HARWICH — For several years, the conservation commission has been deliberating the future of the Herring River cranberry bogs as part of updating the Bell’s Neck Land Management Plan. Last week the commission decided to back limited management which will allow the bogs to naturalize gradually.
The property was designated conservation land in 1993 and the bogs had been leased for cranberry production a couple of time, said commission chairman Brad Chase. The last time it was leased from 2008 to 2017, but the leaseholder abandoned the bogs in 2015. In 2018 a single bid was submitted to lease the bogs, but it was later withdrawn.
In 2019, the commission considered leasing the bogs again, but decided against it, agreeing instead to establish a subcommittee to examine land management options as part of the 10-year update of the Bell’s Neck Land Management Plan.
The subcommittee examined four options for the future of the bogs: option one, active ecological restoration, which would include complete reconstruction of the bog surface and stream channel to put the land back in the condition it was in before it was altered to produce cranberries; option two, gradual bog naturalization through the use of active plant control allowing sections of the bogs to become wetlands and other areas to transition to upland forest; option three, short-term management of the bogs to provide farming activity in cooperation with the development of town and educational partnerships to explore concepts for the period 2020 to 2025; and option four, revisiting a private cranberry farm lease compatible with the interests of the town and management of the bogs. The heritage of cranberry farming is important to the town and keeping the tradition alive at the Bell’s Neck bogs is a concept that should not be discarded without careful consideration, Chase said.
Chase said there is growing interest in the commonwealth in ecological restoration, such as the project under design for the Bank Street bogs which will include ecological and wildlife habitat benefits. The project is part of the town’s comprehensive wastewater management plan focusing on nitrogen attenuation. But an active ecological restoration project would be extremely expensive, he said.
Commission members have focused on the gradual bog naturalization option in recent discussions. Chase said members support that concept because of improvements to wildlife habitat; potential reduction to river herring kills; elimination of herbicide and pesticide application in the bogs; and reduced nitrogen loading by ceasing fertilization in the bogs.
The eastern section of one of the bogs still has viable cranberry plants that continue to produce high densities of berries with no farm treatment. Chase said there could be a possibility of melding option three with option two and working with Cape Cod Regional Technical High School to develop a program for students to grow and sell plants.
Neighboring cranberry grower Alan Hall urged the commission to chose option four. He said in a bog less than 1,000 feet away, he just picked 350 barrels of cranberries. The commission would get responses to a lease request for the bogs, he said.
“People in the industry say it’s not economically viable to keep it going,” said Chase.
Commission member Mark Coleman, a farmer, took exception with option two, preferring option four, leasing of the bogs for cranberry growing. The town purchased the bogs in 1964 and has had a 51-year history of cranberry production there, he said. He acknowledged that the industry has taken a downturn, but added had the bog been managed as organic, “it would have sufficed all desires of everybody at every level.” Cranberry operations help show the heritage of the town and where the industry started, said Coleman, adding that he could not support the inaction of the commission that has allowed the bog's viability to be reduced 99 percent.
“I’m disappointed it’s come to this junction,” he said. “The loss of an asset to the town is a poor judgment on behalf of the commission.”
Selectmen chairman Larry Ballantine, liaison to the commission, said his thoughts are more in line with Coleman’s. He emphasized the need for the public to have access to the area. Ballantine said he is glad to see plans for continued use of the area's walking trails.
Commission member John Ketchum said he supports option two because it is the most cost effective and because a portion of the bogs would remain for public cranberry harvest. He said the current environment is not suitable for leasing for cranberry production. That position was also supported by member Ernest Crabtree.
Member Carolyn O’Leary said if the town had unlimited time and money she would support ecological restoration, but she will support option two. Member James Donovan also supported option two.
“It makes a lot of sense and it a positive from an ecological perspective,” Donovan said.
The commission voted 5-1 to support a gradual bog naturalization management plan.