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.