Commentary

Saving the Great Marsh

Kristen Grubbs shares the impact of climate change on New England's largest Marsh

Photo by Sara Cottle on Unsplash
Allies and Partners

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

The Trustees of Reservations’ Saving the Great Marsh Project is the largest ecological restoration project on the coast in the 131-year history of the organization. The project seeks to restore the health of depleted salt marsh and to strengthen its ability to serve as a critical buffer against the effects of climate change.

Located on the North Shore and stretching from Salisbury to Gloucester, the 20,000-acre Great Marsh is the largest continuous salt marsh in New England, providing ecological, economic, recreational, and cultural value to millions of Massachusetts residents and visitors. It is a state-designated Area of Critical Environmental Concern.

Healthy coastal marshes support biodiversity and critical wildlife habitat, sequester carbon from the atmosphere, and serve as a barrier against storm surge and sea level rise. However, historical agricultural practices dating back to the colonial era have compromised marsh health. Ditches that were dug to spur salt marsh hay production have altered natural marsh draining processes, leaving it increasingly vulnerable to flooding. Sea level rise, accelerated by climate change, will lead to more flooding, eventually causing the loss of marshland and its conversion to open water. This loss will have tremendous local and regional impacts to biodiversity and climate resiliency on the North Shore.

The Trustees Great Marsh restoration project uses innovative nature-based methods and organic materials from the marsh itself. By harnessing the power of nature to heal itself, this process can restore natural tidal flow, and rebuilt marsh peat naturally, thereby keeping the marsh from sinking—known as subsidence. A healthy marsh can support critical habitat for wildlife and continue to build in elevation, keeping pace with sea level rise. In a multi-phase approach over a period of three to five years, The Trustees and partners aim to restore more than 1,200 acres of the Great Marsh.

The Trustees protects over 120 miles of coastline in Massachusetts—more than any other private landowner in the state. In 2016, we completed a comprehensive coastal vulnerability assessment of all our coastal properties, identifying beaches and salt marshes as our most at-risk natural areas. Active restoration of the Great Marsh began with a pilot project on 85 acres at the Trustees’ Old Town Hill reservation in Newbury in 2019 and positive results from this work are already evidenced by a significant decrease in standing water levels in the remediated marsh area year over year.

With the support of federal grants and other supporters, The Trustees is proceeding with Phase 2 of the project, restoring several hundred more acres of marsh, including 30 acres in Newbury at the William Forward Wildlife Management Area. Phase 3 of this project will scale up this work even more, working with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Mass Wildlife, Greenbelt, and other partners to restore an additional 916 acres of the Great Marsh, with hundreds more acres to follow. Active monitoring will continue for several years to measure the outcomes of the ongoing work.

This Great Marsh restoration project is at the necessary scale to make a real and lasting impact for future generations. To read more about the Saving the Great Marsh project, watch a recent Chronicle segment, and learn how you can support this work, visit onthecoast.thetrustees.org/marsh

For more information about projected marsh loss on the North Shore explore our inaugural State of the Coast Report (2020), focused on this region: thetrustees.org/coast or Contact: Kristen Grubbs, Coastal Project Manager, The Trustees kgrubbs@trustees.org, 978-607-1130

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Kristen Grubbs

Kristen Grubbs is currently working as Ipswich Town Planner. She formerly worked as Environmental Planner for the Ipswich River Watershed Association. Kristen lives in Byfield and has served on the Newbury Planning Board and Newbury Climate Resiliency Committee.

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