Whether he’s kneeling in the sand at the Smith’s Point reservation and looking for piping plover scrapes, or taking out more than 60 acres of invasive phragmites along the shore of Hummock Pond, Sam Kefferstan, director of Mass Audubon’s Nantucket sanctuaries, never ceases to be amazed by the island’s natural beauty. But looking back, he’s still surprised he landed in the position he finds himself in today: Mass Audubon’s youngest-ever sanctuaries director.
“When I was in high school, I always had an affinity for the outdoors, but I never thought it could be a career,” Kefferstan said. “I took Environmental Science, and it just didn’t click for me. I didn’t see all the applications it could have. I never thought I would be in the shoes I’m in now.”
But Kefferstan’s passion for the outdoors never faded, and after high school, it became clear to him that even if he couldn’t see exactly how he would turn that passion into a career, he would figure out a way.
After reading Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild,” based on the real-life story of adventurer Chris McCandles and his search for enlightenment in the Alaskan wilderness, Kefferstan convinced his parents to let him take a gap year before attending college.
“I really got moved by this idea of finding yourself in nature,” he said.
Kefferstan enrolled in a National Outdoor Leadership School course and spent three months backpacking through the Rocky Mountains.
“It was just an unbelievable life-changing experience for me,” he said. “I really grew a lot from spending that time in the outdoors. I saw such incredible beauty and learned so much about myself that I wanted to dedicate myself to protecting that nature so somebody else could have the same kind of experience.”
And he did just that. In his role with Mass Audubon, Kefferstan says that “everything I do relates back to our mission of protecting the nature of Massachusetts for all people and wildlife.”
He’s still in touch with some of the people he met while backpacking, and he thinks that connections made in nature are deeper than connections made elsewhere.
“You can know somebody your whole life and spend one night with them in the woods and learn something completely new about them and I really value that,” he said.
Mass Audubon is the largest nature-based conservation group in New England, protecting over 40,000 acres of land, and the fourth largest landholder on Nantucket, with almost 1,000 acres on the island across three sanctuaries. While known for its connection to birding, Mass Audubon has a much broader focus. In addition to conservation, the non-profit also advocates for environmental causes and educates people about the world around them.
“Living on an island, you’d be surprised what you can hear and see, and one of the most amazing experiences for me was learning that half the park is after dark. Whether it’s the stars on the beach or some unidentified owl you might be hearing, I just encourage people to keep their eyes and ears open,” Kefferstan said.
Kefferstan is both proud of and humbled by the fact that he became Mass Audubon’s youngest-ever sanctuaries director. As part of his job, Kefferstan helps to decide when to close certain portions of the beach to the public to protect endangered species like piping plovers and oystercatchers. Kefferstan makes these decisions using a structured recovery plan that doesn’t afford much flexibility—which he is grateful for because it eliminates the need for subjective, controversial choices.
He also helps to manage the Youth Climate Committee, a coalition formed by Mass Audubon's Youth Climate Leadership Program and the Nantucket High School’s Environmental Club that pushes for climate action and promotes youth environmental stewardship and education. The Youth Climate Committee has held several conferences over the last year and staged a walkout at the high school last fall, which Sam said he was particularly proud of.
“Nantucket is really expected to get impacted by climate change and I thought it would be a great niche for Mass Audubon on Nantucket to engage middle school and high school students about the climate and...what ways they can take action on the local level to address and adapt to the changing environment around them,” he said.
Even when he’s not working for Mass Audobon, Kefferstan and his two-year-old puppy, Sunny, are often exploring Nantucket’s beaches and enjoying the island’s nature.
“It sure is beautiful out there,” he said.