Rising Tides

Responding to a Changing Coast

Cape Poge Wildlife Refuge

by Tom O’Shea & Wayne Wilkins 

Where land meets sea, there is a narrow margin of the state that is home to an incredibly rich natural, cultural, and cherished heritage. In this place, we realize we are part of something immense yet fragile, and when we care for our living shoreline, we deepen our connection to the coast and the memories we have made there. 

The Trustees protects an astounding 120 miles of coastline in 25 different communities in Massachusetts. More than a quarter of the organization’s reservations—30+ properties—plus other land under conservation restrictions held by The Trustees, represent 16% of all protected coastline in the Commonwealth, including over 20% of the state’s publicly accessible beaches. Trustees properties in the Massachusetts Coastal Zone* include beaches, islands, 2,300 acres of salt marsh, rocky coasts, and dunes. They are our most visited—five reservations alone represented more than 27% of visitors to all Trustees properties in 2017. And they are our most dynamic and vulnerable: these landscapes can change with winds, tides, currents, and storms, and many of them are changing hour by hour, day by day.  


The Massachusetts Coastal Zone (highlighted in green) extends from Salisbury to Westport, and includes all of Cape Cod and the Islands. Trustees currently has 30 reservations open to the public in the Coastal Zone, and maintains ecologically significant Conservation Restriction properties in the zone as well.

Our coastal systems are of extraordinary ecological value, sustaining some of New England’s, and even the globe’s, rarest habitats and species. And often overlooked is the rich cultural legacy that includes remnants of Native American presence now buried within our beaches and dunes, as well as reminders of European settlement and expansion, and New England’s commercial and maritime past. 

As such, The Trustees is making care of the coast a core goal in its new strategic plan, Momentum. Building on the organization’s history of sound ecological management balanced with public access, over the next five years, Trustees will focus considerable effort on advocating for coastal health, better engaging communities and the public about coastal issues, testing interventions and partnerships that will support our coastal systems, and growing the constituency passionate about these issues.  

As the first order of business in tackling this daunting task, Trustees created a new position—Program Director for Coast and Natural Resources—to oversee the organization’s coastal efforts moving forward. Tom O’Shea, who has recently moved into the position after serving as Director of Stewardship, gives us his perspective on the most critical issues, and outlines some of the tactics the organization will utilize to achieve its strategic goal of effectively responding to a changing coast. 

Q:  Where do things stand now? 

A:  We recognize that accelerating potential for coastal storms, sea level rise, flooding and erosion could impact the preservation and enjoyment of the properties and habitats we have been charged with protecting. You may have heard about the Coastal Vulnerability Assessment (CVA) we commissioned with the Woods Hole Group recently, which predicts the effects of sea level rise on our properties over the course of the next 50 years. That assessment helped us focus on the resources that are most at risk of sustaining regularly occurring flooding, and is guiding the prioritization of our work to protect these special places. Trustees reservations sustained a great deal of damage as a result of the string of multiple fierce nor’easters this past winter. The early January and early March storms, in particular, brought levels of flooding that could become regular occurrences by 2030, according to the CVA. It’s clear that we have an urgent need to focus on this now, so we can better protect and care for these coastal areas today and into the future—to be more resilient, to keep them open and enjoyable for the public, and to protect their fragile ecosystems. 

Q:  Can you give us a sneak peek into your upcoming plans? 

A:  We have nearly completed our coastal strategy planning efforts, which will bring a deep focus on protecting and caring for our shoreline, and engage people, partners, and communities in the discovery, care, and enjoyment of our exceptional coastal places. We are in a unique position—by virtue of our incredible breadth of protected shoreline acreage—to take a leadership role and develop innovative approaches and solutions to the challenges posed by sea level rise and a changing coast here in Massachusetts. As an example, our most visited reservation is Crane Beach in Ipswich, and it is also one of our most ecologically significant and sensitive. We have recently begun collaborating with the Woods Hole Group and the Town of Ipswich for a nature-based, green infrastructure solution for the road that leads to the beach, Argilla Road, which is predicted to be flooded on a regular basis between 2030 and 2070. This approach will not only ensure public access for the beach’s 350,000+ annual visitors but will also begin to restore the natural salt marsh, helping it keep pace with sea level rise. And similar green infrastructure projects will be developed for places like Dike Bridge at Cape Poge Wildlife Refuge on Chappaquiddick Island and the salt marshes at Old Town Hill in Newbury. 

Q:  What does the future hold? 

A:  As we lead and innovate for coastal solutions—which include our efforts towards securing and establishing several world-class parks along Boston’s rapidly developing waterfront (see Special Places, Spring 2018 issue, among others)—we will look for opportunities to advocate for and bring attention to coastal issues, especially those that enhance and build resiliency. Our reservations are places where people can actively care for the coast—whether as part of a beach cleanup or participating in citizen research to conserve salt marshes and wildlife, or taking part in fun, hands-on educational programs at a coastal visitor center. We will partner with researchers, universities, communities, and other organizations, using our coastal places as living laboratories to monitor change and inform our work. And we will broaden our care of the surroundings and future shorelines around our reservations, and protect new iconic coastal places, be they islands, beaches, or exceptional natural and cultural landscapes. Through it all, we will continue to actively connect Trustees Members, volunteers, visitors, and donors to our coastal mission: they provide the lifeblood for our work, and their participation and support is critical to ensuring our coast is protected, sustained, and resilient for a long time to come. 

*As defined by the U.S. Congress in the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972, the term “coastal zone” means the coastal waters and adjacent shorelands strongly influenced by each other, including islands, transitional and intertidal areas, salt marshes, wetlands, and beaches.