PLymouth-02/14/18 Lauren Kras, a wildlife bioligist stands on a huge rock looming over the sand plain below, which once was a big gravel pit used at the former cranberry bogs at the newly opened 450-plus acre Mass Audubon's Tidmarsh Wildlife Sanctuary. The former working cranberry farm underwent the largest freshwater ecological restoration ever completed in the Northeast. Slowly, new wildlife is attracted to the three and a half miles of landscape that was created by removing nine dams to reconnet the headwaters of the Beaver Dam Brook to the ocean. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff(metro)
Lauren Kras, a wildlife bioligist, stood on a huge rock looming over the sand plain at the newly opened Mass Audubon's Tidmarsh Wildlife Sanctuary.
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

THOMAS FARRAGHER

With new wildlife sanctuary in Plymouth, nature regains 480 acres

PLYMOUTH — Binoculars dangling around her neck, Lauren Kras clambers up a craggy boulder the size of a small car and surveys her new domain. It is, quite literally, a wonder of nature.

Bald eagles soar overhead. River herring swim in newly reshaped streams. On cold winter nights, you can hear coyotes howl, and, when dawn comes, you can walk new trails among the pitch pine, wild sarsaparilla, and thousands of newly planted Atlantic white cedar trees.

“In a day and age when we see nature getting pretty beat up, when you see this resiliency, it’s really a story of hope,’’ the new director of Mass Audubon’s Tidmarsh Wildlife Sanctuary told me the other morning. “What you see here is nature taking its course.’’

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But the real wonder of this place? That it exists at all in the state’s largest town, where development pressures are intense.

Instead of being home to soaring birds and reborn streams, this place could have easily been a new upscale neighborhood of handsome five-bedroom McMansions, sweeping emerald lawns, and long-and-curving asphalt driveways.

PLymouth-02/14/18 A bluebird is perched on a branch of a bush at the newly opened 450-plus acre Mass Audubon's Tidmarsh Wildlife Sanctuary which was a former working cranberry farm. It underwent the largest freshwater ecological restoration ever completed in the Northeast. Slowly, new wildlife is attracted to the three and a half miles of landscape that was created by removing nine dams to reconnet the headwaters of the Beaver Dam Brook to the ocean. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff(metro)
A bluebird at Mass Audubon's Tidmarsh Wildlife Sanctuary.
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

In some ways, it’s a miracle that it isn’t.

“Absolutely,’’ said David Gould, Plymouth’s director of marine and environmental affairs, who once walked the sanctuary site with would-be developers ready to write a fat check. “It could have been another Pinehills development.’’

The story of why that didn’t happen starts with Evan Schulman and his wife, Glorianna Davenport. Schulman, a financial service entrepreneur, and Davenport, a cofounder of MIT’s Media Lab, bought what is now the sanctuary land in the early 1980s, when it was a well-worn cranberry bog.

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“I got this irrational desire for land, and when I get irrational desires I sit down and say: It had to be profitable,’’ Schulman said. “It had to be an hour and a half from Boston. And it had to have low labor content.’’

The answer? Tidmarsh Farms, 600 acres of straight channels, dams, culverts, and tamed streams that once ran to the ocean. By 1989, it was producing 1 percent of Ocean Spray’s crop.

PLymouth-02/14/18 Water flows through a culvert at a where a former dam stood at the newly opened 450-plus acre Mass Audubon's Tidmarsh Wildlife Sanctuary, a former working cranberry farm, which underwent the largest freshwater ecological restoration ever completed in the Northeast. Slowly, new wildlife is attracted to the three and a half miles of landscape that was created by removing nine dams to reconnet the headwaters of the Beaver Dam Brook to the ocean. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff(metro)
Water flowed through a culvert where a former dam stood.
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

“It was not like gardening,’’ Davenport said. “We would spend weekends down there helping on the harvest.’’

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But Schulman’s three children expressed no desire to take over the operation, and when they decided to sell in 2008, developers began to drool.

“There were people coming out of the woodwork,’’ Davenport said. “They actually came over and presented us with a drawing for 400 homes.’’

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Instead, the landowners saw a chance to protect a critical watershed. They searched for ways to protect the land, identifying state and federal funds to pay for restoration.

“We chose a different path,’’ Davenport said. “We didn’t want to go the development option. If you have any love for land, you’ll wind up on our side.’’

What followed was the largest ecological restoration project of its kind in New England. In 2016, Plymouth Town Meeting voted overwhelmingly — 113 to 6 — to approve a deal under which Mass Audubon and the town of Plymouth would become owners of the old bog.

Call it a well-needed victory for open space.

PLymouth-02/14/18 Cattails stand in a marshy area of the newly opened 450-plus acre Mass Audubon's Tidmarsh Wildlife Sanctuary, a former working cranberry farm, which underwent the largest freshwater ecological restoration ever completed in the Northeast. Slowly, new wildlife is attracted to the three and a half miles of landscape that was created by removing nine dams to reconnet the headwaters of the Beaver Dam Brook to the ocean. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff(metro)
Cattails stood in a marshy area of the former cranberry farm.
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Plymouth’s estimated population today is 60,500, up 17 percent since 2000. Last year, the town issued 436 building permits, the fourth highest total in 21 years. Over the last quarter-century, no town in Massachusetts has grown faster.

Mass Audubon paid $2.3 million for 480 acres — the land that is now the Tidmarsh Wildlife Sanctuary, land that town officials said could have been a new neighborhood for hundreds of homes.

Instead, it’s a sprawling natural diamond in the rough that takes hard work to polish and to convert back to the coastal wetland it was in the 1800s.

First, the effects of a century’s worth of cranberry farming had to be confronted. That meant removing earthen dams. It meant using ground-penetrating radar to determine how water originally moved through the land.

“What we try to do is to address the impact of farming and to help the site be wet again,’’ said Alex Hackman, a state restoration specialist who managed the work at Tidmarsh. “During farming, you construct ditches — a plumbing system that is imposed on the land. We try to undo the plumbing system. Where there are ditches, we fill them in. Where there are dams, we remove them.’’

All of that work may explain the broad smile on Lauren Kras’s face the other morning as she led me on a long tour of the new wildlife sanctuary, where she and her husband live in a modest rental house just a few yards from Beaver Dam Brook.

PLymouth-02/14/18 Lauren Kras, a wildlife bioligist walks along stepping stones over Beaver Dam Brook near it's headwater at the former cranberry bogs at the newly opened 450-plus acre Mass Audubon's Tidmarsh Wildlife Sanctuary. The former working cranberry farm underwent the largest freshwater ecological restoration ever completed in the Northeast. Slowly, new wildlife is attracted to the three and a half miles of landscape that was created by removing nine dams to reconnet the headwaters of the Beaver Dam Brook to the ocean. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff(metro)
Kras walked along stepping stones over Beaver Dam Brook.
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

The story of Kras’s journey here is almost as compelling as that of the preservation efforts.

The 31-year-old Kras was born in Worcester and moved to upstate New York as a child. She dreamed that one day she would be the caretaker of the emerald lawn at Fenway Park.

“For a while, I really fell in love with grasses,’’ she said.

She actually fell in love with Ben Griffith. They met around Christmas 2008 during an Audubon-run bird counting event, when they were placed on different teams and a dispute arose over a gull — a Thayer’s gull to be precise — at a post-event dinner.

“I was showing someone some photos of one, and he came up and looked at my camera and said, ‘I am not comfortable calling that a Thayer’s gull.’ And I was like, ‘Who are you?’ And then he said — and I think this is the best pickup line of all time — ‘I will show you some gulls some time.’ And sure enough, on our first date we went to go look at gulls.’’

So her new husband was hardly surprised when Kras spotted the job posting for the director of a newly formed sanctuary in Plymouth and said aloud: “Wow! Doesn’t that sound like me?’’

Her second interview for the job was at Mass Audubon’s headquarters in Lincoln. She was early and diverted to Walden Pond for a walk and a pep talk to herself.

“That really helped me remember that sense of place and that sense of belonging,’’ she said. “That purpose of trying to do something greater for everyone who’s going to come after me.” It reminded me that this was an opportunity to create a place where people can find that same sense of place.’’

PLymouth-02/14/18 A mallard duck takes flight from a marsh area at the newly opened 450-plus acre Mass Audubon's Tidmarsh Wildlife Sanctuary which was a former working cranberry farm. It underwent the largest freshwater ecological restoration ever completed in the Northeast. Slowly, new wildlife is attracted to the three and a half miles of landscape that was created by removing nine dams to reconnet the headwaters of the Beaver Dam Brook to the ocean. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff(metro)
A mallard duck took flight from a marsh at Tidmarsh Wildlife Sanctuary.
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

And so that’s what she is now trying to do. There is a staff to be hired. She envisions longer hiking trails, and educational programs for school kids. She’s writing grant applications. She’s digging holes to put in signs to guide visitors.

“On some level, nature is a resilient thing,’’ she said as we walked a muddy trail under a pale winter sun. “Sometimes we don’t give it as much credit as we should. It has this wonderful ability to fight.

“Life wants to win. But the neat thing with this restoration is that we have a chance to make it happen even sooner.’’

Then she stopped, looked up, and pulled her binoculars to her eyes.

A red-tailed hawk circled overhead.

And who would want to miss that?