Nature In Balance: Creating The National Seashore

By Sean Corcoran

Aug. 8, 2011

A beachfront structure is seen in the Provincetown area of Cape Cod National Seashore. (lizkdc via Flickr) 

WOODS HOLE, Mass. — This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Cape Cod National Seashore, which, after five decades, has proven itself a success, balancing the need for environmental protection with the desire for active recreation on the beaches of the Outer Cape.

By the 1950s, Cape Cod was already a tourist destination, and there were concerns about the region's future, particularly the fragile outer-Cape beaches, salt marshes and sand dunes. National Seashore Superintendent George Price says the worry was that without protection, Cape Cod and other Atlantic seacoast destinations could go the way of Miami Beach and the Jersey Shore.

"Here in Massachusetts, at Revere Beach and Nantasket Beach and other places, they were already commercialized through the 19th century. And it's not necessarily that that's bad and this is good. It's just when you develop it you've defined now what that area is into perpetuity, you don't have the opportunity to have the exploration of natural processes," Price said.

By the mid 20th century, it was estimated that one-third of the United States population could reach the Outer Cape in a day's drive. The Cape economy needed the tourism, but it also needed to preserve what people were coming to see. Discussions about federally protecting the outer seashore had been off and on for decades. By the time John Kennedy was running for president and finishing his time in the U.S. Senate in 1959, the park service had a plan.

President John Kenedy signing the legislation that created the Cape Cod National Seashore (Photo: NPS, CC Nat'l 

"And basically we came up with the 44,000 acres we see today," Price said. "However, this was different than other national parks because there were already towns here. Yellowstone in 1872 when they did it there were only territories, so all they had to do was draw a line on a map and it was easy to set aside. Here we had the towns."

Six Cape Cod towns were part of the National Park plan, and there was uncertainty about how the Seashore boundaries could include the nearly 600 existing private homes.

Jonathan Moore, who now lives in Orleans, was a Congressional aide to Senator Leverett Saltonstall and one of a handful of aides sent from Washington to negotiate the park with local select boards.

"The principle challenge, was what happens to the local towns and the individual citizen who were living down here?" Moore said. "What do they get out of it to be enough to allow the federal government such extraordinary authority within their home territories?"

Negotiators decided that people already owning homes could keep them, and even sell them, though zoning limits were placed on home expansions and lot sizes. Commercial businesses already in the park could stay. But there'd be no more.

Wendy Northcross, the executive director of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, says that wasn't what the Chamber wanted to hear.

"In the archives of the Cape Cod Chamber board minutes I came across some pretty heated debates at the board level about the development of the Cape Cod National Seashore," Northcross said. "The Cape Cod Chamber came down in opposition to the concept, which sort of surprised me because it's been such a gem, but I think the crux of the matter was the issue of private property rights."

From Chatham and Eastham at the lower elbow of the Cape Cod peninsula, to Wellfleet and Provincetown at the upper fist, debates raged over what land should be turned over to the federal government for protection. In Provincetown the fight to support the Park Service over land developers was taken up by the artists.

"We led the way," said Provincetown author Josephine Del Deo. "But we had to be joined by other people, and we were."

Del Deo worked with the impressionist artist Ross Moffett to convince Provincetown residents to go against their selectmen, who wanted to retain some of the Province Lands for future growth.

"There was a famous developer from Boston named Van Ness Bates," Del Deo said. "And he had such glorious plans for Provincetown. He wanted motels, of course, on the outer beach. He wanted a new sewer system that would replace half of the historic buildings along the waterfront. He wanted a helicopter pad at Long Point. He wanted a bridge from Plymouth to Provincetown — this wasn't fun and games. This was real. This was a real threat!"

Political and environmental threats continued against the seashore plan, but the effort had momentum — local and presidential. President John Kennedy signed the Cape Cod National Seashore Act on Aug. 7, 1961.

Today, the Seashore stands among the top 10 most-visited national park sites annually. The more than 4 million people coming to the Seashore each year are thought to be a sizable portion of the estimated one billion dollars in direct tourist spending on Cape Cod. The federal government and locals on Cape Cod have had their share of clashes on issues such as access and property rights. But overwhelmingly, at its 50th anniversary, the park is recognized as an environmental — and most likely an economic — savior of Cape Cod and its seashores.


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