I grew up in New Jersey in a small town called Verona. I started coming to Cape Cod when I was in college. I studied marine ecology and I worked on all kinds of different fishing boats then, and I was heavily involved in environmental issues. And I just felt that the community values in the different Cape Cod towns represented something that was resonant with what I felt was missing in my own life, that coming to Cape Cod was kind of like coming home. That the communities weren’t so large that people lived as strangers, but that they were large enough that there were significant differences. And on Cape Cod, people care about people they may not agree with. If you have a disagreement with someone, you don’t necessarily want to see them vanish. You’re all still part of it. And I think there’s a healthy respect for differences. We may not agree on everything, but so what?
Safe Harbor has existed for about 18 years. We specialize in restoring damaged coastal habitats, which include eroded habitats on the North Atlantic coast of Cape Cod. We’ve developed a low-tech system, which uses storm winds to restore eroded habitats. We used to do other kinds of marine-related work as well, like boatbuilding and so forth, but over the last 12 years we have pretty much been responding to environmental situations.
Safe Harbor pretty much works where the rubber meets the road. Most of our sites are actually at the edge of the earth—we’re at that fragile interface with primal elements. A significant part of our job is trying to restore damaged coastal habitat that may have been damaged through construction activity or storms or what they refer to in the regulatory vernacular as anthropogenic impacts. For instance, people like to take a straight road from the parking lot to the beach. They probably don’t realize that the beach grass can sustain 80 miles per hour winds, but if you walk across it 20 times, it dies. Without beach grass, the wind comes through like a shotgun and blows the dunes out. Then you have potential loss of protective geological features, which can result in coastal flooding. Safe Harbor often ends up putting these sensitive areas back together.
We look at coastal resource areas as systems, not pieces that can be interchanged. And what’s really critical in that system is the energy driving through it. In our case, it’s the wind. This is almost provocatively counterintuitive: How can you use the natural energy in the system to restore coastal barrier dune systems? We have one pretty simple system of placing these low fences along the dunes, and that’s where the sand is moving. The next year we’ll place another set of fences, and you can actually shape the dunes.
Right now, we’re working with the town of Truro and the Cape Cod National Seashore to protect a battered coastal dune. We’re filling in a hole that’s going to reconnect two parts of an eroding dune and allow people to walk through.
One of the greatest challenges we face with our natural resources is that you can’t exclude people. You’ve got to find a way to integrate people and resource restoration. One of the things we do is try to incorporate stewardship. We post a very simple stewardship statement. Nothing prohibitive—if you’re a kid and you see a sign that says “Keep off the grass,” you’re going to jump over the fence and go on the grass. But if you’re a kid and you read, “This is your beach, we’re restoring it in a way that allows access and protection, the grass can withstand 80 mile-per-hour winds but it can’t be walked on, and it will create a dune that protects all the property behind it,” now if the kid sees a dog on the grass, he’ll tell the owners that the dog shouldn’t be there. He’s become a steward.
I was a visiting professor at the University of Wisconsin just over a year ago. When we talked to them about sustainability, they perceive their own resources as endless. They were used to losing buildings to storms and floods—elsewhere you might have earthquakes or fires or hurricane damage. It’s inconceivable to them that the land is vanishing also.
People cannot conceive of the fact that the Cape itself is vanishing, and that we’re enjoying the gift of this limited envelope of time in one of the most special places in America. This is an opportunity to understand the sensitivity of our resources and the role we can play in stewardship.
New England can teach the world about how to protect our natural resources. Let’s say you’re a property owner with a wood stove. Do you feel there’s greater value in using all of your wood up, or is there greater value in having a woodpile in reserve? If you use the Yankee school of bare-bones value, having a bigger woodpile is more important than having a bigger fire. But throughout the world we look at our natural resources and say, “Let’s burn it as fast as we can.” The world can learn from Cape Cod’s Yankee values, that we tend to hold more value in having a woodpile in reserve than we do in burning every single piece in the yard.