The Questions: Chris Iller
by: Brian Bushard
photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger
Chris Iller’s office is the vast expanse of moors, heathlands, sandplain grasslands, marshes, woods and swamps that make up the Nantucket Conservation Foundation’s 9,000 acres of protected open space.
Iller, the Foundation’s property manager, maintains the properties with a crew of workers and a pick-up truck. His grandfather, Bob “Diesel” McGrath, held the same job for more than 20 years with the Foundation, before handing over the reins to him.
There’s a sense of family that comes with the job, Iller said. There’s a connection to the land. Nantucket Today recently caught up with him at Squam Farm, and asked him about his experience managing the properties, as well as the importance of conservation and ecological stewardship on the island.
Q. When did you first start at the Conservation Foundation?
A. “I started working for the NCF during the summer of 1988 at the age of 14.”
Q. Your grandfather also made a living managing Foundation properties around Nantucket. Did you always think you would find yourself following in his footsteps? Is there a sense of family connection when you’re out on the properties?
A. “Yes, this was always my dream job. Throughout high school, I remained focused on my goals and was accepted to Unity College (a small liberal-arts school in Maine) where I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in park management. I had hopeful intentions of following in my grandfather’s footsteps. As a child, before I was hired by the NCF, I spent a great deal of time ‘shadowing’ my grandfather. He taught me almost everything I know about our island and the properties.”
Q. Walk us through a typical day on the job. What are the challenges in property management? What are the up-sides?
A. “A typical day starts with meeting with my landmanagement team. I am so fortunate to have such a great crew. We discuss the plan for the day and everyone disperses to divide and conquer. Whether it be mowing, trail maintenance, fence repair, removal of illegal dumping, building repair, vehicle and machine upkeep, assisting with our science department or keeping our properties safe for public use, every day is different and the job changes constantly. I also oversee the ranger program and check in often to assist or deal with situations that arise during their patrols.
It is important for me to remain fluid to handle the situations that come my way. The challenge I face with property management is needing to be two places at once. My phone is constantly ringing or chiming with text messages and e-mails that I need to take care of to keep everything operating smoothly.
The upside is that I get to work on some of the most naturally beautiful places on the island. In normal times, most people are driving to their office. I am fortunate that my office is the 9,000-plus acres of protected Nantucket land.”
Q. People know Sanford Farm and Tupancy Links, but maybe not some of the other 9,000 acres the Foundation owns. What other properties should they explore?
A. “Those tend to be the traditional popular walks, but our new trails app, ACK Trails, will help guide you to many of our less-ventured properties. There are so many to explore, I encourage everyone to download the app and get out on the properties.”
Q. Is it the ability to work outside that keeps you on the job? Or is there something special about the environment on the island – the moors, heathlands, grasslands and marshes – that’s worth conserving?
A. “It is all worth conserving and I love the ability to work outside. We are so fortunate to live among Nantucket’s unique ecosystems and the fact that the NCF’s founders had the insight to want to protect and conserve Nantucket in this manner. We all know that Nantucket would be completely different if these properties became developed.”
Q. Why is it important to keep those areas as open space and open to the public?
A. “It is extremely important to keep these properties open to the public as witnessed during the start of COVID-19. Instead of being confined to their homes during the shutdown, islanders were able to get out and explore our properties that all remained open. However, there is a balance that we need to maintain between use and overuse, and that is why we encourage visitors to our properties to respect the fragile ecosystem that they come to enjoy.”
Q. What is your favorite Conservation Foundation property?
A. “My favorite NCF property is Squam Farm. When the NCF first purchased that property, I was asked to move there and caretake the barn and property. This is where I began my marriage and started my family of native islanders. I have such great family memories on that property.”
Q. What book are you currently reading?
A. “I am currently reading ‘Whitetail Wisdom’ by Dragan Vujic. I am in my fourth year of deer hunting which is another way to explore deeper into our properties.”
Q. If you could have dinner with any six people, alive or dead, who would they be?
A. “I love comedy and I love to laugh. During these challenging times of the pandemic, everyone needs a little laughter. I would love to eat, listen and laugh with George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler and Patton Oswalt.”
Brian Bushard is a staff writer at The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.