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Painting a Great Marsh Picture (4/99)

By KATIE BUSSE, Coastal Zone Management

April 1999: At first glance, the North Shore salt marshes look like open fields of grass, changing colors with the seasons. But take a closer look or talk to people who have lived and worked in the marsh and you will find that marsh resources have more than just aesthetic and environmental value - they are also tied to our economy, public health, and recreational activities. Commercial shellfish harvesters depend on area clam flats while beachgoers, boaters, birdwatchers, and fishers flock to the region seeking recreation.

Historical photos from the collection of Ruth Alexander

This North Shore ecosystem, commonly known as the “Great Marsh,” covers over 20,000 acres along the northern Massachusetts coast from West Gloucester to the New Hampshire border. This means we have the largest contiguous acreage of salt marsh north of Long Island, New York in our backyard. The “backyard” includes not only land directly in or adjacent to the marsh, but areas further inland that are connected by river networks and streams. So whether you live in a coastal town from Newburyport to Gloucester or are a resident of Groveland or Topsfield, your are part of this sensitive, dynamic, and important system.

Just what was the marsh like in the past, what are present concerns, and what does the future hold for this regional treasure?

A Historical Marsh

Ruth Alexander on a hay staddle

Generations of people have worked, lived, and played in the Great Marsh. When we listen to these voices of the past, the historic marsh comes to life with vivid images of clamming, haying, boating, and other timeless activities.

One of these voices that still rings loud and clear is that of Ruth Alexander, resident of Rowley and a 20th century advocate for marsh conservation. Ruth brings the historic marsh to life with stories of birding, hunting camps, haying, and sliding on winter ice sheets.

As a child, Ruth would spend the summer at a family camp off the Rowley River.

The marsh she says, “was a wonderland to grow up in as a child. I was so, so lucky.” Photos from Ruth's childhood illustrate that the marsh has historically been a source of both recreation and work for the community.

Another voice speaking of the past is that of Pike Messenger, who is now a conservation agent in Middleton and grew up on the North Shore. In the article Haying, Other Salt Marsh Things, and Time he writes, “We knew the marsh only because of what we did there: much swimming, a little haying, fall and winter duck hunting for some, and late winter ice cake jumping. One of my chores as a child was to find the cows each late afternoon and drive them home to be milked."

Historical perspectives such as these paint a picture of the past and begin telling us about the present and future.

Present Change and Protection Efforts

Ruth Alexander speaks of how growth and development are changing the landscape as she sees modern homes being developed on former agricultural land. Driving down Stackyard Road she describes how birding has changed as native woodlands are now stripped of older trees. Yet some local sites in the marsh have remained the same. Near Clamshell Road, local shellfishermen continue to harvest the dinner that is brought to our tables.

Although some things in the marsh remain the same, there are growing concerns. Water quality, fish migration, invasive plants (such as phragmites), salt marsh degradation, population growth, and development are all issues that are currently being addressed by government agencies and other regional organizations.

For example, 1999 marks the 20th anniversary of the state Executive Office of Environmental Affairs designating much of the Great Marsh as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC). This Parker River/Essex Bay ACEC includes 25,500 acres of barrier beach, dunes, saltmarsh, and water bodies. This ACEC designation highlights the area as having significant natural resources in the region and ensures greater levels of environmental protection.

Although things are being done to protect Great Marsh resources, it is important to keep an eye on changes taking place like declining fisheries, closing or opening of shellfish beds, and degradation or improvement of salt marsh habitats. These signs are a key to what our future backyard may look like, how we make a living, and where we go to seek solitude.

Future Outlooks

Two students from Sue Corneliussen's 6th grade class at the Essex Elementary and Middle School were especially interested in describing what the future marsh will be like. These students are studying saltmarsh resources and, 20 years from now, may be adults still living, working, and playing on the North Shore.

Patricia Lyons writes, “I can see the salt marsh two ways in 20 years. If we take care of it, I see my dad, my husband, my cousin, and the whole 'marsh gang' going out to the marsh where we go camping every summer. I see it looking the exact same way it does now. The beautiful grass that sways in the wind, the beautiful water when the light shines on it, and the sweet smell of marsh gas which is all the nutrients of the marsh. I can see it another way too if we don't take care of it. I can see grocery bags on the grass and beer cans in the water. I also smell the scent of gasoline.” Doug Wilkins, another 6th grader writes, “If we don't protect the marsh it will be a dump...The fish would die or mutate which would wreck the whole life cycle of animals and other fish who depend on those fish."

It is hard to say what the future will be, but if efforts to protect the Great Marsh continue, this valuable resource will continue to provide such things as habitat, improved water quality, recreational opportunities, and economic benefits for all of us to share.