Jim Lentowski: 40 years and counting… Protecting the special place that is Nantucket

Jim Lentowski

Jim Lentowski has been working to protect Nantucket’s scenic landscapes and natural resources for over 40 years.  Through his work as Executive Director of the Nantucket Conservation Foundation he has had an enormous and permanent conservation impact on one of the most unique and majestic places in Massachusetts.

When Jim was hired as their first paid employee in 1971, the Foundation had protected 1,200 acres.  Today they protect 8,950 acres, nearly one-third of Nantucket’s 30,000 acres. Since he was brought on board, they have grown to a staff of 30 paid employees, including rangers, scientists, and agriculture professionals, and now have 25 board members plus an advisory committee of about 15 people. 

Jim’s conservation ethic sprouted from his experiences as a Boy Scout, where his enjoyment of nature was fostered by outdoor exploration and projects focused on protecting natural resources for the greater good. He grew up in the city of Chicopee, where his parents’ house abutted the 600-acre Szot Park.  His parents didn’t have a car, but while exploring the many large natural areas of nearby Szot Park and camping and adventuring with the Boy Scouts, Jim’s appreciation of nature grew along with his tendency to find inspiration in a beautiful landscape.  As Jim put it, the Boy Scouts and Szot Park were “the cradle of my career in conservation.” 

As a teenager he worked as a “nature counselor” at Camp Mishqua operated by the Chicopee Community Center in what is now the Chicopee Memorial State Park.  There he worked with younger city kids, encouraging their enjoyment of nature and understanding of the importance of conservation.  “I remember working on an erosion control project with a group of kids.  We built stairs on a hiking trail in the park, it was a terrific project and we showed the kids that working in nature is fun.”  He was awarded the William T. Hornaday Award through the Boy Scouts, a national award given to a scout who demonstrates outstanding performance in conservation.  To this day, only 1,100 people have been recognized with this award, and it was one way that he effectively impressed his interviewer years later while pursuing a job with the Nantucket Conservation Foundation.

When Jim was hired in 1971 by the Foundation, he was immediately charged with the task of raising the $625,000 needed to protect 625 vulnerable acres.  That was a pretty big project for a person who had practically come straight from graduation, but it turned out to be the first of many land conservation successes for Jim.  Beginning with that very first project, Jim has helped the Foundation protect 7,750 additional acres to date.

One of the gems of Nantucket that will forever be protected thanks to Jim and the Foundation is the Nantucket Field Station and it’s 110-acre campus.  The field station, previously owned by the University of Massachusetts, is a well respected base for scientific study in Nantucket, Massachusetts, and beyond.  Though the Foundation has now purchased it at a cost of $22 million, the university will continue occupying a portion of the field station for as long as it chooses.  The field station isn’t only for use by the university, “people of all ages and levels of interest—toddlers to grandparents, pupils to university professors—come from all over the world to explore subjects from oceanography, to ornithology, to archaeology.” 

Its clear that protecting the field station is one of Jim’s proudest accomplishments.  In Jim’s estimation, the campus which includes 45 acres of salt marsh are perhaps the most diverse 110 acres on the island.  “The field station draws a diversity of scientists and scientific studies from all over.  It’s like a youth hostel for scientists… with a nearby 9,000 acre laboratory.”  The field station was part of one of Jim’s first experiences on Nantucket while working on a Master’s degree in Landscape Architecture at UMass/Amherst, and now with it’s permanent protection, Jim is thrilled to think that it will introduce to the island other people like him who are motivated to conserve the island’s ecological values and beautiful natural landscape. 

In his experience protecting land on Nantucket, Jim has worked with many people who have generously donated land or given sums of money to protect land.  He’s noticed over the years that the people of Nantucket are driven to protect their land and help protect other land on the island by memories of family enjoyment. “Gifts are given from the heart, not for financial reasons like tax deductions.”  While there is still more conservation work to be done (about 1500 acres in need of protection have been identified on the island), Jim thinks that the majority of largest land acquisitions, with the exception of two substantially sized parcels, have been accomplished. As he likes to say, “we’ve put the crown together, now its time to put in the gems.”  In the future, Jim expects that conservation work done by the Foundation will become more focused on conservation science and habitat management. 

Jim’s dedication to the preservation of Nantucket’s natural resources is exceptionally admirable, and he has had an impressive and lasting contribution to the preservation of the island’s landscape and character. Our hats are off to Jim Lentowski and his 40 years of work as Executive Director of the Nantucket Conservation Foundation!