Dragons, Damsels & the Quest to Save Sand Pond Woodlands

Story by Susanna Graham-Pye
Photos by Gerry Beetham

Back in 1970, singer songwriter Joni Mitchell sang about not realizing “what we’ve lost ‘til it’s gone” when she warned about losing wild places to development. Fifty years later, the words couldn’t be truer.

As our paradise-to-pavement consumption of forests, meadows, and other natural lands accelerates, many of us risk never even knowing what we’ve lost, never mind waiting until it’s gone.

In the frenetic comings and goings of our days, the intricate abundance of our surroundings blurs into a single image of timeless, voiceless, yet incredibly important environmental elements—woods, wetlands, water, and wildlife. Protecting this mosaic of natural resources sustains and enhances the quality of life for Cape Cod residents and visitors, especially as more turn to the outdoors during this time of social isolation.

Thankfully, the emerald quilt of conservation lands stitched between residential developments, commercial complexes and our web of roadways, hold a vast world of flora and fauna for us to discover, to cherish, and to help protect. If the pandemic has any positive side, it’s seeing firsthand how these conservation destinations can work restorative miracles for our collective spirit.

As development pressure mounts on the last wild places, there’s still more we can do to save our beloved Cape Cod sense of place.

The quest to save Sand Pond Woodlands offers an opportunity to pitch in and preserve a 6.65-acre forested gem that will help protect the water quality of Sand Pond (and Town swim beach), West Reservoir, and the Herring River.

Otherwise the land could be occupied by a 7-lot subdivision that would displace critical wildlife habitat and forever alter the walking trail experi-ence as well as send septic system nutrients into the watershed.

Discovering the Magic of Sand Pond Woodlands

On a late summer day when the lazy song of crickets and the fragrance of sun-dried grasses mingle to create a bittersweet air of beginnings and endings, Cape naturalist Don Schall conducted a survey of the biodiversity on this newest 6.65 acres that the Harwich Conservation Trust (HCT) is working to protect.

With exuberant dives onto the ground to get a closer look at plants, or standing on his tiptoes to waggle his fingers through the leaves of a shrub, Schall celebrated the number of native species he found.

The white spiked blossoms of sweet pepper bush poked out from between shrubby bayberry and high bush blueberries. Starflowers nestled into moss beds close to the ground as goldenrod flowers nodded above them in the breeze. The canopy of tall pines and oaks offered patchwork shade from the sun’s heat.

Fowler’s toad

Suddenly something very small moved with a short leap amidst the grasses going to seed. A tiny, thumbnail-sized juvenile toad had appeared, a perfect miniature of its future adult self, leaving behind its watery birthplace in the edge of the nearby cranberry bog to head toward the edge of a forest land full of oak, maple, beech, pitch pine, and sassafras trees.

Schall got down on all fours to inspect the toad, to try and discern which kind it was—American or Fowlers? Squirrels chattered and dragonflies hovered as Schall knelt closer to count the warts on the tiny toad’s head, a characteristic that helps determine to which clan the toad belongs. Ultimately, the confident little creature was identified as most akin to the Fowlers species. It hopped hurriedly away to settle back into its daily rhythm of finding food, shelter, and safety.

Striving to Complete the Conservation Puzzle

Coming up with a plant and animal species list is one thing. The property’s real ecological significance, Schall stressed, lies in its intact, pristine condition as a mature woodland. One hundred percent of this six plus acres is defined by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as “prime forestland,” a designation that highlights the land’s value as critical habitat for all kinds of living things.

This sizable piece of land borders a larger 75-acre assemblage of town and HCT-protected parcels that stretch along Sand Pond and both banks of the Herring River. Preserving the 6.65 acres from being broken into seven lots protects forested corridors between wetland, pond, and river habitats for many, many species—for nesting, foraging, hunting, breeding, and access to drinking water. The age of the forest provides new growth and old, deadwood for nesting, dense undergrowth for protection.

Harwich Conservation Trust Director Michael Lach called the land “the last piece in a critical land preservation puzzle.”

“I’ve been watching this land for 20 years,” Lach said, with a nod to the past and a visionary eye on the bigger conservation picture.

Eastern amberwing dragonfly

Diversity of Dragons and Damsels

Sand Pond is a beautiful expanse of freshwater, a classic Cape Cod kettle pond that is popular with beachgoers and fishermen accessing the shore from the Town beach on Great Western Road. For relief from the summer heat, families frequent the public beach as the sounds of children laughing and splashing provide background music to the birdsong filling the air.

Schall said many dragonfly and damselfly species use the pond during their nymph stage, emerging to move to the edges of the nearby woodlands including the at-risk 6.65 acres where their wings stiffen and then they are able to hunt for prey in flight from the shrub cover.

Pointing out the species he noticed, Schall said the “total number of dragonflies likely to be recorded in an intensive survey is most impressive.”

Race Against Time to Raise Funds

Raising the funds to preserve the 6.65-acre Sand Pond Woodlands landscape is nearly as intricate as the piecing together of parcels for conservation over the years, said Lach.

In 2019, the property was marketed for sale at $1.5 million as a 7-lot subdivision. As the landowners (Martin and Janice Rich) considered selling off the land lot by lot or the entire subdivision, they kept in regular contact with HCT.

Eventually, $1.2 million became the agreed upon price. When factoring in costs for legal, survey, land steward-ship steps, and other transaction expenses, the total project fundraising goal became $1,225,000.

To raise that amount, HCT needed until December 31, 2020, but Martin and Janice needed to close in December 2019. To meet the landowners’ earlier closing date while also allowing HCT time to raise the funds, HCT asked The Compact of Cape Cod Conservation Trusts to temporarily buy the land from the landowners in 2019 and hold it until the end of 2020.

“This is giving us time to raise the funds,” Lach said.

Two anonymous donor families have pledged a total of $1 million. Of the remaining $225,000 needed, HCT has already recently received $5,000 in donations of $25 to $1,000.

To raise the final $220,000, there’s a Sand Pond Woodlands Challenge in effect thanks to a handful of donors pledging a combined $110,000.

Ladies’ tresses orchid at Sand Pond Woodlands

In other words, if HCT supporters can answer the $110,000 challenge by raising another $110,000 in matching funds by Dec. 31st, then HCT will reach its land-saving goal. HCT has also applied for grants, but won’t hear the results until December.

Lach pointed out that the purchase of this land meets the goals and priorities for the town’s conservation and recreation plan—it protects native species, the town’s natural and cultural history, and provides passive recreational opportunities by extending walking trails and helping to protect Sand Pond.

The ecologically strategic location of the 6.65-acre property and the diversity of life it supports make it an important acquisition for the entire Cape, Lach noted, not just for the Town of Harwich. It contributes to the protection of the Herring River, which is an active herring run and the second longest river system on Cape Cod. It abuts 75 acres of existing Town-HCT conservation land, and will add to an extensive wildlife corridor of more than 325 acres that encompasses Bell’s Neck to the south.

From dragons to damsels along with a diversity of other species, preserving the forested habitat is critical. For folks enjoying the Town swim beach and an ever growing number of hikers exploring the scenic trails, preservation of Sand Pond Woodlands can create a lasting, local legacy of protected land, water, and wildlife.

Post-story note:
This was originally featured as the cover story for HCT’s 2020 Autumn Newsletter. By mid-November thanks to donations from conservation-minded HCT members, businesses, foundations, and a State Conservation Partnership Grant, the fundraising goal was reached and the land preserved. Thank you one and all for making a lasting, local, land-saving difference.