CHATHAM – When Matthew Hillman arrived at the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge as its new manager, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the town had just gone through a controversial review of the refuge's comprehensive conservation plan (CCP). While aspects of the final document still rankle some in town, Hillman found working with town officials and residents one of the most satisfying parts of the job. It's one of the things he'll miss when he takes on a new post as project leader at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Newburyport next week.
“We've worked on quite a few joint projects to the benefit of the refuge and the public,” he said. Despite an ongoing disagreement over the refuge's western boundary, agreement over the importance of the refuge has helped build stronger ties, he said. “It's the most challenging but also the most rewarding,” he said.
Hillman was aware of the controversy surrounding the CCP when he applied for the Chatham position in 2015. “I knew I was going to be looking forward to dealing with that, not knowing how it would pan out,” he said. When he arrived from his previous assignment at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge in Kern County, Calif., he found the issues weren't as over-arching as he expected and did not dominate his time here.
Over the past five years, Hillman oversaw the expansion of public programs (which, unfortunately, are on hold due to the pandemic), the growth of refuge's tern colony, the restoration of the 1849 Monomoy Light keeper's house, and the recent translocation of endangered northeastern beach tiger beetles from South Monomoy to New Jersey to establish a new population.
Getting more people out to the 7,604-acre refuge — beyond the easily accessible headquarters, beach and trails on Morris Island — has been a priority. The refuge now shares a 20-passenger landing craft, and there have been numerous educational programs done in conjunction with the town and other groups. Hillman said one of highlights of his tenure was bringing descendants of a Monomoy Light keeper out to the historic structure. “It was very emotional,” he said.
“I've taken a lot of pleasure in having additional folks who had not gone out there before get out and experience the wilderness of the island,” he said.
The only federally-designated wilderness area in Southern New England, Monomoy is a unique landscape with a variety of habitats and wildlife, ranging from seals to horseshoe crabs to endangered shorebirds such as piping plovers and roseate terns. It hosts the largest gray seal haul-out on the Atlantic coast and what may be the world's largest common tern nesting colony, with more than 14,000 pairs, up from about 10,000 pairs when Hillman arrived. Because of the pandemic, staff will not be on the island this summer, which is a disappointment, he added.
The dynamic nature of Monomoy has also posed a challenge. When Hillman arrived, Monomoy and South Beach were connected. That's not the case any longer. The open ocean environment created by the washing away of much of South Beach has taken its toll on Morris Island, carving out large chunks of the bluff and forcing the relocation of trails. “There's really not much we can do aside from retreat,” he said.
The movement of sand has benefited South Monomoy, but the accretion has also impacted the tern colony. Overwash used to help maintain good nesting habitat, but with the sand buildup, that hasn't been happening, necessitating habitat manipulation through burns and predator controls.
A highlight of his tenure was working with the U.S. Coast Guard and other partners to airlift 15 tons of construction and other materials to the lighthouse, finishing the interior of the keeper's house and installing solar panels to the building can be heated year-round, helping to combat mold and mildew in the harsh, damp environment of the island.
“It's taken a village to do that,” Hillman said, including local residents, nonprofit organizations and businesses that donate time and material. “We're in a really good situation right now. The lighthouse is in really great shape.” He hopes public use of the building can be expanded once the current emergency passes.
He also credited the Friends of the Monomoy Wildlife Refuge with help in staffing the visitors center and contributing financially to the keeper's house renovations. Volunteer Jan Crocker was recently named volunteer of the year by the National Wildlife Refuge Association.
Friends President Fred Crimins lauded Hillman's “enthusiastic leadership,” and vision at Monomoy.
“His excellent communications skills with volunteers, visitors and the community has earned him the respect of all involved,” he said.
At Parker River, Hillman will supervise four National Wildlife Refuges. Parker River and Thacher Island are on the North Shore, while Great Bay and Wapack are in southern New Hampshire. Like Monomoy, Parker River and Thacher Island host migratory shorebirds, and there's a historic lighthouse on the island. Parker River is also a dynamic barrier beach, and both the Massachusetts and New Hampshire refuges have extensive salt marshes.
There will be management differences, Hillman notes. While Monomoy was self-contained in a single town, Parker River along covers three towns, and the other three refuges encompass other communities and even another state. “That's going to be new to me,” he said. There are also other public use issues. Parker River alone sees a quarter million visitors a year, compared to 50,000 at Monomoy.
Hillman, originally from center Massachusetts, hopes to be able to reach out to the communities at his new assignment, especially schools, which he did here, helping local kids “appreciate what's in their back yard.”
“It's certainly bittersweet leaving this place,” said Hillman, who will be moving his family, including two young sons, from Orleans to Newburyport, next week. “Monomoy left a mark on every person who's been out there, refuge managers and visitors alike.”
Biologist Eileen McGourty will be acting manager at the Monomoy Refuge until a replacement is named, which Hillman said should happen by December.