CHATHAM — Compared to today, Chatham in 1962 was a sleepy summer resort with most development clustered around its four villages. The large areas of open space that existed were taken for granted; it was assumed that meadows, beaches, ponds and woods would always be around for everyone to enjoy.
But a small group of residents heard rumbling as more and more houses and neighborhoods were developed. With hesitation among some about donating land to the town, it was clear that the traditional approach to preserving land wasn't going to be enough.
Selectman Robert McNeece, resident John Manson and retired general Lucious Clay found a way to address both concerns: a private, non-profit land trust. The Chatham Conservation Foundation became the first private land trust on Cape Cod, dedicated to acquiring open space that would remain in its natural state in perpetuity. It wasn't long before the first land donation, the 2.5-acre Fox Hill Island in Bassing Harbor, was given to the new foundation by Dorothy Smith. Soon the foundation had 17 life members and pledges of 10 acres of land.
Today the foundation includes more than 700 members and protects approximately 224 parcels containing more than 800 acres of beach, marsh, wetlands, woodland, meadow and other open space. Many are contiguous with town-owned conservation property, creating large corridors of open space to allow wildlife to thrive and the land to breathe. The foundation also holds conservation restrictions – which allows owners to retain property but gives control over its use to the foundation – on 45 parcels totaling 211 acres.
While the mission is much the same, the organization, its operation and focus have changed in the past 60 years. As foreseen by the group's founders, open space in Chatham has become rare and land prices high, making both donations and acquisition projects less frequent. Today, maintenance and stewardship of its properties is the chief goal of the foundation, along with the upkeep of trails and educating the public about the value of preserving land.
“Our goal is to be forward-facing, to be out there in the community so people know what we're doing,” said Executive Director Lauren Arcomano. “I think the organization has been very humble” in the past. Recent outreach included participating in the Chatham Airport open house, guided walks of foundation lands, and in the coming weeks the foundation will have a table at the weekly Chatham Farmers Market.
Arcomano joined the foundation recently, bringing 30 years of nonprofit management experience to the organization. She runs the day to day operation, along with office manager Ellen McKey. Land Stewardship Director Julie Baca maintaining trails – often with help from members of AmeriCorps Cape Cod – and keeps a sharp eye on the foundation's properties, removing invasive species, making sure there's no encroachment by neighbors (it happens) or illegal dumping (not uncommon).
Members of the board of trustees also monitor foundation properties, said President Bob Lear. “We are literally a working board,” he said. “I'm out there every day.”
“It's entirely different from what it was” when she first joined the board in 1995, said Carol Odell. Then, the board president “took care of business,” she recalled, with board members helping out with publicity, fundraising and other duties. The move to professionalize the operation began with hiring a part-time land steward shared with the Harwich Conservation Trust. An executive director followed, and a few years ago the foundation moved its office from Meservey Accounting on Crowell Road to the Mayo House on Main Street, which the organization had received as a donation from the neighboring Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank in 1976. The circa 1818 three-quarter Cape was for many years a museum open only during July and August. Today it serves both as the foundation's headquarters and as an example of early life in Chatham, open to the public Mondays from 5 to 8 p.m. and Fridays from 3 to 6 p.m.
“I think that move bumped up the exposure of the foundation to a much broader group than just our supporters,” said honorary trustee Eunice Burley. When she was president, Burley oversaw the creation of a mini-meadow with native plantings in front of the historic 540 Main St. building.
Until 1978, there were only three local private land trusts on the Cape – Chatham, Orleans and the Salt Pond Areas Bird Sanctuaries, according to Mark Robinson, executive director of the Compact of Cape Cod Conservation Trusts. Between 1978 and 1988, land trusts were established in other Cape towns, and the Compact was set up in 1986 to help provide technical assistance and coordination among the trusts.
“When we needed to know how something got done, whether it was explaining the tax benefits of conservation, to creating membership brochures to designing a trail, I frequently asked myself 'What would Chatham do?' and then asked CCF,” Robinson wrote in an email. “Andrew Young, serving as CCF president, really brought CCF into the regional network, providing value-added to a lot of our informal discussions among the new land trusts.”
The foundation's more than 200 parcels are spread around town, and a handful contain walking trails that are open to the public.
“It gives people an opportunity to walk on undeveloped land, hear the birds,” said Lear. Some, like the Barclays Pond trail, loop around ponds. The 1.1-mile trail around Frost Fish Creek meanders along the tidal creek surrounded by 50 acres of foundation property, including a former cranberry bog. A new trail overlooking Mill Pond will open in September.
The 1.7-mile trail on Strong Island highlights one of the foundation's greatest successes. In 1973, it acquired the island's 75 acres of upland, adjacent to 69 acres of town-owned marsh, situated in the center of Pleasant Bay. It had been slated for development.
“That would have made a big impact on Pleasant Bay,” Odell said in a video on the foundation website. “If you looked out from the mainland and saw houses out there instead of seeing what we see, it would have been a big impact. It bonded the community together, and also the foundation. It's our jewel.” With the exception of a three-acre private reserved area, the island is open to the public.
Since the late 1990s, the foundation has worked closely with the town land bank, in several cases purchasing and holding property until town meeting can approve an acquisition. In 2003, the foundation helped the Harwich Conservation Trust purchase 43 acres along Muddy Creek, across from foundation land on the Chatham side of the creek.
More recently, the foundation is working with the state and town on a study to replace the culvert under Route 28 at Frost Fish Creek, which could potential impact its property, as well as UMass Amherst on the use of drones to study sea level rise. The foundation has also collaborated with the Chatham Historical Society and the Eldredge Public Library, which is hosting a poetry walk this summer on the town-owned Training Field Triangle land. Guided walks of foundation properties are also being planned.
“We're trying to be an active member of the community through this outreach,” Lear said.
The foundation is in a good place now, Burley said, ready to preserve its property and tell the public about it. With the reality of climate change and sea level rise, the vision of the foundation's founders has proved even more prescient.
“The more we mess up our planet, the more important it is to preserve whatever we can,” she said.
The Chatham Conservation Foundation holds its annual meeting Aug. 15 at the Wequassett Inn in East Harwich. Guest speaker is David O'Neill, president of Mass. Audubon. For information on the meeting, trail maps and members, visit chathamconservationfoundation.org.