The Block Island Times

Congratulations ConserFest, 2012 Bayberry Award laureates

By Peter Voskamp | Jan 13, 2013
With its town beach venue, ConserFest is able to bring its message and its music to all generations.

Conservation implicitly looks toward the future; an act that mindfully preserves finite and irreplaceable things for others to appreciate in years to come.

The hope is always that not only will the effort be appreciated, but also that it will be nurtured and perpetuated by those who follow.

The efforts to preserve Block Island’s natural beauty — with nearly 45 percent of the island’s open space now protected — are the stuff of legend, the legacy of more than four decades of toil.

In 1984, former Block Island Times publishers Peter and Shirley Wood established the Bayberry Wreath Award to recognize those who have provided outstanding service to the community, primarily focused on conservation efforts.

We now have nearly 30 Bayberry Laureates to look to as examples. From Adrian Mitchell and his dedicated cutting of the greenways, to Robbie Gilpin and the late Gil Plumb’s tireless efforts to preserve the North Light. From Block Island Recycling Management’s success cleaning up the notorious island dump, to the various leaders of the Committee for the Great Salt Pond.

Naturally, those who did their part hope to pass the baton at some point.

But would younger generations, those enjoying the fruits of previous efforts, carry on with the cause?

This was precisely the conversation Cameron Greenlee and Justin Lewis had one evening seven years ago with Justin’s father, David Lewis.

“My father said to us, ‘If you two are friends, and your friends care about this place, it’s time to take some ownership of it,’” Justin told the Times a few years ago.

“He mentioned that lots of people in my generation don’t know what’s gone into conservation success here. He encouraged me and others my age to join.”

Cameron adds, “The conversation was based around our interest in motivating the younger generations to be a bigger presence in the conservation movement on Block Island, by creating a fun event that all generations could attend and be involved in.”

It was perhaps appropriate and not wholly unexpected that the talk was initiated by a Lewis, for the Lewis family has been instrumental in Block Island conservation since its earliest days. David’s father, Capt. Rob Lewis, mounted the campaign to save Rodman’s Hollow in the early 1970s, which led to the formation of the Block Island Conservancy. Rob’s other son, Keith Lewis, played a crucial role in establishing the island’s Land Trust. (Both David and Keith are previous Bayberry Award recipients.)

That fateful conversation resulted in the creation of ConserFest — an annual gathering of musicians and artists to celebrate the beauty of the island, while also paying tribute to all the conservation work that went into preserving that beauty. The organization also strives to raise awareness about what still needs to be achieved.

Now, coming up on six years of increasingly successful events that have brought many new faces to the BIC as well as donations towards conservation projects, the Block Island Times names ConserFest and its organizers the 2012 Bayberry Wreath Award laureates.

Play some tunes, pass the hat

Justin and Cameron were joined by Cameron’s brother Travis, Mary MacGill, and Ben Edwards as original founders of ConserFest, which began with a Homeslice concert and a passing of the hat at a cocktail party at the MacGill residence on Lewis Farm six years ago. “We had not organized ourselves or come up with a name at that moment,” Justin says.

The result was “a modest donation to Block Island Conservancy, but it started the conversation,” says Laura Michel Breunig, another core ConserFest member.

“Since I love music,” Cameron told the Times, “and everyone that’s working with ConserFest loves music, it just seemed like a cool idea to bring sort of a festival idea together to raise money and tell people what we’re trying to do; what the Block Island Conservancy’s trying to do, in particular.”

Travis adds, “We knew that if we could create a way using music to draw in the summer crowds and speak openly about caring for the island, we might have a fighting chance to protect it and assist organizations like Block Island Conservancy in meeting their own goals.”

ConserFest soon evolved into an annual musical event, with musicians and bands donating their time to play at town beach during the day in the summer, followed by evening events at McGovern’s Yellow Kittens.

Some of the groups and musicians who have donated their time and music through the years include Zox, Homeslice, Pressure Cooker, Fungus Amungus, the Ross Livermore band, The Silks, Chachi, Johnny Lingo, and the Honors.

Art is also part of the equation.

Laura Michel Breunig and her husband John have coordinated the silent art auctions.

She points to a “great group of repeat artists” who donate. They include Jessie Edwards, Lesley Ulrich, Peter Gibbons, Seth Draper, Rachel Lemoine, Celeste Helterline, Whitney Knapp, Suzanne Nolter “and us,” Breunig says. “It has become a way for the younger generation of Block Island to step up and get involved... ConserFest was able to rally this age group to make a big difference.”

Since its inception, according to Justin, ConserFest organizers and participants have donated nearly $40,000 to the BIC.

It takes a village and then some

Other essential members of the ConserFest team include Danielle Duffy, Scott Michel, Tracy Finn and Hanna Greenlee.

“The list of people who have given their time, energy, skills, and equipment is probably up around 100 all in all,” says Justin. “This includes countless musicians none of whom ever get paid for the performance, and numerous individuals and businesses who have donated housing and food for the events. Not to mention Ed McGovern, Dan Cahill, Annie Hall and all the folks at Yellow Kittens who are incredibly supportive and generous year after year.”

He also credits the town for allowing the beach pavilion to be used for the event “instrumental in drawing in the younger crowd — a main focus of ConserFest.”

They are a mixture of island natives and lifelong summer visitors. And though they may be spread out around the world in the winter months, the common denominator among all the ConserFest crew is Block Island, which, has played a formative role in their lives and worldviews.

“The island has been my most treasured environment and community since my earliest memories,” says Travis. “It is a sacred place for me and my friends and family that live there are my community. It has been a place where I’ve grown up with friends, worked and then played music.”

Cameron says that ConserFest is a reflection not only of a conservation ethos, but an overall Block Island way of being.

“I feel ConserFest embodies much of what the Block Island spirit is all about. For me, it’s a more direct way to use my career in music and the music business as a way of offering thanks to the natural environment that has given me — and all of us — infinite love and inspiration.”

Block Island Conservancy President Stephen Record calls ConserFest “a delightful development.”

“The most significant aspect of the ConserFest group’s impact is their outstanding success at building conservation awareness and generating enthusiasm for continued conservation efforts on Block Island, particularly but by no means exclusively among their target audience of younger folks like themselves,” says Record.

He credits the group also for getting young “people involved in a concrete project that meant something to them.”

That project was the Solviken property, which BIC partnered with the Land Trust to acquire for $1.25 million. The property is in a particularly sensitive location — immediately north of the Beachead Restaurant on Corn Neck Road, straddling perhaps the thinnest expanse of land on the island — with the Atlantic Ocean to the east and Harbor Pond to the west. It has become a popular locale for surfers to congregate, as well as just a pleasant place to eat lunch in one’s vehicle and watch the waves break.

ConserFest organized many “Solviken Solution” events in the summer and fall. According to Justin, the Solviken Campaign chairman, around 20 people (all 35 and under) helped with them. “I personally could not have done these events without the help of the ConserFest generation,” says Justin.

ConserFest contributed $14,000 toward the Solivken purchase from Solviken Solution events.

Playing it forward

Scott Michel says growing up on the island has made him all the more aware of how precious the place is. “As a teacher of science to the next generation, I am compelled to pass on my passion for nature,” he says. “I owe much of what I’ve learned and how I feel about the world to my parents, Doug and Barby. Together, they showed me what it means to love the place you call home — to protect its natural beauty, and to enjoy life on the island to its fullest.”

Travis adds: “From very early in our lives, we observed that as an island, Block Island is exceptionally vulnerable to its visitors. The mission is for ConserFest to be able to go beyond the events and become part of the cultural and social fabric for those that visit or live on Block. Visit it... celebrate it... advocate for it... protect and preserve it.”

“It’s a truly amazing five-year record of accomplishment, and eminently worthy of the distinguished recognition bestowed by the Bayberry Wreath award,” says BIC’s Record.

Justin credits Cameron for his leadership. When he’s not touring the world playing keyboards for the legendary Skatalites, Cameron is thinking ConserFest.

“Nobody has put more sweat and effort into ConserFest than Cameron Greenlee, no one is even close,” says Justin. “If the Bayberry Wreath Award were given to only one of us, it would go to Cameron.”

So, let’s give Cameron the final word:

“In essence, the purpose of ConserFest is to motivate and inspire more conservation and environmental awareness through the universal love for music and art, be it in any generation, in any location,” Cameron. “Yes, at the end of the day, we raise money for conservation — and right now, we are partnering with BIC to focus on some very important, immediate conservation goals. However, it is about much more than just funds, or one lot or one property, because the younger generations will be the torch-bearers of a grander, wider concern — the future of our natural environment.”

Congratulations to ConserFest for keeping it lit (the conservation torch, that is).

You can learn more about the organization at

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