David W. Gould is standing at the center of Eel River Preserve, surrounded by grasses, shrubs, and trees stretching in all directions. From this vast expanse of green, he points out the pitch pines, the red maples, the shoulder-high cattails. Light glints off the small stream behind him. A carpet of sphagnum moss squelches beneath his boots.
On this sunny spring morning in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the preserve looks almost primordial, tucked away from the hustle and bustle of tourists on the harbor. Yet when Gould first stood in this spot nearly two decades ago, it looked — and felt — very different.
“It was God-awful hot,” Gould recalls. “There was no shade. You were standing on these cranberry bog vines that were bone-dry because there was all this sand on top.”
Gould is the director of Plymouth’s Department of Marine and Environmental Affairs. He was the project manager on the Eel River Headwaters Restoration Project, a $2.2 -million-dollar effort to turn a century-old cranberry farm back into a native Atlantic white cedar swamp. His team transformed an arid, sluggish monoculture into the wetland brimming with biodiversity that visitors can stroll through today.
“When I go up there now and I see this lush, wet, muddy, verdant wetland area, it makes me really happy to see what a drastic change it is,” Gould says.
Before European colonists arrived in 1620, Plymouth was the home of the Pokanoket Wampanoag village, and the Eel River’s icy, spring-fed waters flowed uninterrupted into the Atlantic Ocean. Starting in the early 1800s, settlers built dams and watermills to produce lumber and textiles, obstructing the stream channel and impeding the fish and wildlife which used it for passage. Cranberry farming began in the 1890s and continued until 2002, further disrupting the streambed and deteriorating the water quality.
In 2006, the Town of Plymouth purchased 40 acres of retired commercial cranberry bogs to convert into public conservation land and restore back into a wetland ecosystem — the first project of its kind in Massachusetts.
From 2009 to 2010, the restoration team worked to remove ditches, culverts, and dams, allowing 1.7 miles of stream to resume flowing as it once naturally did. They introduced more than 45,000 new plants, including 17,000 Atlantic white cedars, a tree species native to coastal wetlands from Maine to Georgia. They also removed the Sawmill Pond Dam, a large stone dam located downstream of the bogs which had been blocking fish and eels from passing.
As a result of these efforts, many species of wildlife — including deer, muskrats, osprey, herons, turtles, and otters — have returned to call the preserve home. According to Gould, the removal of manmade water control structures not only cleared the way for migratory fish but also made the water colder and more oxygenated, providing a more suitable environment for temperature-sensitive species; river herring have been spotted in the area for the first time in over a century.
The restoration benefits Plymouth’s human inhabitants, too. Visitors can explore the preserve by walking the two-mile trail along its perimeter, as well as the wooden bridges that cut across the stream.
“We wanted to create a place where people could bird-watch, they could hike, they could fish, they could enjoy all that’s there after the restoration and utilize this great public resource,” Gould says.
The herbicides and pesticides used for agriculture will no longer run off into drinking water, and the wetland will act as a natural buffer against the impacts of floods, storm surges, and other extreme weather events. And, Gould says, the restoration will jumpstart natural processes that set this self-sustaining ecosystem down paths of its own — a tree he planted as a sapling might grow to 20 feet tall, then topple in a storm, whipping up the soil and providing a bank for juvenile fish to swim under.
“When the equipment leaves the site, that’s not the end. That’s the beginning of the trajectory of how this place is gonna evolve,” Gould says. “I wish I could see it 100 years from now.”
In 2011, the Eel River team won the Coastal America Partnership Award, the nation’s highest accolade for environmental restoration projects. Their work has since served as a model for several other bog restoration projects in Plymouth, and Gould has five additional bogs in mind to acquire and restore. Each project presents an opportunity for more scientific research and a more cost-effective approach to restoration, and Gould is optimistic about the future of his work.
“There’s so much negative climate and environmental news that restoration, when done right, is a really hopeful activity,” he says. “You can see it. You can see how alive that place is. You can see that if we just do a little bit of work and give these resources the ability to heal themselves, they really will.”
— Multimedia Chair Julian J. Giordano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jjgiordano1.
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