Pausing to Consider the Trade-offs in Restoring the Herring River
Last week I recounted the history of the Herring River Restoration Project in Wellfleet and Truro. I listed some of the many benefits projected to result from the restoring full tidal flushing to the valley, as described in a brochure I received from the Friends of Herring River. And as I said at the end of that program, I support the project. As an environmentalist it would be hard not to. Yet I do so with reservations, some of them fairly trivial, some perhaps not.
First of all, as a writer, I’m always sensitive to unconsciously prejudicial language. In the brochure the current estuary is called a “degraded” and “impaired environment -” but we might do well to remember that only a half century ago salt marshes themselves were commonly considered “wasteland.” Many of the organisms currently found in the valley are described as “non-native, invasive species.” But honey bees – or for that matter, beach rose - are also “invasive aliens.” What we call something often reflects our own subjective attitudes, and those attitudes are always subject to change.
Moreover, some of these “invasive" aliens – such as the abundant multiflora rose and pampas grass, may be detrimental to native species, but they are also undeniably glorious when they bloom in the spring.
The thing is, I can’t help but feel that, after more than a hundred years, the ecosystem that has established itself in the valley – a mix of brackish and freshwater swamps – may have developed a certain environmental integrity of its own, however artificially created and maintained. For one thing, freshwater and brackish swamps are much less common than salt marshes on the Cape and might, just might, contain desirable elements that would be lost in the restoration.
For instance, in the upper sluggish reaches of the river valley, I have often seen the stunningly-colored wood ducks that prefer these heavily wooded and shady swamps, many of which would return to salt marsh. The native shadbush trees that line the edges of the freshwater swamps and that bloom so spectacularly in May, will also likely be flooded out by the increased tidal flow. And as many Wellfleetians know, along the lower reaches of the river there exists one of the most extensive and productive stands of native blackberry, a wild fruit not only delicious but containing the highest concentration of anti-oxidants of any native fruit or nut. These, too, will almost certainly be flooded out by increased tidal flow.
Moreover, many of the current dirt roads and trails that provide access to the valley by walkers and cyclists are so low that they, too, will likely be flooded out, thus actually decreasing rather than increasing access to the area.
As I said, I’m not listing these reservations as an argument against the restoration project, but simply to point out that change always involves losses as well as gains. The projected gains of this project are supported by decades of scientific research, but how many studies have there been of what is there now? Have we really accounted for all the potential losses as well as gains? Do we completely understand what we have to lose?
The point I’m making is that in the final analysis, we choose what to restore and what to preserve. We choose it on the basis of our current lights and desires – and we should at least recognize that, as the history of the dike itself shows, those lights and desires change from age to age. And to those who might chide me for unnecessarily muddying the waters of a worthwhile project, well, perhaps there’s something to be said for keeping a certain amount of muddy waters around.