The New England coastline has many faces, from the rocky slabs on Schoodic Point in Maine to the cascading sand dunes at the Cape Cod National Seashore. One of the coastal resources with which virtually all New Englanders are familiar, however, is salt marshes. Every coastal New England state is blessed with these resource areas. Some are high marshes that are flooded by salt water only infrequently at maximum high tides; others are low marshes that are flooded on every tidal cycle. These marshes are comprised of a variety of rugged marsh grasses and plants that are adapted to this complex environment, as well as mud flats that form below the lowest grasses and can only be seen at the lowest tides.
We say New England is “blessed” with these resources because marshes have been critical to human activities from the earliest days of human presence in New England. In pre-colonial days, Native Americans hunted on the marshes for birds, clams and fish, and the early European settlers harvested salt marsh grasses for hay and took advantage of tidal cycles to set up fishing traps that caught the then-abundant variety of coastal marine fish. Later settlers discovered that these marsh areas could be diked to create valuable upland farmland, a good thing for the struggling farmers but a significant ecological loss to New England.
These salt marshes, you see, perform a number of critical functions in our environment. They are essential habitat for a diverse number of resident and migratory birds and juvenile marine fish; they protect the uplands from ocean storms, reducing storm surges and mitigating the power of ocean waves; and they filter the water running off the land and remove sediments and pollution before that run-off reaches the sea. They are also a fundamental part of our New England landscape, as any review of New England art will reveal.
To make way for agriculture, housing, marine commerce, and major urban centers like Boston, Portsmouth, and Portland, thousands of acres of coastal wetlands were filled. Fairly reliable estimates are that the Gulf of Maine, for example, has lost roughly half of its original inventory of rich salt marshes. With sea level rise a certainty in the coming decades, increasing numbers of people will begin to understand the protective role that these marshes once played.
It is not too late to restore some of this lost natural heritage. CLF and other conservation groups around the country formed Restore America’s Estuaries (RAE) in 1996. RAE’s mission is to restore one million acres of wetlands, and we are well on our way. Each year, CLF places more than $100,000 with municipalities and citizen groups to pay for the costs of wetland restoration. These projects remove dams and dikes and eliminate tidal restrictions, such as highway culverts, that choke many marsh systems of the salt water tidal flows that they need to survive. Through this work, we are making important strides.
On September 24th, the nation is celebrating National Estuaries Day. We ask you to celebrate it with us: take a walk in an estuary (and pick up any trash that you see), go to your library and read Life and Death of the Salt Marsh—a natural history classic written by CLF Board member Dr. John Teal – join an Audubon Society in your state, visit CLF’s estuaries website page to learn about CLF’s restoration projects and support our work, teach your children about salt marshes, or just spend a sunrise looking out at the ocean over a marsh. New England is blessed by our salt marshes; take some time on September 24th to discover why.