Cape Cod National Seashore hosts more than four million visitors each year. All those people can take a toll on the very beaches and endangered species that make the park so special. But some of the greatest threats – things like air pollution and climate change – are products of people’s daily lives at home, not what they do at the seashore. As Heather Goldstone reports, that’s forcing managers to rely less on fences and more on education to protect the National Seashore.

Mission Impossible: Perservation vs. Use

Heather Goldstone
August 10, 2011


CAPE COD NATIONAL SEASHORE — It’s a sunny July afternoon in Cape Cod National Seashore. Mary Hake and I are trying to find a quiet spot for a conversation, but there are people everywhere.

HG: “Let’s head down this way.” {laughs}

Hake is a shorebird ecologist. As we walk, she quips that this must be what piping plovers feel like – trying to find a quiet stretch of beach on which to build a nest.

photo: Heather Goldstone

MH: “I mean there are some sections at the Seashore that have very wide beaches. And those are the beaches that are much easier for the birds because they have that wide space. And they're much easier for managers like myself because we can provide that necessary buffer because we have the landmass.”

Shorebirds aren’t the only ones feeling the squeeze. Cape Cod National Seashore is home to dozens of endangered species and some truly unique ecosystems.

MH: “At Cape Cod National Seashore it's pretty clear that we have a dual mandate. And that dual mandate is to protect the natural resources while providing for visitor enjoyment. And sometimes those two factors don't mesh 100% but I think the park does a pretty good job in realizing that it is difficult and making some had decisions on how we can do both.”

Adding to the difficulty of protecting these resources is the fact that the threats they face don’t always come from within the park’s boundaries.

GP: “To give you very specific example - something that I'm personally distressed about since I've been here: I think we have now posted about six of our ponds with signs that let people know that it's dangerous to eat the fish if you are a child or if you're a pregnant lady. And that's because of the mercury content in the fish.”

Seashore superintendent George Price explains that much of that mercury comes from power plants in the Midwest, carried through the air and deposited here. And that’s not all the air carries. Climate change driven by greenhouse gases from the burning of fossil fuels ranks among the top challenges facing the Seashore.

Everything we do affects climate change, which then trickles down and affects every living thing including the beetles on the beach and the ant that's walking across this bike path. So it's hard to sort of cut where climate change is and where it isn't. It is. It's affecting everything. And I can't myself in this program change that direction.”

Climate change and other large-scale human impacts highlight the limits of the National Park Service’s ability to protect the natural treasures with which they’re entrusted. But George Price says that park managers have always had to find pragmatic and creative ways to balance environmental protection with human use. 

To preserve and protect and use basically is a conflict isn't it? Because if you were going to preserve something then you might isolate it. But the mandate that we are also allowing the visiting public to participate in these special places - by definition we’re setting up a conflict already.”

The presence of humans in the Seashore also presents an opportunity to educate people and raise awareness about the environmental consequences of daily choices. Hake and Price both say that’s their best weapon against large-scale environmental impacts, like climate change. And neither is willing to give up the fight.

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