Returning Cranberry Bogs to Nature: The Green Exit Strategy | CAI

Returning Cranberry Bogs to Nature: The Green Exit Strategy

Nov 25, 2020

On a sunny day in October, an excavator is digging into a layer of sand and cranberry plants along the Child’s River, near the border of Falmouth and Mashpee. Tree stumps are scattered about, and channels of water are diverted around up-turned dirt piles.

"Sometimes mother nature needs a helping hand, and that’s what we’re doing here,” said Gary Anderson, surveying a scene that resembled a construction site. 

Cranberry farming throughout Massachusetts is in decline.

As many as five thousand acres of cranberry bogs throughout the state will likely be abandoned in the next decade. Many farms on Cape Cod have already been abandoned.


With help from state, federal and local agencies, several projects are underway to turn the landscapes back into the wetlands and rivers that they used to be.


The Falmouth Rod and Gun Club is undertaking one such project near the border of Mashpee and Falmouth.


About a century ago, the Childs River was diverted through two cranberry bogs - the Farley and Garner Bogs - for irrigation. Neither of the bogs have been farmed for years.

Anderson, a member of the Club, has helped lead a project to restore the river to what it was before the cranberry industry.

“We are creating wildlife and fish habitat," Anderson said during a recent visit. “If you create the habitat, you are going to create and help foster a renewable resource. Not just the fish, but the deer, the ducks the pheasants, all of the wildlife that we have out here – you know, the peepers that we have in the spring – they are going to love this area.”

But to get there requires heavy machinery.  It’s not as simple as just letting nature take its course.

On a sunny day in October, an excavator is digging into a layer of sand and cranberry plants along the Child’s River, near the border of Falmouth and Mashpee. Tree stumps are scattered about, and channels of water are diverted around up-turned dirt piles.

"Sometimes mother nature needs a helping hand, and that’s what we’re doing here,” Anderson said.

A project like this is not cheap. The club teamed up with several government agencies including US Fish and Wildlife and Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and Wildlife. They've secured several grants for a project that is estimated to cost $2 million.

April Wobst with the Association to Preserve Cape Cod, a non-profit providing technical support for the project, says that construction crews have to pull back about a foot-deep layer of sand that has kept some native species – like Atlantic white cedar – from growing.

They also have to introduce curves and shaded areas to the river to make it more inviting for fish, like brook trout.

But Wobst she says, after they are abandoned, the cranberry bogs need to be restored sooner rather than later.

“The longer you let them sit there, the more work it takes to return them to a natural wetland," she said. "The longer they’ve sat retired, the more trees that are growing up in that dry surface.”

Restoring bogs is not just about helping fish and wildlife, and the Child's River is not the only waterway undergoing a transformation.

The Harwich Conservation Trust is hoping to restore some 50 acres of bogs in an effort to reduce nitrogen pollution currently running into Saquatucket Harbor, potentially saving taxpayers money on sewer infrastructure.

The Barnstable Clean Water Coalition is considering restoring the Marstons Mills bogs for a similar reason.

Chatham officials are exploring the potential restoration of Frost Fish Creek that could help the town adapt to rising sea levels and offer protection from storm surge.

And the Town of Mashpee is looking to bring back trout to the upper regions of the Quashnet River, where it was said that Daniel Webster and Grover Cleveland used to fish.

Many of these project have been inspired by a restoration effort in East Falmouth. That town’s conservation commission, under the direction of Betsy Gladfelter, has overseen a decade-long project to restore the Coonamessett River.

“So I’ve been all over the world to different habitats bird watching, knowing that a lot of those areas have been destroyed now," Gladfelter said during a recent tour of the Coonamessett. "The opportunity to actually improve habitat in an area where I live is really special to me.”

Just two years ago, the area looked similar to the Child’s River. Excavators were ripping back the old bogs.

But now, Atlantic white cedar are starting to pop up; marsh grasses have taken hold; fish species are coming back.

The project secured 17 grants from state, federal and local agencies. Gladfelter says the entire project cost about $5 million.

Now, she gives tours to other Cape officials eager to learn about the restoration effort. And she says that she’s excited to see other towns catching on.

“The Cape is such a special place anyway," Gladfelter said. "To be able to restore habitat is really exciting and it’s important for the future.”

As the cranberry industry winds down, thousands more acres of bogs are going dormant. For these conservationists, they represent a rare opportunity to return the land to what it was before the industry put its iconic stamp on Cape Cod.

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