Thursday, July 2, 2020

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - The Cape's Conservation Story

     The world’s population as of 2020 is 7.8 billion people. The total land area of the planet is 148.94 million square miles as of 2017, and that includes areas not suitable for human habitation. As the population continues to grow developable land is becoming more and more of a premium.

     It is true everywhere including Cape Cod. The population of the peninsula as of 2018 was 213,471. This is up a whopping 300% from the population of 70,286 in 1960. According to a United States Geological Survey in 2018 Cape Cod has lost approximately 4,400 acres of land due to erosion over the preceding 100 years. This means as the population grows usable lands shrinks.

     A major development in the 20th century was that of land conservation to protect and maintain the beauty of nature for generations to come. The conservation of land in American began in 1901 when Theodore Roosevelt was elected President. Roosevelt established 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, 4 national game preserves, 5 national parks and 18 national monuments on more than 230 million acres of public land.

Theodore Roosevelt at Yosemite National Park c.1903 (National Park Service)

     Cape Cod has its own share of beloved conservation areas such as the Cape Cod National Seashore and Nickerson State Park. These are two of the biggest parcels of conserved land on Cape Cod and only two of many. However it all began somewhere. The movement toward preserving the natural beauty of Cape Cod ensuring that it would not be developed as the population grew. This is the story of the beginnings of the conservation movement on the Cape.

     Though President Roosevelt brought the conservation of land to the forefront in 1901 in Massachusetts protecting the natural resources began a bit earlier. In April 1891 the state established The Trustees of Public Reservations for the purpose of ‘acquiring, holding, arranging, maintaining and opening to the public...beautiful and historical places and tracts of land in the state.’ In 1954 it dropped the ‘Public’ from its name and as of 2020 it owns, assists with, or holds under conservation restrictions more than 72,000 acres of land in Massachusetts.

     In June 1909 a Bill was signed by Governor Eben Draper for improvements to aide the conservation of Bass River entrance. The $10,000 ($281,000 in 2020) Bill allowed for the restoration of stone jetties to help prevent shoaling and slow erosion. Also in 1909 the first public wellfield was created in Truro in the interest of protecting aquifer lands; this wellfield served Provincetown.

     In March 1913 the Dennis Village Improvement Society created the first public park on Cape Cod. This was located on what was called the North Mill Lot, at the meeting of New Boston Rd. and Nobscussett Rd. This was where the first windmill in town was built in 1745. Today the Dennis Village Playground still stands at the site. In 1920 the first steps were made to protect the wondrous Sandy Neck. Two acres of land was donated to the Town of Barnstable by John D.W. Bodfish in the memory of his father Benjamin in 1920. It was given to assure that the public could have access to the beach. After many more donations of land over the last century Sandy Neck Beach Park stands at 4,700 acres of natural beauty preserved with 1,500 acres open for all to enjoy. Nickerson State Park was born in September 1934 when Roland C. Nickerson’s widow Addie donated 1,900 acres of land to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

A marker for North Mill Lot with the Dennis Playground behind it.

     Various donations were made over the years helping to increase the amount of protected Cape Cod land. Eventually though it became necessary to create organizations dedicated to the acquisition and conservation of lands on the Cape. The first such organization came early in 1958 with the creation of a Conservation Commission in Barnstable.

     The largest addition to conservation land on Cape Cod came in August 1961. It was then that more than 43,000 acres of land on the Outer Cape was designated by President John F. Kennedy as the Cape Cod National Seashore. Inside the Seashore boundaries include such Cape Cod icons as Nauset Lighthouse, Coast Guard Beach, the Marconi Wireless Site, the Peaked Hill Bars Dune Shacks, and many more. In 2014 alone more than 4.4 million people paid visits to this crown jewel of Cape Cod conservation.

The high cliffs of Wellfleet in the Cape Cod National Seashore.

     A year after the creation of the National Seashore came another landmark in the Cape’s conservation efforts. Town conservation commissions had been popping up throughout Cape Cod in the years prior, however in 1962 the first private nonprofit land trust organization was formed. In August 1962 the Chatham Conservation Foundation was formed with the help of Robert McNeece, a town Selectman, former President of the Chatham Chamber of Commerce, and would become the head of the Cape Cod Baseball League from 1972-1976.

     The first land gift given to the Chatham Conservation Foundation came from Dorothea W. Smith on October 23, 1962. Her donation was Fox Hill Island, a 2.5 acre property located in Pleasant Bay just off of Eastward Point. Since that generous first donation the foundation had received many more to the tune of 224 parcels of land totaling more than 800 acres today.

     The concept of the nonprofit land trust was a success and as of 2016 there were 1,800 such entities in America with about 140 in Massachusetts alone. In 1986 the Compact of Cape Cod Conservation Trusts, Inc. was formed and currently works with 27 local and regional trusts for the continued protection and management of open space properties.

     For more than a century Cape Cod has been protecting and preserving much of its natural beauty for generations gone by and generations to come. There are giants like the Cape Cod National Seashore and Nickerson State Park. There are popular spots like Crowe’s Pasture in Dennis and South Cape Beach State Park in Mashpee. There are also lesser known gems like Monks Park in Pocasset and Bell’s Neck in Harwich. There is no shortage of beauty and wonder located outdoors on Cape Cod. Take a drive, take a ride, take a walk, just get out and enjoy it.

My 5th book, Cape Cod Nights, is on sale at and through Arcadia Publishing

No comments: