On August 7th, 1961 President John F. Kennedy signed the legislation that created Cape Cod National Seashore. The park spans nearly 40 miles of shoreline and spans six towns – Provincetown, Truro, Wellfleet, Eastham, Orleans and Chatham. It also encompasses an incredible diversity of ecosystems, from beaches and dunes, to marshes, coastal beech forests and the iconic, if homely, scrub pine. Cape Cod National Seashore is now among the ten most visited national parks, with between 4 and 5 million visitors each year.
As has become clear to me in the time I’ve spent with park scientists and officials this summer, Cape Cod National Seashore is a living part of an ever-evolving natural and social landscape. The 50th Anniversary of National Seashore is an opportunity to reflect on how the park has changed – the forces, both natural and human, that have shaped it. That’s the focus of a collaborative project between WCAI (Climatide’s mothership) and Cape Cod Times that I draw on heavily in outlining here a few major themes of change from the Seashore’s first five decades, as well as challenges and opportunities moving into the park’s next fifty years.
Cape Cod National Seashore is considered one of the first ‘urban parks’ in the National Park network. Cape Cod is no New York City, but in 1961 there were nearly 600 private homes within the area that would become the National Seashore. Tension between private homeowners and the National Park Service was a major challenge to the establishment of the Seashore. Business owners also questioned whether curbing coastal development would help or hurt tourism.
Two newly constructed homes are visible from The Gut – a stretch of marsh just down from dam on Chequessett Neck Road in Wellfleet. Both are significantly larger than the buildings they replace.
Of course, development outside the park boundary has not faced the same restrictions. The combined population of the six towns within the National Seashore has more than doubled, from 12,610 in 1960 to 26,615 in 2010. And that’s just the year-round residents.
The 2010 census found that seasonal residences account for more than half (up to 65%) of homes in the Seashore towns. Orleans was the exception, with 38% seasonal homes.That kind of growth poses infrastructure challenges for the towns, and environmental risks – like groundwater contamination from septic systems – that don’t necessarily respect boundaries drawn by the National Park Service.
Speaking of boundaries, Cape Cod National Seashore is a different place than it was 50 years ago … literally. That’s because the legislation that established the par defined the landward and seaward boundaries as being 1/4 mile in either direction from the shoreline. And, of course, the shoreline changes.
Beaches on the outer Cape have been eroding at an average rate of three feet per year. Multiply that by 50 years and you’ve got a shift of some 150 feet since the Seashore’s founding. Of course, in some areas, like the barrier beaches and islands in Chatham and Orleans, the change is much faster. In others, like Race Point in Provincetown, the beach is actually growing. All this to’ing and fro’ing of sand has major ramifications for Seashore officials.
“Our boundary is mobile, as the sand is mobile,” explains George Price, superintendent of Cape Cod National Seashore. “And it’s something we have to live with.”
But the shifting boundary also presents an advantage for the long-term health of Cape Cod National Seashore and the ecosystems it protects. Rising air and water temperatures have dramatically accelerated sea level rise in recent decades. Many scientists now expect to see at least three more feet of sea level rise by 2100. Combined with predicted increases in coastal storm activity, that means more shifting sands
(check back on Monday for the full story on how Cape Cod’s is expected to change in coming centuries). Indeed, scientists say that increasing wave activity from the southeast is actually causing Cape Cod to slowly rotate clockwise.
But, as long as the shoreline remains undeveloped and free to move with the seas, the Cape’s Atlantic beaches and the inland ecosystems they buffer can remain intact.
“There’s always going to be a beach,” says Mark Adams, the geographic information specialist with the National Park Service. “We’ll always get to the beach… It will just be in a different place.”
The mobile boundary ensures that – wherever the shoreline wanders – there will always be a Cape Cod National Seashore.
Figuring out how to manage the resources within that boundary is yet another moving target. The National Park Service is charged with protecting the natural resources that make Cape Cod National Seashore (or any other park) so special, but also with enabling the public to partake in those same resources.
Not surprisingly, those two goals often come into conflict. Parking lots don’t make great habitat for most plants and animals, and millions of feet can destroy fragile dunes and crush endangered shorebird eggs.
But, increasingly, the greatest threats to Cape Cod National Seashore and other National Parks come not from what people do while they’re in the park. Rather, it’s what we do at home and at work each day.
In a presentation he gives to Seashore visitors, superintendent George Price lists climate change as the greatest challenge facing Cape Cod National Seashore as it moves into the next fifty years. In addition to accelerating erosion, rising temperatures and volatile weather patterns could produce wholesale shifts in the plants and animals that inhabit the Seashore (some forecasts compare Cape Cod in 2100 to the Carolinas today). That’s something fences and boardwalks can’t fix.
As I report for WCAI, the presence of visitors in National Parks may be resource managers’ best weapon against climate change and other large-scale human impacts, like air pollution.
But George Price emphasizes that that attitudes toward environmental protection – both among the public and within the National Park Service – have evolved dramatically in 50 years. Whereas it used to be common for farmers to shoot crows without a second thought, park managers have encountered strong local opposition to the idea of killing crows to protect endangered piping plovers. Feeding animals, like bears, is another formerly common activity that has become frowned upon.
Price says that the National Park Service has withstood the test of time – that, since its founding in 1916, it has proven itself to be resourceful, creative, and flexible. He hesitates to predict exactly what Cape Cod National Seashore will look like in another fifty years, but he’s confident it will be vibrant and strong.