Protecting the Natural Wonders of our Coast

Today, The Trustees of Reservations coastal strategy is evolving to focus on land protection, advocacy, the perspectives of residents, and seeking green solutions where we can have the most strategic and long-lasting impact.

Thomas Steiner
Allies and Partners

Editor's note: This is one in a series of guest opinions about fostering environmental stewardship. The series is coordinated by ACES, the Alliance of Climate and Environmental Stewards.

Of the 117 natural and cultural sites that The Trustees of Reservations care for around the state of Massachusetts, 35 are designated as coastal properties. These are some of our most visited and important ecosystems and wildlife habitats, and often the ones that come to mind when people think of The Trustees. Whether it’s swimming at Crane Beach in the summer, walking at World’s End on a fall day, or experiencing the beauty and solace of our remote beaches on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, we often find a love of the coast from many of our visitors who are drawn to these special places.

The Trustees owns and protects over 120 miles of coastline in Massachusetts, more than any other single private landowner in the state. We have played an important role in coastal conservation in our past and continue to do so today, seeking to protect and care for landscapes that include islands, salt-marsh, rocky coasts, and dunes — all of which are in flux from winds, tides, currents, storms, and our changing climate. As a result, coastal resiliency is a high priority and we are working to protect some of our most vulnerable sites so they are able to respond better to changing conditions and can “bounce back” after disruption.

We were energized to hear from residents of several Great Marsh towns during a salt marsh and sea level rise workshop this spring, where we found the communities greatly valued the recreational benefits of the natural landscape and many shared a concern that coastal development could impact the marsh and the scenery and serenity they so treasured.

Today, our coastal strategy is evolving to focus on land protection, advocacy, the perspectives of residents, and seeking green solutions where we can have the most strategic and long-lasting impact. We recognize the challenges posed by coastal storms, sea level rise, flooding and erosion to the preservation and enjoyment of the properties we are charged with protecting.

Last year, in partnership with The Woods Hole Group, we focused on a forward-looking coastal vulnerability assessment (CVA) that flagged several of our coastal beaches and salt marshes as the most “at risk” natural areas. The first of its kind and scale to be conducted by a conservation organization, the CVA has helped inform the work that, together with our visitors, volunteers, communities and partners, we need to do to prepare our coastal sites to be more resilient, stay open and accessible to the public, and continue to support the fragile ecosystems needed for wildlife species and habitats.

With Trustees-owned marshes representing 15% of the 20,000-acre Great Marsh — the largest marsh in New England — we are beginning the first phase of an innovative salt marsh restoration project at our Old Town Hill property in Newbury to improve the natural tidal flow and resilience of this critical resource. The marsh serves as a barrier to protect adjacent uplands and communities from flooding and sea level rise and provides critical habitat to important species that rely on it. It also serves as a place of beauty for the many visitors and residents who enjoy its natural landscape and serenity.

Marshes in New England, including the Great Marsh, have been significantly compromised by historic ditching that dates to farming practices in early colonial days and vast re-ditching programs launched during the Great Depression. With increasing rains and sea level rise, these ditches continue to inhibit the natural draining process, causing the marsh to sink and flood.

Thanks to a series of generous grants received from MassBays, the US Fish & Wildlife Service, and the Department of Fish and Game’s Division of Ecological Restoration, we are implementing an innovative method of harvesting and loosely braiding salt hay from the marsh to layer within ditched areas this summer. First piloted successfully on a limited scale at the nearby USFWS Parker River Wildlife Refuge, the braided hay will collect sediment from the incoming tides and rebuild marsh “peat” naturally — allowing nature to heal itself.

The project is estimated to take three to five years to complete and will also be implemented at marshes around the Crane Estate and other areas of the Essex estuary including our Stavros Reservation, ultimately aiming to fortify 300 acres of marshland in total. A successful implementation of this project will protect the landscape, ecosystem and natural wonder for generations to come, in a sustainable way, working hand-in-hand with nature.

We look forward to sharing updates with the community as the project unfolds.

As we continue to lead and innovate for these green coastal solutions, we are also looking for more opportunities to involve more communities, volunteers, supporters and partners in this vital work so that together we can protect our shores for the next generation.

For more information on our work, please contact me at or see / To volunteer, contact Marc Mahan at

Tom O’Shea is director of Coast and Natural Resources for The Trustees of Reservations.

This column was coordinated by ACES YOUTH CORPS member, Eleni Protopapas. To share any comments or questions, please send an email to To learn more about ACES and our Youth Leadership Initiative, please view our WEBSITE –

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about the author
Tom O'Shea

As The Trustees Director of Coast & Natural Resources, Tom is responsible for leading the organization’s coastal strategy as well as its mission-based ecological and natural resource programs. Tom has over 20 years of experience in natural resource conservation and stewardship in Massachusetts and previously served as the Assistant Director of Wildlife for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.

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