A boardwalk along the banks of Hannah Eames Brook at Mass Audubon’s North River Wildlife Sanctuary in Marshfield.

The first South Shore conservation area I ever visited was Massachusetts Audubon’s North River Wildlife Sanctuary, on Route 3A in Marshfield Hills. But I didn’t go there to observe, appreciate or immerse myself in the natural world. I was sixteen, in high school, and was only there to make out with my boyfriend, whose house was within walking distance of the sanctuary.

Back then the concept of conservation land was foreign to me. I’d visited state and national parks, but I wasn’t aware that towns and non-profit organizations also created open spaces to be used by the public. I remember being incredulous at first when I realized that the large plot of land comprising North River Sanctuary was there for me – and everyone else – to enjoy. Imagine my delight when I found out, years later, that this was one of perhaps fifteen conservation parcels in Marshfield alone, and that all the other South Shore towns contained public open space areas as well.

Despite my original motives for visiting North River Sanctuary, I eventually learned to appreciate all that it had to offer. I especially enjoyed strolling downhill through the open fields and following the boardwalk to the pier overlooking the river. Even when I wasn’t accompanied by a young man, North River Sanctuary became a destination for me.

North River Wildlife Sanctuary is also home to Mass. Audubon’s regional headquarters, and comprises 184 acres, including hardwood forests, a red maple swamp, and the aforementioned lookout on the river. One of the main trails winds though the woods to platform at the edge of Hannah Eames Brook. Another trail runs the perimeter of an overgrown meadow, sloping down to the salt marshes of the North River, where in the winter you can sometimes see harbor seals sunning themselves on the floats that are moored midstream.

Sometimes when I visit conservation areas like North River Sanctuary, I think about what such places would be like if they had not been designated public open space. How many house lots might have fit there? How many roads? It sobers me to imagine these parcels cleared of trees and filled in with manmade structures. I’m relieved that someone had the foresight to leave these lands untouched.

The South Shore is the fastest-growing region in the state. Everywhere I look I see new houses, new roads. Each day I watch huge trucks rumble past my own home, transporting lumber, concrete, sand, and gravel to the neighborhoods being carved out of the woodlands down the street. The traffic seems bad enough, but what will it be like when all those new houses are inhabited, with two cars in the driveway, and just as many errands to do as everyone else? It’s only going to get more congested. And with that increased population will come a need for wider roads, larger schools, greater capacity sewage treatment plants, additional fire and police personnel . . . in short, a higher tax rate.

I know we can’t stop it, but I’ve been wondering lately what we might do to slow the crunch of development. The best solution I’ve heard of is the Community Preservation Act, which was recently passed by the state and will be going out to individuals towns this coming year for further acceptance.

If a town adopts the Community Preservation Act, it can elect to set aside conservation land and thus stave off rampant development. Using some foresight, and the tax dollars it would end up spending further down the line to cover increased infrastructure costs, the town can buy the land to keep it clear of development. And what’s more, the state will pitch in additional funds! No one likes a hike in taxes, but if we take the long view and realize that we’re going to be paying more down the line if we let this opportunity pass us by, it makes sense to be proactive.

Next time you’re out and about, take a look at the landscape. Compare the ratio of developed and undeveloped land. Imagine the remaining open spaces filled in with houses, businesses and roads. Think about what the traffic will be like. And consider what we might do to maintain the low-key character of the towns we love so much. The future of the South Shore lies in our own hands.

by Kezia Bacon Bernstein, Correspondent
December 1999

Kezia Bacon Bernstein’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168.