An innovative project to restore portions of the Great Marsh threatened by rising sea levels is expanding to a much wider area with the help of a $1 million grant from the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Trustees of Reservations last year began restoring 358 acres of the marsh in Essex, Ipswich, and Newbury that are degraded from past human activity and increasingly rising sea levels stemming from climate change.
As a result of the new grant, the Trustees are adding 916 acres in Essex and Ipswich to the restoration effort, increasing the project area to 1,274 acres.
“We’re thrilled,” said Russ Hopping, lead coastal ecologist for the Trustees, a statewide nonprofit land conservation group that is collaborating with Essex County Greenbelt on the project.
“The grant allows us to work at a scale the marsh needs to survive in its healthiest form,” he said, adding that in addition to preserving critical habitat, a sustainable marsh “helps tremendously in protecting coastal communities from flooding and storm surges.”
By using a natural, low-impact material — loosely-braided, layered salt marsh hay — the Trustees hope the marsh can rebuild itself over time and become more resistant to climate change.
The Trustees and Greenbelt teamed to raise $2 million needed to match the grant,
The project, which including previous state, federal, and Trustees’ funds is now about a $4 million venture, marks the largest ecological restoration effort in the 130-year history of The Trustees, and one of the largest restoration projects of its type in Massachusetts.
The Trustees own 15 percent of the Great Marsh ecosystem area, which spans about 20,000 acres from Cape Ann to the New Hampshire border.
“Research indicates that by 2070, marshes will not be able to keep pace with sea level rise,” Hopping said. Citing one indicator of the precarious health of the marshes, he said the population of salt marsh sparrows — a species seen only on the East Coast — is declining by 9 percent annually.
In each of the project areas, the restoration will take three years, to be followed by two years of monitoring.
The restoration launched in April 2020 at the Trustees’ Old Town HIll parcel in Newbury. This fall it is set to begin at three other Trustee sites — Crane Reservation, in Ipswich; Crane Wildlife Refuge and the Stavros Reservation, both in Essex; and a state wildlife management area in Newbury.
Set to begin in 2022, the work funded by the new grant includes 689 acres owned by the Trustees, 141 acres owned by Greenbelt, and 86 acres of state-owned land.
Greenbelt’s president, Kate Bowditch, said that as one of the four largest owners of Great Salt Marsh land, her organization has had a keen interest in preserving the marsh, but is excited to now be able to help innovate strategies for its restoration — and to educate the public about the work.
“For centuries, people have thought the marsh was valueless or even a nuisance, a mosquito-ridden place,” she said. “Many people don’t appreciate how much of an asset it is.”
Hopping said New England farmers for centuries built ditches in the Great Marsh to replace natural creeks, allowing for quicker water drainage. The practice ended by the early 1900s, but from the 1930s to the 1970s, it was revived as a mosquito-control strategy.
The ditches have since eroded, but that has caused its own problem. With no ready means of drainage and rising sea levels, marsh waters have become too deep in places, preventing the growth of grasses needed to stabilize the marsh.
The project involves harvesting on-site salt marsh hay and layering it into about half the ditches, where it can trap sediment from tides and help rebuild the marsh peat. It is hoped water will flow more efficiently through the marsh’s remaining ditches.
“We are just trying to nudge Nature, using a very low-risk, low-impact technique which relies on nature to do most of the work,” Hopping said.
John Laidler can be reached at email@example.com.