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Plymouth project aims to return wetlands to natural state

A juvenile red tail hawk sat atop debris from wetland restoration work at Tidmarsh East in Plymouth.
A juvenile red tail hawk sat atop debris from wetland restoration work at Tidmarsh East in Plymouth.Living Observatory/handout

A 250-acre wetlands area off Plymouth’s coast that includes retired cranberry bogs is being restored to its natural condition through a nearly completed initiative officials hope will be a model for similar projects.

The wetlands comprise part of Tidmarsh Farms, an overall 607-acre expanse of freshwater wetlands, portions of which were cultivated for cranberries for generations. The 250 acres being restored, known as Tidmarsh East, includes about 140 acres of cranberry bogs.

“This is the largest freshwater wetland restoration in the state to date, and one with important regional implications for retiring cranberry farms,” said Alex Hackman, a restoration specialist for the state Division of Fish and Game.

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Coupled with the project is a plan by Mass Audubon to buy the Tidmarsh East site and 229 acres of adjoining woodlands to maintain as a wildlife sanctuary. The organization is seeking to raise the $3.6 million needed to achieve the plan, said Bob Wilber, its director of land conservation.

The wetland restoration is one of two coastal enhancement projects in Plymouth that earned recent state funding. Fish and Game awarded $50,000 to complete the $3.4 million Tidmarsh East project, whose other costs have been covered by previous federal and state grants.

Plymouth is also receiving a $111,000 state grant to study alternatives for better managing the flow of tidal waters into Ellsville Marsh in south Plymouth.

The 71-acre Ellsville Marsh is the only salt marsh from Plymouth to Cape Cod and as such is an important breeding ground and habitat for fish and birds. But sand buildup from storms frequently clogs the ocean inlet to the channel leading into the marsh, according to Jack Scambos, president of the Friends of Ellsville Marsh.

The Friends. which takes the lead in managing the inlet, has cleared away the sand on regular occasions in recent years, but hopes to find longer-term remedies.

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“This marks a turning point for the Ellsville Marsh,” Scambos said. “It’s the first time we asked for and received public money to study solutions to maintaining the inlet.”

The work at Tidmarsh East will be only the second completed restoration involving retired commercial cranberry bogs in the state, according to Hackman, the project manager. The first was a project at Eel River completed by Plymouth in 2010.

The Tidmarsh East project also stood out, Hackman said, because of the vast expanse of land involved, the abundant groundwater resources, and the willingness of the landowners to offer their property for restoration.

Plymouth’s Oct. 15 Town Meeting, meanwhile, will consider authorizing $599,000 to use with a $51,000 state grant to buy Tidmarsh West, an adjacent 128-acre property that includes a 48-acre former cranberry farm. If it acquires the land, the town expects to restore it to wetlands through similar funding sources; design work is already underway.

Farmers began cultivating cranberries on Tidmarsh Farms a century ago. Evan Schulman bought the 607 acres in the early 1980s, and cultivation continued until 2010 in the east section and 2015 in the west.

Schulman and his wife, Glorianna Davenport, respectively trustee and president of the entity owning the property, closed the farm because changes in technology made it difficult to compete and their adult children did not want to take over the operations. Rather than sell the land for development or farming, the family opted to pursue a conservation and restoration project, believing “wetlands are valuable ecologically and financially,” Davenport said.

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The couple plan to retain 20 acres of the woodlands -- where they maintain a home -- and to remain involved with the property.

Davenport, a retired professor and visiting scientist at the MIT Media Lab, directs the nonprofit Living Observatory, which works with universities and independent researchers to explore how the restoration affects the entire watershed.

The year-long Tidmarsh East restorations are aimed at turning the site back into wetlands by undoing 100 years of land alterations from agriculture. The work has included dismantling dams and dikes, plugging up ditches, and removing sand.

“Wetlands are extremely valuable. They are natural filters that clean out water. They store carbon, they provide wildlife habitat,” Hackman said in an interview. “We have thousands of acres of cranberry farms in Southeastern Massachusetts, and some will be retired in the next few decades. This project could serve as a model for other farmers that might want to pursue wetland restoration.”

Already, he said, there are signs that the Tidmarsh restoration is benefitting the area ecosystem.

“We’ve gone from bare mud to an abundance of wetland. We’ve also seen wildlife returning,” Hackman said, citing visible increases in fish, birds, deer, otter, and frogs.

Wilber calls the restoration “the most exciting land conservation project I have been involved with in my 16 years at Mass Audubon.”

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“Tidmarsh Farms is located within an evolving corridor of protected land that runs all the way from Myles Standish Forest to the ocean,” he said. “The opportunity to help put together a corridor like that which really doesn’t exist elsewhere in Eastern Massachusetts was a big part of our interest.”

He said the Plymouth area is also one of the few places in the state Mass Audubon does not have a wildlife sanctuary.

David Gould, Plymouth’s director of marine and environmental affairs, said the town is excited to be involved in the restoration efforts.

“It’s something we’ve been working on with our project partners for quite some time,” he said.

What one location at Tidmarsh East in Plymouth looked like before wetland restoration work.
What one location at Tidmarsh East in Plymouth looked like before wetland restoration work.Massachusetts Division of Restoration/handout
The same location at Tidmarsh East during wetland restoration work.
The same location at Tidmarsh East during wetland restoration work.Massachusetts Division of Restoration/handout
That same location after the restoration work.
That same location after the restoration work.Massachusetts Division of Restoration

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.