After five decades the Cape Cod National Seashore has proven itself a success, balancing the need for environmental protection with the desire for active recreation on the beaches of the Outer Cape. In this report Sean Corcoran explores the history and controversy of the park. 

Creating the Park

Sean Corcoran
August 8, 2011


WOODS HOLE, Mass. — This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Cape Cod National Seashore, which after five decades has proven itself a success, balancing the need for environmental protection with the desire for active recreation on the beaches of the Outer Cape.

By the 1950s, Cape Cod was already a tourist destination, and there were concerns about the region's future, particularly the outer-Cape beaches, salt marshes and sand dunes. National Seashore Superintendent George Price says the worry was that Cape Cod and other Atlantic seacoast destinations easily could go the way of Miami Beach and the Jersey Shore.

President John Kenedy signing the legislation that created the Cape Cod National Seashore (Photo: NPS, CC Nat'l Seashore)

"Here in Massachusetts," Price said, "at Revere Beach and Nantasket Beach and other places, they were already commercialized through the 19th century. And it's not necessarily that that's bad and this is good. It's just when you develop it you've defined now what that area is into perpetuity, you don't have the opportunity to have the exploration of natural processes."

How to deal with tourism was a big issue for Cape Codders in the mid 20th century, when it was estimated that one-third of the United States population could reach the Outer Cape in a day's drive. Discussions about federally protecting the Seashore had been on and off for decades. By the time John Kennedy was running for president and finishing his time in the U.S. Senate in 1959, the National Park Service had a plan.

"And basically we came up with the 44,000 acres we see today," Price said. "However, this was different than other national parks because there were already towns here. Yellowstone in 1872 when they did it there were only territories, so all they had to do was draw a line on a map and it was easy to set aside. Here we had the towns."

Six Cape Cod towns were part of the National Park plan, and there was uncertainty about how the Seashore boundaries could include the nearly 600 existing private homes.

Jonanathan Moore, who now lives in Orleans, was a Congressional aide to Senator Leverett Saltonstall and one of a handful of Congressional aides sent from Washington to negotiate the park with local select boards beginning in 1959.

"The principle challenge," Moore said, "was what happens to the the the local towns and the individual citizen who were living down here? What do they get out of it to be enough to allow the federal government such extraordinary authority within their home territories?"

Negotiators decided that families already owning homes within the Seashore boundaries could keep them, and even sell them, though zoning limits were placed on home expansions and lot sizes. Commercial businesses already in the park could stay too. But there'd be no more.

"One of the things the seashore did," Moore said, "which was smart as hell, was to give the towns the right to decide whether the national park service or the town government would be responsible for the beaches of the towns in the areas of the seashore, where those beaches existed. And some towns said, 'No, we want the park service to do that.' And some towns said, 'We're going to do it,' like Orleans."

Debates raged in the six towns over what land should be turned over to the federal government for protection. In Provincetown the fight to support the Park Service over land developers was taken up by the artists.

"The writers, artists, were a central core, and we led the way," said Provincetown author Josephine Del Deo. "But we had to be joined by other people, and we were."

Del Deo worked with the impressionist artist Ross Moffett to convince Provincetown residents to go against their selectmen who wanted to retain some of the Province Lands for future growth.

"There was a famous developer from Boston named Van Ness Bates," Del Deo said. "And he had such glorious plans for Provincetown. He wanted motels, of course, on the outer beach. He wanted a new sewer system that would replace half of the historic buildings along the waterfront. He wanted a helicopter pad at Long Point. he wanted a bridge from Plymouth to Provincetown -- this wasn't fun and games. This was real. This was a real threat!"

Political and environmental threats continued against the Seashore, but the effort had momentum -- both local and presidential. President John Kennedy signed the Cape Cod National Seashore Act on Aug. 7, 1961. Since its inception, the federal government and locals have clashed on issues of access and property rights -- and not all the issues are settled. But at its 50th anniversary, the park is overwhelmingly recognized as an environmental and recreational savior of Cape Cod.

Back to homepage: Nature in Balance - The Cape Cod National Seashore's First Fifty Years