Conservation Trust Puts Its Arms Around Henson’s Cove

By: Ed Maroney

One day, it will be westward ho! for the saltmarsh on which OCT Executive Director Stephen O’Grady is standing. As sea levels rise, the marsh can migrate to the gently sloping upland the Trust hopes to purchase at Henson’s Cove.


ORLEANS The Orleans Conservation Trust is reaching out to donors to help it embrace and preserve the ecological diversity of Henson’s Cove. OCT is just 3.74 acres – and $900,000 – away from completing a 23-acre Henson’s Cove Conservation Area, a long-sought goal.

The 4 Braddock’s Way parcel, with 157 feet of saltwater frontage, “was ready to develop,” OCT Executive Director Stephen O’Grady said during a tour last week. The owner “had a change of heart and gave us the option to purchase, after we had given up hope.” The OCT, which turned 50 last year, has been assembling this conservation area for more than 40 years.

OCT has been managing the land it already owns around the cove, which is just west of The River, and will employ those practices on its hoped-for acquisition. Today, its Bob Prescott Turtle Gardens offer sanctuary for northern diamondback terrapins to nest in little sandy patches inspired by golf course hazards. As O’Grady tells it, Prescott, the former director of the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, was asked years ago for help in getting turtles out of sand traps. A light bulb went on, and there are now four sites in the conservation area.

Adult females “come out of the water and nest in June,” O’Grady said. “The males stay in the water. The eggs take about 80 to 90 days to incubate, then the hatchlings are on the move.” When the OCT identifies nests, he said, “they get covered with enclosures. During hatching season, volunteers walk through twice a day and make sure they’re not caught” in the mesh.

The newborns head for the marsh, where they bulk up on insects for a year or two before finally entering the water. They and other hungry creatures benefit from the controlled burns on the property, “which allows us to get rid of woody growth in the meadows,” said O’Grady. Burning the thatch “lets the grasses regenerate faster.” Lessons learned so far will be applied on the new parcel as well.

Across from the turtle sanctuary “arm” of the conservation area, on the other side of an historic restored farmhouse that will remain privately owned, is the parcel that’s being sought. It features saltwater shoreline, saltmarsh, upland forest, and freshwater wetlands, and is the last developable lot on the cove.

OCT has its own undevelopment plan in mind. The $900,000 it’s trying to raise will cover the $800,000 purchase price – due by September – as well as $100,000 toward grassland restoration, invasive species control, and removal of an old boathouse.

The property’s gently sloping upland is a great opportunity to allow migration of the saltmarsh, which O’Grady said “sequesters a ton of carbon.” As sea levels rise, the marsh will die off in its present location, and it “needs a place to go,” he said. “It will be a huge change in our lifetime.” Other nearby slopes are too steep, or already developed with houses, to allow such movement.

At present, the parcel remains in private ownership and is not accessible. After acquisition, OCT turtle monitors and restoration workers will be out and about, but it will be some time before there is public access to the waterfront. “We always aim to carefully balance public access with conservation needs,” OCT President Kevin Galligan stated in a press release. He added that parking in the area is limited and that dogs have been banned from the Henson’s Cove land for years. “The habitat here is just too sensitive to permit dogs,” he noted.

O’Grady said OCT is looking to private donors and foundations and investigating government grants to support the acquisition. Potential supporters can contact him at

“We are not managing our properties as a nature garden or an arboretum,” O’Grady said. “Nature is messy. It’s at its most productive when taking its own chaotic path. Every little nook and cranny is habitat for some insect or critter. We have to fight our own human impulse to be neat and tidy, to let nature thrive.”