining ordnance doesn’t harm the wildlife, then it poses no problem, he says, and any further attempts to remove the unexploded weapons could jeopardize the habitat.

“Wildlife is a product of habitat,” Ben David says. “You protect the habitat, and you have your wildlife.”

But other people want a renewed effort to clean up the island. Some hope to eventually be able to set foot on the picturesque spot. Others worry that unexploded bombs could find their way to sea and wash up on nearby Martha’s Vineyard.

Brian McCarty, an ecologist, U.S. Air Force veteran, and fishing guide, thinks Nomans Land needs to be cleaned up. He’d like to see the island eventually opened to a limited number of visitors—for research, and for community members to reconnect with it. “You don’t manage anything by leaving it alone entirely and not having a connection to it,” he says.

But his motivation also stems from a more pragmatic concern. While the potential for the UXOs to explode is valid, he’s more concerned that corroding munitions could pollute the soil and groundwater. McCarty explains that the only fresh water on Martha’s Vineyard, where he lives, comes from the same aquifer that underlies Nomans Land. Anything that corrodes into Nomans Land’s soil, he says, will end up contaminating the water on Martha’s Vineyard.

Beyond ecological or public-health concerns, there are serious cultural issues to take into account when discussing what to do with the island.

While the origin of the name Nomans Land is disputed, one explanation is that a Wampanoag leader named Tequenoman once had domain over the island—that is, Tequenoman’s land. What isn’t disputed is that his people, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head, lived there long before it was a bombing range.

As reported in the Vineyard Gazette, Bret Stearns, speaking on behalf of the tribe at a public hearing in 2020, said the Wampanoag people want “greater and safer access to the island, both for cultural use, and for general access by tribal members.”

The opinions of those engaged in the public debate about what to do with Nomans Land are varied and passionately held, notes Alex Bushe, a documentary filmmaker working on a project about the island. “I think that there are good arguments from all sides,” Bushe says. “It’s a really, really tough call.”

The idea of leaving the island to nature—freeing it of human footprints and influence—is alluring. There’s an equally logical impulse to clean up humanity’s mess: to manage the island and connect with it. And there’s a duty to return the land to those who lived there long before any bombs were dropped. What remains unclear is if, how, or when all parties can arrive at a consensus.


This post appears courtesy of Hakai Magazine.