Do you know that we have a nationally recognized landscape in our midst? Like California’s Mount Shasta, the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia, Kentucky’s Red River Gorge and Ship Rock in New Mexico, the North and South Rivers are one of our country’s National Natural Landmarks.

In 1977, the National Park Service/Department of the Interior designated the North and South Rivers of Plymouth County, Massachusetts, a National Natural Landmark (NNL). The rivers were recognized as “possessing national significance in illustrating the natural character of the United States,” The area of designation comprised 5400 acres, including over 3600 acres of saltwater marsh.

This came after years of hard work by former Pembroke residents Jean & Jack Foley, Marshfield resident Bill Finn, and other members of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, who nominated the rivers for the NNL program, and worked behind the scenes to help make the designation a reality.

In September 1977, the Foleys and Finn provided a boat tour of the North and South Rivers to Dr. H. W. Vogelmann Ph.D., who had been contracted by the government to review the rivers for NNL designation. Vogelmann also viewed the area from an airplane, and at the end of the year submitted an evaluation to the Department of the Interior, recommending that the rivers receive the designation.

Vogelmann observed that, “the marshland systems of the North and South Rivers are extensive and complex,” and noted that the rivers were “classic examples of drowned river mouth estuaries.” He said, “Extensive marshland systems and relatively unpolluted rivers are a rare occurrence near a metropolitan area like Boston.”

National Natural Landmark status was conferred soon thereafter. This was especially significant because until then, the program had only accepted more nationally well-known sites. There were only 66 NNLs at that time.

“But nothing happened,” remembers Finn.

The official designation date for the North and South Rivers as a National Natural Landmark is 1977. But according to Finn, it took several years for the designation to be declared. Repeated inquiries to the National Park Service (NPS), attempting to determine whether or not the rivers would receive the designation, yielded nothing. Finally in 1979, when Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts was elected to the US Senate, the wheels began to turn. Theta Leonard, who worked for Tsongas, along with the senator and Bill Finn, worked with the NPS to tie up loose ends.

Finally in May 1980, during the second annual Massachusetts Rivers Celebration, a dedication ceremony was held on the grounds of Mass Audubon’s North River Sanctuary in Marshfield. Tsongas, US Congressman Gerry Studds, MA Senator Allan McKinnon and MA Representative Philip Johnston, as well as representatives from the NPS and other state and federal agencies, joined NSRWA members and officials for a canoe trip down the North River. A wooden sign stating that the rivers had been designated National Natural Landmarks was presented “to the people of the North and South Rivers watershed.” Another sign declaring that the State of Massachusetts had recognized the North River as its first Scenic and Protected River was presented as well.

According to the NPS “the National Natural Landmarks program recognizes and encourages the conservation of outstanding examples of our country’s natural history.” To date, only 587 sites have been designated. In order to obtain NNL status, the site must be “one of the best examples of a natural region’s characteristic biotic or geologic features.”

The program was founded by Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall in 1962. Its primary goal is to “encourage the preservation of sites illustrating the geological and ecological character of the United States, to enhance the scientific and educational value of sites thus preserved, to strengthen public appreciation of natural history, and to foster a greater concern for the conservation of the nation’s natural heritage.” Sadly, the program has languished in the past two decades. In 1989 an official moratorium was placed on adding sites.

All sorts of different landscapes may be considered for NNL designation. The present sites include lands used for ranching, agriculture, recreation, nature preserves, research areas, camps, conference centers, and commercial ventures. They vary in size from a 7-acre bog and a 960,000-acre glacier. Some, like Connecticut’s Dinosaur Trackway, involve only a single remarkable feature, while others encompass large, widely diverse landscapes.

Unlike the lands in the National Park system, National Natural Landmarks are not owned or managed by the federal government. They may be privately or publicly owned.

The Natural Landmark program’s aim has been ”to encourage and support voluntary preservation of sites that illustrate the geological and ecological history of the United States, and to strengthen the public’s appreciation of America’s natural heritage.” In order to maintain NNL status, the only requirement is that the “significant natural values of the site” are preserved as much as possible. No new land use restrictions are set upon the site. The NPS does make occasional visits to verify a site’s condition and maintain good rapport with landowners.

Public access is not a foregone conclusion. Some NNLs may be too ecologically fragile to permit visitors – or it might be the best remaining example – in the country, or even worldwide — of a certain, often irreplaceable, type of landscape feature.

Last year the North River Commission and the NSRWA hosted Deb DiQuinzio of the National Park Service – Northeast Region, for boat tour of the North and South Rivers. DiQuinzio said,

“I was pleased to learn of the efforts to enforce speed limits and to monitor dock construction, vegetation removal and other activities having negative impact on the North River. Also the continued improvement to water quality and opening of the North River to recreational shell-fishing. It is for these and other preservation activities that National Natural Landmark status can be used as a tool, and to bring together the diverse owners, users, and stewards of the rivers for the common purpose of protecting these nationally significant, natural resources.”

To learn more about National Natural Landmarks, and to read a complete listing of NNL sites, visit

By Kezia Bacon-Bernstein, correspondent
June 2008

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 or visit Visit for an archive of the last 12 years of Kezia’s articles.