Nature In Balance: The National Seashore Looks Forward

By Sean Corcoran

Aug. 11, 2011

The natural vistas of the Cape Cod National Seashore are the result of federal agreements made in the 1960s. Many visitors like the spareness, though some have moved to develop bigger houses and businesses than what's legally allowed. (lizkdc/Flickr)

WOODS HOLE, Mass. — When the negotiations were complete, when the concerns of businesses, residents and politicians were settled and President John Kennedy signed the legislation to establish the Cape Cod National Seashore on August 7, 1961, the hard work of creating the Seashore park and protecting its ecosystem began in earnest.

Roger Higgin was a 19-year-old Park Service intern in the Seashore's maintenance department in 1968, before eventually becoming a full-fledged park ranger.

"When I first started, I thought the whole job was planting beach grass. The first spring, all we did was dig beach grass, and we would haul it down to Wellfleet, and they were planting around the headquarters at that time," Higgin said. "We spent months, right up until the beginning of summer, planting beach grass."

But beach-grass planting wasn't the only activity ongoing in the early years of the park. Higgin, who is now the park manager of the Cape Cod Canal, said trails were under construction for bicycles, horses and off-road vehicles. Efforts also were underway to protect certain animal life whose dwindling numbers threatened extinction. That work continues today, as each summer trails and beach lands are closed to protect a small, orange-legged bird called the piping plover.

In 1968, it was terns the rangers had to watch out for.

"We had a tern warden, and they would go out and do the same thing you do now for a piping plover, they would get the nest, and they would monitor the tern, and keep vehicles out, like you do now with the piping plover," Higgin said.

Throughout the Seashore's history, conflicts between people and nature, as well as between government, visitors and residents, have cropped up from time to time. And a look back at the park's history indicates that it's hard to predict just what those conflicts will be.

In the mid-1970s, for example, the Seashore experienced something of a crisis, Higgin said, when nude sun-bathing was the rage.

"I remember a nude-in at the Herring Cove Beach, and you could fill the parking lot," Higgin said. "It was a national scene. We're talking big-time trouble."

It wasn't the nudity that was the real concern, Higgin said, but the impact of having thousands of spectators trampling over fragile dune areas. In the end, the Park Service curved the practice with vigilant law enforcement and lots of citations.

But other issues emerged, including troubles with zoning rules. The original deal between the federal government and the six local towns called for the towns to enact strict zoning legislation to govern the 600 homes within the park boundaries and to limit their expansion. But Cape Cod National Seashore Superintendent George Price said it's now apparent that not every community made the zoning changes.

"We have been around for all these years trying to maintain the Cape Cod character, as it is described, and yet there are others who are new to the Cape who come in and would like to see how a large mansion -- that is their definition of a dream house on the beach. So it will be interesting to see how this plays over the next 50 years," Price said.

The very fact that communities involved in the Seashore did not make the zoning changes came as something of a surprise, Price said.

"I think people thought the legislation was pretty self evident, and I thought there was a common understanding of what should be in place, and that obviously is not the case," Price said.

Orleans resident Jonathan Moore was a Congressional aide to Sen. Leverett Saltonstall, who helped negotiate the park agreement with local select boards in the late 1950s and early 1960s. That deal included the creation of a community advisory board to work with the Park Service on local issues. Moore said that going forward, there will be more conflicts, but a system is in place to deal with them.

"My basic answer is: hold on for dear life," Moore said said. "There will be more challenges and more conflict. But the base is so strongly structured.

After all, Moore said, it's lasted 50 years. "It's held on and its succeeded so well, that infrastructure, both political and legal and social, is a lot of tenacity, a lot of endurance. I can't predict what the challenges will be, but saidI hope not expediently, but nearly expediently, the efforts to protect this peninsula are going to get tougher, not weaker," Moore said.

The creation of the Cape Cod National Seashore was something of a grand experiment in federal land preservation. The Park Service had never taken over a populated area like Cape Cod, and the effort took compromise and determination on all sides.

Today, there's general agreement that the experiment was a success. And its the very recognition of the park's value to Cape Cod's character and its economy that supporters say will see it through the next 50 years.

Sign Up

Sign-up for WGBH News updates, WGBH promotions, and previews of what's coming up on WGBH TV.




Support for WGBH is provided by:
Become a WGBH sponsor