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Creating Cape Cod National Seashore Forced the National Park Service to Think Outside the Box


Cape Cod dune fence. Photo by wgdavis via Flickr.

When it was established 47 years ago today, August 7, 1961, Massachusetts’ Cape Cod National Seashore was considered an urban-oriented park unit and given a high priority because of its high quality resources, vulnerability to development, and especially its proximity to Boston and ability to serve the heavily populated southern New England region.

Creating the new park was a much more than routinely difficult task. To get the job done, the National Park Service had to “think outside the box” and employ a mix of nontraditional concepts and methods.

If you want to create a national park the easy way, you take some land the federal government already owns – say, a wildlife refuge, a tract of national forest land, or a tract of BLM-managed national resource land – and convert it to national park status. If you want to do it the hard way, you create your park by buying various tracts of private land (including numerous noncontiguous parcels), purchasing easements, negotiating leases, making special arrangements with municipalities, accepting donated land, converting certain state lands to federal ownership, etc. etc., etc. You must then be content with a park that is fragmented, perforated by inholdings, and beset by a host of problems related to the rights, privileges, and concerns of private property owners and municipalities.

Of course, you don’t want to do it the arduous way if you can avoid it. At Cape Cod, however, there was no real choice.

The Outer Cape Cod region where the new seashore was to be created had a long history of seaside-oriented settlement. This had yielded, among other things, an urban center at Provincetown (now one of New England’s leading tourist destinations) and an area population exceeding 220,000. Hundreds of (mostly small) tracts of privately-owned property dominated the seaside landscape. It was clearly going to be necessary to create a fragmented park with numerous inholdings and a host of special arrangements with landowners, municipalities, and the state of Massachusetts.

By dint of extraordinary effort, the Park Service was able to use “greenlining” to bring Cape Cod National Seashore into existence. Greenlining is one name for the process that preserves a coherent landscape with outstanding public value – in this case, a national seashore -- that is partially owned by public and quasi-public agencies, and which has a symbiotic relationship with (preferably unspoiled) land that remains private owned. (An extreme example of greenlining is Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, which had no publicly owned land when it was created in 1978, and did not have any until1980.)

For a map of Cape Cod National Seashore, see this site. Note the authorized boundaries of the park.

Underlying the greenlining process is the concept of “cooperative stewardship,” wherein many different shareholders (public, quasi-public, and private) work together to protect physical and cultural resources from which all benefit. In other words, the shareholders are willing to form resource protection partnerships because they see the preservation of natural and cultural resource values as a matter of enlightened self-interest.

A prime motivation is the desire to make money and gain tax revenues from the visitor-based industry that a national park supports. Another motive is the private property owner’s desire to maintain and increase amenities and property values (because protected land provides a great buffer to development as well as a fine scenic/recreational backdrop).

This is certainly not to imply that all is sweetness and light at Cape Cod, or for that matter, anywhere else that greenlining and cooperative stewardship have been employed to create national parks and protect physical and cultural resources. Indeed, some people are very strongly opposed to greenlining as a matter of principle, largely because of real or imagined government abuses of power. For a summary of objections to greenlining, see this site.

Cape Cod National Seashore has been a remarkable success story by any reasonable measure. Today, this heavily used seashore (4.4 million visits in 2007) encompasses over 43,000 acres -- nearly half of which is water -- and protects nearly 40 miles of ocean shoreline as well as dunes, woodlands, freshwater kettle ponds, marshes, and historic sites such as the Old Harbor Life-Saving Station and the Highland Light (the park’s signature landmark), which was moved 450 feet inland after being threatened by beach erosion.

Visitors can enjoy auto touring, fishing, boating, sunbathing, swimming (if you like cold water), beachcombing, whale watching, visiting lighthouses and life-saving stations, hiking, hunting, and even driving on the beach (where permitted). The park has two visitor centers – the Salt Pond Visitor Center in Eastham, and the Province Lands Visitor Center (open May through October only) in Provincetown.

Traveler has posted a number of articles focused on Cape Cod National Seashore. See, for example, The Essential Cape Cod National Seashore.

As might be expected of a very popular park in a heavily developed area, Cape Cod poses a wide array of problems for management. In recent years park authorities have had to deal with overcrowded sites, traffic congestion, vehicle damage to bird nesting areas, air and water pollution, groundwater extraction and contamination, beach erosion, historic structure deterioration, declining forested land, expansion of the Provincetown Airport, commercial fishing and crabbing problems, and the construction of oversized homes in Seashore District towns.

A good place to read about the seashore is the park’s official newspaper, the 2008-2009 Seashore News. The Seashore News is an excellent source of information about visitor services, regulations, fees, etc., and also provides information and reports about cultural resources, natural resources, and special events


As a point of correction - Cape Cod National Seashore is 47 years old. I remember going to visit as a day trip with my parents and siblings when I was a small child. I never realized it had only just opened just after I was born. Thank you for the article and reminding me of such a wonderful place to visit. We currenlty live in Kansas and I will look for an opportunity to visit there again.

Since the "42" typo was only in the body of the article (the abstract correctly specified "47"), will you give me 50 percent credit? :-)

Bob - you make so few mistakes (and even the ones you make are provocative in the best way !),

and your readers so much enjoy your pieces,

my guess is you get 100% credit for everything you do for us.

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