HARWICH — When citizens, businesses and government come together to save key tracts of open space, almost nothing––not even a tornado––can stop the momentum.
That was the message from Michael Lach of the Harwich Conservation Trust, who helped cut the ribbon Monday for the new Cornelius Pond Woodlands conservation area.
“It takes a village to preserve priority lands,” he said. The 14.9-acre parcel off Queen Anne Road was home to the Ovaska family for more than 60 years starting in the 1930s, and was put on the market for $1.15 million in 2015. Wanting the public to enjoy the same natural vista they had seen for decades, the family agreed to sell the property to HCT for $800,000. The Trust raised $500,000 toward the purchase, with the state contributing $85,000 and foundations chipping in $15,000; through the Community Preservation Act, Harwich residents contributed the remaining $200,000.
When it became clear that the house could not be salvaged, the Robert B. Our Co. donated the equipment and staff to remove it. Volunteers and members of AmeriCorps Cape Cod blazed a walking trail through the land and built a kiosk and parking area at the trailhead with help from town DPW crews, with the goal of opening the area to the public in July.
Then came the tornado, which toppled or damaged many trees on the property. That prompted a second round of work at the site, with volunteers spending weeks clearing away trees and debris to make the walking trail safe again. Their work was completed in time for this week’s ceremonial ribbon-cutting, attended by town officials HCT volunteers and supporters.
“We’re so grateful for such widespread community support,” Lach said.
Selectman Don Howell said it's great when government acquires open space, but there are not always guarantees that the land will be conserved forever. When HCT protects property, there is a “great assurance that my great-grandchildren will be able to walk here and see exactly what I see,” he said.
Assistant Town Administrator Joe Powers said the project represents “a perfect example” of how the Community Preservation Act can boost open space acquisition projects.
When he considers requests for assistance from nonprofit groups, Harwich DPW Director Lincoln Hooper said he weighs the public benefit of the project.
“Everything the Conservation Trust does is in the public’s best interest,” he said.
The new walking trail is a loop that follows the old private driveway to the location of the old house, which has been restored to a sweeping meadow and will be maintained that way, HCT Land Stewardship and Outreach Coordinator Tyler Maikath said. The meadow has a number of pollinator-friendly plants including butterfly weed, and showcases the native pitch pines and oaks that call the area home.
The trail parallels the shore of Cornelius Pond, but for conservation and regulatory reasons, does not reach the pond itself. The water is home to a rare species, Plymouth gentian, which flowers under ideal conditions near the pond’s edge.
A portion of the land shows the damage from the July tornado, but other vegetation seems to be stimulated by the openings in the tree cover. Some of the low plants are pyrogenic, meaning that their flowering and reproduction relies on periodic fires. It is likely that at some point in the future, controlled burns will need to be carried out on the property to reduce the risk of wildfire and to stimulate new plant growth, Maikath said.