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Saving a Saltwater Island

In September 2016, Sipson Island went on the market for $12.5 million. By early 2018, the price had dropped to around $9 million. The Friends of Pleasant Bay board took notice, connecting with the four land trusts around Pleasant Bay and the Compact of Cape Cod Conservation Trusts to strategize how the island might be acquired for conservation.

Central to any strategy would be an agreement with the seller that secured the purchase, building in time to raise funds before closing. After an initial offer was declined, a conservation-minded family offered to help finance the purchase. A March 2019 agreement brought the price down to $5.3 million and gave FoPB time to carry out an unprecedented fundraising campaign. Work began in earnest that fall, and in January 2019 the Friends board approved a good-faith effort to raise $3 million for the acquisition.

Because FoPB does not acquire and hold land, approval hinged on the formation of a new nonprofit to own and manage Sipson Island: the Sipson Island Trust (SIT). A Friends committee was charged with this task, and that March convened a group of stakeholders who would become the founding directors of SIT.

In May 2019, FoPB applied to the Town of Orleans for $1.5 million in Community Preservation funds; the measure narrowly failed to win a two-thirds majority at Town Meeting. But, believing that private fundraising could succeed, the Friends launched a major push with a team of volunteers coordinated by a professional fundraiser. A website was set up to solicit donations; the Compact agreed to take in larger gifts. Fundraising events that summer spread the word and helped identify potential lead donors. The land trusts reached out to their memberships, and regional foundations made gifts. 

By early 2020, with over $3 million raised by FoPB, the finish line was in sight. That June conservation buyers (the private family, the Compact, and SIT) closed on the purchase of most of the island, and over the next two years SIT raised funds to acquire the final two lots. Overhead costs amounted to less than 2 percent of the overall final budget. Currently SIT owns all but two of the island’s 24 acres.

Sipson Island Trust

Officially formed as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2019, SIT’s mission encompasses the “forever” protection of the island and its natural treasures; restoration of its valuable habitats; and supporting environmental education, research, and public access. Even before the acquisition, SIT was deeply involved in fundraising, negotiating the purchase, and developing Conservation Restrictions for the island (held by the Orleans Conservation Trust and the Compact). As required by the CRs, SIT issued a Land Management & Stewardship Plan for Sipson Island and soon began to carry out Natural Resource Inventories to guide restoration work.

In July 2020, SIT opened Sipson Island to the public—the first time in 300 years that people other than its owners and their guests could visit. Currently SIT is focused on a complex multiyear initiative to “rewild” Sipson Island: removing abandoned dwellings and septic systems, restoring disturbed sites, and enhancing the island’s natural communities. Future plans include a low-impact pavilion to host education and research. This Removal & Renewal campaign will lay the groundwork for the island’s future.

SIT’s volunteer leaders, past and present, are active in efforts to understand and preserve the ecological, scenic, and recreational resources of Pleasant Bay. They represent the diversity of the Bay community: marine scientists, ecologists, educators, business owners, fishermen, and land conservation professionals. The organization’s values emphasize community, integrity, inclusivity, and collaboration. In all its work on Sipson Island, SIT aims to honor indigenous wisdom and model how people can live in harmony with natural systems.

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