NEW Land Project: Hinckleys Pond/Herring River Headwaters

If you’re inspired by HCT’s evolving Hinckleys Pond/Herring River Headwaters Preservation Project described below, please donate by clicking here.

It’s rare to find a land-saving project that could create a ready-made walking trail destination while also protecting the health of a pond and the Herring River. This approximately 31-acre property is very visible at the corner of Pleasant Lake Avenue (Rt. 124) and Headwaters Drive. Folks bicycle, walk, jog, and enjoy the Cape Cod Rail Trail as it travels through the property.

The goal of the Hinckleys Pond/Herring River Headwaters Preservation Project is to support a land acquisition partnership between the Town, State, and nonprofit Harwich Conservation Trust (HCT) that will result in protecting the land, water quality, walking trails, and wildlife habitat.

Bird’s eye view of the Hinckleys Pond/Herring River Headwaters Project. Aerial photo by Gerry Beetham.

The Town of Harwich Real Estate and Open Space Committee has submitted an application to the Town Community Preservation Committee for $360,000 in Community Preservation Act (CPA) open space funding toward the preservation of the property owned by Fred and Barbara Jenkins.

The acquisition will be completed over a two-year installment approach. Public parking access is anticipated on Headwaters Drive from the existing bike trail parking and/or additional parking area east of the bike trail.

Folks walk along the Cape Cod Rail Trail that travels through the Jenkins’ property. Photo by Gerry Beetham

The total land acquisition project budget is $800,000 when including expenses for due diligence, legal review, conveyancing, and land stewardship steps to create a parking area and trailhead on Headwaters Drive. If the Community Preservation Committee (CPC) approves the $360,000 CPA funding proposal and Town Meeting voters approve the warrant article in May 2021, then an anonymous HCT donor has pledged $220,000 in challenge funds to encourage HCT to raise the remaining $220,000 in matching funds needed for the total $800,000 project goal.

Owing to economic market pressures including an over supply of cranberries from the Midwest which drives down prices, cranberry farming has been discontinued on the property by the landowner (Fred & Barbara Jenkins) with the last harvest occurring in October 2020. Declining cranberry prices plus a lack of available labor are contributing to local growers exiting the industry by selling their farmlands for development or conservation. While shepherding the land acquisition process, HCT is also researching the cost for ecological restoration to enhance habitat diversity, water quality, and walking trail experience. An eco-restoration feasibility study is expected to be completed by April 1, 2021.

Bufflehead ducks on the wing by Sarah E. Devlin.

How does this project benefit the community?

This property stands out as an important conservation and passive recreation (walking trail) acquisition for the following reasons:

  • The property is adjacent to a Zone 2 Wellhead Protection Area for public water supply. Please click here to see the letter of support from the Town of Harwich Board of Water/Wastewater Commissioners.
  • The property contains approx. 31 acres, which is substantial acreage that can provide a new walking trail destination with scenic views for residents and visitors.
  • The land borders both sides of the 25-mile Cape Cod Rail Trail; each side buffering more than 1,000 feet of the scenic regional bike path that spans from Yarmouth to Wellfleet. This bike path section in Harwich offers panoramic scenic views of the property and Hinckleys Pond.
  • River herring swim upstream by Gerry Beetham

    The property is almost entirely within the watershed to Hinckleys Pond, the primary surface water source for the Herring River. River herring spawn in Hinckleys Pond and also transit Hinckleys Pond through herring runs to additional spawning ponds of Long Pond and Seymours Pond. If the land is developed, then at least six houses would occupy the site, which would negatively impact the scenic views as well as add six septic systems to the Hinckleys Pond/Herring River watershed.

  • Preserving the property will help reduce septic system nutrient loading in the Herring River watershed, which is included in Phase 8 for sewering in the Town of Harwich Comprehensive Wastewater Management Plan. Preserving the property will result in less sewer infrastructure, which also saves taxpayer money.
  • The property includes 233 feet of pond shore that connects to another approx. 600 feet of Town-owned pond shore within state-designated BioMap 2 Core Habitat defined as “critical for the long-term persistence of rare species and other Species of Conservation Concern, as well as a wide diversity of natural communities and intact ecosystems across the Commonwealth,” which is also state-designated Priority Habitats of Rare Species defined as “the geographical extent of habitat for all state-listed rare species, both plants and animals, and is codified under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act (MESA).”
  • Folks walk along the Cape Cod Rail Trail that travels through the Jenkins’ property. Photo by Gerry Beetham

    The property includes extensive public road frontage including approx. 1,200 feet on Pleasant Lake Avenue (Route 124) and approx. 1,500 feet of frontage on Headwaters Drive with both roadways offering motorists and travelers scenic views of the property.

  • The property is adjacent to approx. 6.5 acres of Town-owned land under jurisdiction of the Selectmen and shares a common border of approx. 844 feet.
  • The property is directly opposite the new state-of-the-art $120 million Cape Cod Regional Technical High School. With the simple addition of a crosswalk between the school and the land to allow students and faculty pedestrian access, this unique proximity to a regionally important educational center could offer “outdoor classroom” learning opportunities for students either from Cape Tech or nearby Monomoy Regional High School.
  • Because of the property’s overall relatively flat topography with slight slopes and wide trails, a future aspiration could include creating a wheelchair accessible trail loop compatible with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards.
  • As mentioned below, this acquisition is consistent with the Town of Harwich Open Space and Recreation planning goals, including protecting Landscape Character, Water Resources, Wetlands, Fisheries and Wildlife, and Scenic Resources.
  • This acquisition is also responsive to the results of the 2015 Community Survey, which was part of the 2017 Town Open Space & Recreation Plan drafting process. A vast majority of survey respondents replied that it is “very important” for the Town to continue to acquire and preserve open space and natural areas.

How does this project align with local and regional open space planning goals?

Preservation of this property is consistent with the following town and regional open space planning goals and objectives:

1.     Town of Harwich 2017 Open Space and Recreation Plan

  • Page 64, Goal VI: Preserve and Enhance the Following Natural Resources: Groundwater and Surface Water; Coastal Water and Adjacent Shoreline Areas; Inland and Coastal Wetlands; and Wildlife and Plant Habitats
  • Page 64, Objective 1. Maintain the overall quality and quantity of Harwich’s ground water to ensure a sustainable supply of high quality, minimally treated drinking water.
  • Page 65, Objective 2. Preserve and improve the ecological integrity of marine and fresh surface waters.
  • Page 66, Objective 8. Preserve, protect and enhance the quality and quantity of inland and coastal wetlands in
  • Page 67, Objective 9. Continue to prevent the loss or degradation of critical wildlife and plant habitats, minimize the impact of new development on wildlife and plant habitats, and maintain existing populations and species diversity.

2.     Barnstable County’s Regional Policy Plan

Bicyclist on the Cape Cod Rail Trail traveling through the property. Photo by Gerry Beetham

In July 1991, the Barnstable Assembly of Delegates, pursuant to the Cape Cod Commission Act (Chapter 716 of the Acts of 1989), adopted a Regional Policy Plan (RPP), amended in 1996, 2002 and 2009, and 2018 which states (references are to the 2018 Plan):

  • Goals organized around three systems, one of which is Natural Systems: water resources, wetland resources, wildlife and plant habitat, and open space. These goals serve “to protect and restore the quality and function of the region’s natural environment that provides the clean water and healthy ecosystems upon which life depends” (RPP, 2018, pp. 60);
  • Water Resources Goal: “to maintain a sustainable supply of high quality untreated drinking water and protect, preserve, or restore the ecological integrity of Cape Cod’s fresh and marine surface water resources;
  • Wildlife and Plant Habitat Goal: “to protect, preserve, or restore wildlife and plant habitat to maintain the region’s natural diversity. And objectives include: to maintain existing plant and wildlife populations and species diversity;”
  • Wetland Resource Goal: “to protect, preserve, or restore the quality and natural values and functions of inland and coastal wetlands and their buffers;”
  • Open Space Goal: “to conserve, preserve, or enhance a network of open space that contributes to the region’s natural and community resources and systems” (RPP, 2018, pp. 61).

Why eco-restoration of the retired bog?

As we explore an eco-restoration future for the property, let’s review why local bog owners are seeking to exit the industry and why ecological restoration of retired bogs benefits the environment. Inter-Fluve, a hydro-engineering company that specializes in eco-restoration, provided the following background.

Cranberry Farming Changes

The cranberry is a native berry that still grows wild in damp dune swales of the Outer Cape and Sandy Neck. Early settlers to the region cleared naturally occurring wooded red maple wetlands and Atlantic white cedar wetlands and converted those areas into commercial cranberry bogs from the late 1800s to early 1900s while diverting water from streams and ponds to support the agricultural operations. When growers could fetch a decent price for their harvest, farming could be a lucrative endeavor.

Over the past few decades, much larger cranberry bogs have been created in Canada and parts of the Midwest like Wisconsin. This surge of industrial scale cranberry farming has created a surplus of berries in the market. The surplus and other economic factors have created an unpredictable and downward trending financial value for local growers who are at a competitive disadvantage compared to agribusiness domestically and internationally.

Other financial challenges include a lack of available labor to manage bogs as well as climate change resulting in drought and warmer average winter temperatures that prevent sufficient flood-freezing to sand bogs. Periodic sanding is necessary to maintain cranberry vine health and productivity. The Jenkins bogs have not been able to be sanded for this climate change reason in several years and even if a long enough freeze occurred, the cost to sand at this point is estimated at $50,000. Even before the added cost of sanding, growers can barely break even.

Expenses related to irrigation, fuel, fertilizer, and other agriculture needs coupled with decreasing cranberry prices mean that growers can no longer depend on a sustainable profit and are looking at other options for their land. These options include selling bog properties including developable upland capable of subdivision on the open real estate market or to towns and local nonprofit land trusts for conservation purposes.

The financial pressures on local growers are immense and many are forced by declining income to exit the market. With local growers often having been in the business for decades and for the Jenkins in particular being fifth generation cranberry farmers in West Barnstable, it can be a very difficult emotional decision to stop farming. In the end, the economic pressures give growers no choice but to consider alternatives.

Mr. Jenkins and his father James purchased the Harwich bogs in 1997 and farmed the land together. The Jenkins’ decision to gracefully complete their last season of farming in 2020 and sell their land in 2021 for conservation purposes provides an opportunity to create a new chapter for this highly visible and ecologically important 31-acre property in the watershed of Hinckleys Pond and Herring River. Among the aspirations can be a chance to include the next generation of students in understanding the technical aspects and community benefits as well as the skills involved with ecological restoration projects.

A New Chapter of Ecological Restoration

Looking statewide, Massachusetts has lost more than 28% of its wetlands between the 1780s and 1980s (Dahl, 1990) and continues to lose wetlands every year (Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection [MassDEP]). In addition, the Massachusetts Division of Ecological Restoration (DER) estimates that more than 3,000 dams are currently located in the state. These dams, and the related flow-control barriers associated with cranberry farming, result in decreased water quality, are a barrier to the movement of diadromous fish and other aquatic organisms, and can be costly to maintain.

Pro-active ecological restoration of retired cranberry bogs and the removal of flow-control structures has been an increasingly common method for farmers to transition their bogs and leave a legacy of improved ecosystem function and services.

The Eel River headwaters restoration project in Plymouth was the first project to restore retired cranberry bogs to more naturally-functioning stream and wetland ecosystems. Construction was completed in 2009 with the project partners winning the Coastal America Partnership Award from the United States Department of the Interior. In 2016, construction was completed on the largest freshwater wetland restoration project in the state at Tidmarsh Farms, a >200-acre former cranberry bog, in Plymouth. This award-winning project was featured in the New York Times and in Landscape Architecture Magazine.

Construction on three bogs along the Coonamessett River in Falmouth was completed in the spring of 2020, including the construction of multiple boardwalks for pedestrian access and recreation.

Construction is currently ongoing at the Foothills Preserve on ~50 acres of retired bog in Plymouth, and along the Childs River on ~12 acres of former bog in Falmouth and Mashpee. Inter-Fluve has completed the designs and construction observation for all of these projects, working with the Towns, private landowners, DER, and other state and federal entities to achieve the project goals.

In Harwich Port on Bank Street, partners including the Town Selectmen, Harwich Conservation Trust (HCT), DER, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and Inter-Fluve are in the design phase of the Cold Brook Ecological Restoration Project for a set of retired bogs. With Cold Brook as well as groundwater flowing through HCT’s Robert F. Smith Cold Brook Preserve to Saquatucket Harbor on Nantucket Sound, there is the added benefit of naturally removing nitrogen, which will reduce sewering needs in the watershed.

To improve the health of the impaired Saquatucket Harbor, Town Meeting voters in 2017 approved $2 million for ecological restoration of the retired Cold Brook bogs upstream. Reduced sewering results in reduced road construction disruption and reduced long-term sewer expenses for taxpayers. By restoring natural habitats and water flow as well as reducing nitrogen heading to the harbor, the HCT-Town eco-restoration partnership is estimated to save taxpayers up to $6 million according to section 13.5.1 of the Town of Harwich Comprehensive Wastewater Management Plan.

Pro-active Ecological Restoration can include a number of techniques

Removal of dams and flow-control structures:
Dams and flow-control structures are fish passage barriers and also restrict the flow of water and sediment. By removing these structures, fish are able to move and migrate freely, sediment can move through alluvial systems, and other aquatic organisms can move freely up and downstream. In addition, removal of the impoundments that result from this infrastructure can reduce water temperatures by reducing the surface area of water exposed to high summer air temperatures.

Removal of sand:
The sand that has been placed on the pre-farming wetland surface typically builds up to 1.5-2 feet of thickness over the last 100-150 years. This separates the surface of the bog from the groundwater and the wetland soils. Restoration action can include the removal of this sand to bring the restored wetland surface closer to the water table and the former wetland (or peatland) soils. Another restoration action has included select areas of sand removal to expose the underlying peat and create a lower-elevation area that fills with groundwater and rainwater, thus providing off-channel open-water habitat and feeding opportunities for a variety of dabbling and diving ducks, geese, and swans as well as habitat for turtles, frogs, salamanders, and other wildlife.

Channel reconstruction:
On restoration sites that include flow-through river channels, these channels were typically straightened and widened to convey flows efficiently. Restoration actions have included the reconstruction of the channel into a more sinuous planform with a narrower and deeper channel cross section and large wood installations for habitat and channel bank stability.

Large wood installation:
Large wood, including logs, logs with root wads, and slash (smaller woody material), is beneficial for river channel bank stability, aquatic habitat, and terrestrial habitat. Along the proposed channel alignment, large wood is placed on the outside meander bends where deeper pools will be constructed. These deep pools and cover provided by the root wads of the large wood provide necessary habitat and protection from predators for fish, turtles, and other aquatic organisms. Large wood placed on the margins of ponds and other off-channel open water areas can provide sunning habitat for turtles. Large wood on the wetland surface can provide additional habitat for terrestrial organisms that need large wood for cover.

Constructed microtopography provides a range of soil moisture conditions which in turn increases the diversity of wetland vegetation species. A wetland with a more varied topography and vegetation structure will provide a wider range of nesting/denning, rearing, feeding, and cover habitat. This varied topography also provides robust resiliency to climate change and changes in precipitation levels and thus groundwater levels.

Native plantings:
We have observed that native seeds within the sand and underlying peat provide a rapid revegetation response once exposed to the appropriate moisture and sunlight conditions for each species. On recently-constructed restoration sites, researchers have found dozens of species of native plants growing within ~10×10-foot study plots, none of which were actively planted during construction. We often encourage spreading native transitional seed along the margins of the bogs where the bogs slope up to the roads to enhance growth in these areas. We also encourage the active planting of trees and shrubs in certain locations to move those areas along the trajectory of the proposed ecosystem. The trees and shrubs planted will mature to create a forested wetland, providing flood storage and important riparian habitat for mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians.

Recreational access:
Many restoration sites are also important open spaces for public enjoyment. While many farmers allowed neighbors and residents to walk around their bogs, and many others did so without permission, many restoration projects provide the opportunity to formalize this recreation and provide maintained trails. These trails may include wheelchair accessible options, boardwalks across the wetland and river channels, overlooks, educational and, interpretive opportunities, or other amenities.

If you’re inspired by the Hinckleys Pond/Herring River Headwaters Preservation Project, please donate by clicking here.