It’s been waiting for you, just sitting there quietly minding its own business of filtering water, growing trees and plants and sheltering wildlife. Waiting for a time in your life when you needed it most. When you could not visit friends and family at their homes. When your only choices were to remain inside 24/7, take a break and stroll around the neighborhood, or head out into the woods or beaches, some of you for the first time, solo or with others.
Like much of America right now, Cape Cod is seeing a surge in the use of our many nature preserves and hiking trails. Others have commented on proper hiking protocol (six feet, dogs on leash, etc.) or on the occasional abuses (overcrowding, dumping).
But I want to celebrate the simple fact that by this awakening many more Cape Codders are finally acknowledging the immense value provided for physical and mental health by our vast portfolio of protected open spaces. Everything from our 30,000-acre National Seashore to our state parks to our town beaches and conservation areas and even the small diverse areas near you preserved by your local non-profit land trust like the Harwich Conservation Trust.
These set-aside natural lands add up to more than one-third of the land mass of Cape Cod. They did not magically appear. They are the result of the collective effort of all of us, hard-won victories meant to stave off the complete suburbanization of our shared Cape.
Between 1984 and 2019, the past 35 years, Cape Cod citizens spent almost $400 million to preserve more than 10,000 acres. Most of that was paid for through each town’s Land Bank fund and now the Community Preservation fund, the three percent surcharge we pay on our property tax bills, supplemented by state funds. All 15 Cape towns voted for these programs and now we witness the results of our investments.
It sounds like a lot of money and it is. But it pales in comparison to the tens of billions spent on developing real estate on the Cape during that period. Some of us recall the height of the boom in 1986 when the town of Barnstable alone approved more than 900 housing units. Picture three new concrete foundations being poured every day for a year. We almost lost our Cape, which one developer claimed he hoped to make into the “next suburb of Boston.”
From 1998-2007, the Town of Harwich Land Bank succeeded in preserving 338 acres at a net cost of $38,000 per acre. With a sparkle in her eye and engaging enthusiasm, Isabel Smith and other volunteers rallied town voters to approve the purchase of high priority watershed and habitat lands. Voters saved sensitive lands that benefit all of us, especially now as we lean into the outdoors even more for fresh air and peace of mind.
Harwich has plenty more high priority lands to preserve by HCT and the Town.
Isabel Smith was also a founding Trustee of the Harwich Conservation Trust. She started the ongoing partnership between the Town and HCT on open space matters alongside her fellow HCT founder Robert Smith (not related by name, but united in open space spirit). The Town and HCT opened up these scenic lands, often with trail connections and parking. You can pick from ten trail destinations, each with its own ecological importance and beauty. Go, be safe, respect others, and explore your legacy!
(Mark H. Robinson of Cotuit has helped Cape Cod preserve open space since 1984. He is Executive Director of The Compact of Cape Cod Conservation Trusts, Inc., a network of 30 land trusts and watershed associations. Click here to explore the trails of Harwich.)