Background photo by Tom Lyons

Dave Crary

Park Protector

My father bought some property in Eastham in the ’50s, and my mother’s father bought some property around the same time or a little earlier—my parents both still own those original properties. After my parents got married, they built a cottage colony in 1959, the year I was born, on one of those properties. And I’ve basically lived here ever since.

Growing up, Boy Scouts was the name of the game for me. We went camping once a month, even during the winter and the non-summer months. It was just so great—we’d hike and camp and build fires. I just liked the outdoors—the axemanship, sleeping outside.

Dave Crary

Every once in a while, when I was in elementary school, the fire department would hold its fire training in a field behind the town hall, and they’d fill a car with leaves out in back and they’d set it on fire, they’d pull the hoses out, yell and run around and put the fire out, and we’d just sit and watch. I thought that was the coolest thing.

In 1988, the Yellowstone fires (the largest wildfires in the park’s history) occurred, and because of a lackluster response, the National Park Service was given the green light to hire 40 new fire management officers. I got this job in October 1989 and I’m still here. Most often, fire management staffs move around to different jobs and different locations. But I’m the Eastham guy.


There are 42,000 acres in the Cape Cod National Seashore— at high tide, there are fewer acres. Somewhere between 18,000 and 19,000 are burnable, and of those burnable acres, fire management activity can happen on 15,000 acres.

Science shows that, for the most part, there’s poor ecosystem health nationwide in the national parks—from pollution, from invasive plants, and from lack of fire. Fires should burn through most parts of North America at some interval—that’s called a fire return interval. Well, there’s poor ecosystem health here on Cape Cod, too, and we have a 30-to-70-year fire return interval here. That means on average, an area here should burn at least every 30 to 70 years.

For 51 years now, there hasn’t been a major fire in the National Seashore. That’s 51 years of growth, and we’re getting up to that second stage of missing a fire interval . . . For science and ecosystem health and safety, parts of the National Seashore should burn. And that’s why we’re here.

Fire gives rise to new forests. Fire strengthens the forest. The heat kills certain pathogens. The killing of live trees through fire is not always a bad thing.

There are other reasons for burning, but the primary ones are fuel reduction, ecosystem health, and view shed preservation. And every burn has a prescription. Just as a doctor prescribes drugs for the wellness of the patient, we have a prescription for every fire we ignite in the National Seashore. And that prescription is for the wellness of the ecosystem.

Safety means fuel reduction. There’s also resource management and ecosystem health. Burning this system here has killed some things, yet there are live trees, shrubs are sprouting—they’re just at a different stage, moving back to a more primary ecosystem. There are certain plants and animals that utilize these open areas.

Fire seems so destructive to so many people—and it is, and it can be. It can hurt and kill people, it can burn things, and in certain parts of the country, extremely hot fires can ruin watersheds, fill canyons with debris, cause mudslides, and on and on. However, through fire, there’s this incredible coming of life. There’s a rebirth.


Eastham is unique because it’s far enough away from the bridges and the Cape Cod Canal that you can use that fact as an excuse not to go to Boston, but it’s not too far away that you absolutely can’t do it.

It wasn’t until I got to college that I really learned about the Cape Cod National Seashore . . . The Cape Cod National Seashore has not only preserved parts of Cape Cod, it’s saved Cape Cod. There would be so many houses along the cliff of the outer beach had it not been for the Seashore, and hearing about houses that could no longer be moved back and would tumble into the surf would be a yearly occurrence.

I took a year off from college in 1980 to hike the Appalachian Trail from end to end . . . I learned to carry a lot of food. And that your feet will always hurt. It was a great confidence builder, 147 days of walking and sleeping outside. I thought, I wonder how many of my friends have slept in a different place 147 times in a year.

I walked to work this morning. I have three routes I take down the bike trail: It’s eight miles from my house, six miles from my parents’, and five miles from a cottage where I park. I love to walk. Sometimes I wish I didn’t work because then I’d just walk everywhere.

One year, I started hiking along Coast Guard Beach and walked all the way to Provincetown along the back shore of Cape Cod. I can’t think of anywhere else in on the Atlantic seaboard where you can do that. You see some structures from time to time when you do that hike, but it’s fewer than 10. That’s over 25 miles of almost pristine shore.

Eastham has such a combination of aquatic and maritime resources, uplands—albeit only three miles wide—and it has a robust population, but it has all of this open area because of the National Seashore. And it’s got the prettiest blue hydrangeas. It seems to have the right mix of everything.


Jeff is the Managing Editor for Cape Cod Life Publications.

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Nauset Light Beach, Eastham

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