Local Hero: Liz Durkee

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“She is so incredibly passionate. She loves this Island and the natural environment, and she wants to keep it beautiful and safe for everyone.” –Joan Malkin, chair of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission

Since the first time Liz Durkee stepped off the boat onto the Steamship Authority pier as a kid, she knew she wanted to live on Martha’s Vineyard.

Her parents met and married on the Island, and Liz, who lives in Oak Bluffs, has been coming to the Island since she was 7 years old. A big part of what drew her back to her favorite vacation spot was the immense natural beauty that persists here: the cool waters containing a rich bounty, and the unique and varied forests and marshes that span most of the Island.

Now, as climate change planner for the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (a post to which she was named earlier this year), she is working to protect the beaches, sprawling vistas, and marshlands that have drawn her all her life.

Where it all started

“I love this Island. I always have, even back when I was a summer kid,” Liz told Bluedot Living. “There was such a sense of freedom and openness, I felt so much more at peace here than anywhere else. It’s very rewarding to have a job at the commission, where I feel like I am helping to protect the things that are so beautiful and that I am so drawn to.” 

She was originally drawn to environmental issues through her interest in pre-Columbian history and Native American history, especially as they related to land use. 

“The indigenous populations consider themselves a part of the natural world, not above the natural world, and that really resonated with me,” Liz said. 

She studied history in school, and eventually found an outlet for her passion in her former position as the Oak Bluffs conservation agent, focusing on wetlands protection, a job she held for 26 years. 

But her interests in coastal sustainability and sea level rise snowballed into a question that she often asks herself: What will the collective impacts of climate change be on Martha’s Vineyard? “I really wanted to understand what was going to happen with these big changes, so maybe we could plan for them, and be prepared,” Liz said.

Why climate change?

“When I get interested in a subject, I have to really delve into it, and that’s what happened with climate change issues,” Liz laughed. But she also wants to teach others about the interconnectedness of climate issues, and how in the next couple of decades, these threats to the economy and human health will grow more apparent. 

“The heat kills more people than any other weather event, and it’s going to be getting significantly hotter here in the next couple of decades. But there will also be stronger and more frequent storms, risk of wildfires, and more drought. Then there is the area that people really don’t want to think about, and that’s the economic impacts of climate change,” Liz said.

Oftentimes, when Liz is on a walk on one of the many conservation trails or beaches, she can’t help but notice the problems.

“My husband and I went on a biplane ride a couple weeks ago, and I found myself taking pictures of eroding bluffs. I am so heavily involved in this work, it’s kind of a double-edged sword,” she said. 

Every day, Liz wakes up an hour before sunrise and walks the shoreline of Oak Bluffs, either along Seaview Avenue, or along the East Chop bluff.

“I walk for several reasons: for exercise, it’s meditative and peaceful at that time, and I love to watch the dawn light appear in the sky. It clears my head, and prepares me for the day,” Liz said. 

While she is watching the sunrise, Liz will often snap a picture and post one to her Facebook or Instagram page. “It’s just something fun that I found myself really enjoying,” she said. 

Facing the Vineyard’s challenges

As salt marshes recede and beaches erode, and stronger storms threaten coastal homes and even inland infrastructure, Liz wants to take these hurdles and turn them into potential economic and way-of-life opportunities for the Island.

“What are we going to do when those marshes can’t migrate inland because there are houses in the way? Or if our beaches are eroding, will we continue to build on them?” Liz asked.

And with the beachgoing crowds providing funds for such things as local environmental initiatives, Liz wonders how the impacts of sea level rise and coastal erosion will affect recreational and economic values.

“Our coastline is changing in ways that are going to affect the reasons people come to visit here — it all comes back to the fact that the land and the water are what keep us alive, and if we don’t protect these resources, what do we have?” Liz said.

She wants to take climate challenges and turn them into opportunities to make the Vineyard more self-sufficient, more adaptive, and more resilient — by implementing green infrastructure, making clean energy locally, and creating high-value jobs to support all these societal shifts.

“Preserving the environment, nourishing the beaches, adding more green infrastructure so the roads don’t flood. And the best part is, we can hire local people to do all these skilled jobs. 

There are things that we can do to advance and evolve the economy while we are addressing these climate impacts,” Liz said. “They can go hand in hand.” 

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Lucas Thors
Lucas Thors is a reporter at The MV Times, covering climate change. “About a quarter of my wardrobe is from a company called tentree — for each product you buy, they plant 10 trees and include a little token with a digital code on it. You enter the code and can see where your trees have been planted.”

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