More than a century ago, many of the open spaces on Nantucket were devoted to agriculture, either for cultivation or grazing livestock, mostly sheep. On Polpis Road there were over 40 acres of wet meadows that enterprising farmers decided to turn into cranberry bogs in the early 1900s. The first cranberry harvest was sometime in the early 1920s.
That property is now poised to return to its original state as a mix of wetlands and uplands with a large body of water known as Stump Pond in the far reaches of it.
Windswept Bog and the land around it, 200 acres in all, was purchased by the Nantucket Conservation Foundation in 1980 for $267,332, adding to its holdings of cranberry bogs off Milestone Road. The cranberry operations provided lucrative income for the land-preservation organization for many years, helping fund the management and acquisition of its open space.
In the early 1990s, however, the economics of cranberry-growing in the United States were challenged by our neighbor to the north. Canada entered the cranberry market in a big way, creating large government-subsidized bogs in a much cooler climate that was a grower’s advantage. The price per barrel of cranberries subsequently plummeted, and growing cranberries became a money-losing proposition. Windswept Bog’s fate was sealed.
In 2017 the Nantucket Conservation Foundation decided to end cranberry production at Windswept Bog, after trying without success to raise the price per barrel of cranberries from the bog by converting it to organic production. The yield was far lower when pesticides and herbicides were not used, and the bog still operated at a loss.
The organization then faced the question of what to do with the property Foundation vice president of ecology Karen Beattie had an idea. What about returning the bog to its natural state, re-wilding it, so to speak?
The retirement of cranberry bogs is nothing new in southeastern Massachusetts. Climate change and economics have impacted the viability of the 13,250 acres of bogs across the commonwealth, and bog owners have been slowly getting out of the business.
The state has been working with growers on the mainland under the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Restoration’s cranberry program. That was the resource Beattie turned to when the decision was made to return Windswept to wilderness.
First, the state wanted proof that the bog was once a wetland. A ground-penetrating radar survey of the property was conducted, searching for large deposits of peat, which would be evidence that the bogs had indeed once been wetlands.
As suspected, under a top layer of 12-20 inches of sand, the survey revealed dense layers of peat, anywhere from five to 16 feet deep, underneath the 14 bogs on the property.
“This is the evidence we needed to invite nature back in, and turn the land back to what it used to be,” Beattie said.
But it’s a complex process.
Windswept’s wetlands are home to a variety of flora and fauna and aquatic species, including the spotted turtle, which the Foundation’s ecology department has been monitoring. To minimize disturbance of the habitat of these species, restoration work must be done in the winter months of January, February and March.
“The thing you want to do is reconnect the 14 bogs to each other and reconnect the bogs to adjacent wetlands,” Beattie said.
That will improve the flow of water and habitat for the fish in Stump Pond, which is home to pickerel and eels, she added.
The ditches that line the bogs will also be filled. Those ditches, and the sand in the bogs, are remnants from the days when this land was a working cranberry bog. The idea is to take away the sand, to expose the peat deposits and hopefully release the seed banks that have been stored in the peat.
Beattie hopes this will eventually repopulate the property with the wildflowers and shrubs which once grew in Windswept over 100 years ago.
She estimates that it will take three seasons to get the work done. Her team has been spending the last four years laying the groundwork for the project, documenting their ecological research on the property and writing grants to get the project funded from the state and federal government as well as from private family foundations. The total cost of returning the bog to its former natural state is estimated at $3 million.
Windswept is one of the Foundation’s most popular properties. Walking trails weave along the edges of the 14 bogs that comprise Windswept. Wildflowers bloom in the spring and fall, and waterbirds swoop in to seek out the water sources here. A snowy egret added a grace note on a day I was walking along the trails. Spotted turtles, an estimated 200-plus, call the wetlands here home. Snapping turtles and box turtles also live in Stump Pond, a man-made pond once used to flood the bogs.
When the decision was made to return the bogs back to their natural state, there was much concern that the trail network would be altered in such a way that it wouldn’t be fun for walkers. Not to worry. Most of the trails will be preserved and some new ones added. Stump Pond will stay, much to the delight of those who kayak and canoe there.
The cranberry-growing operation is now solely located at the Milestone Bog. Over the past decade production there has scaled back from an all-time high of nearly 300 acres under cultivation to a small heritage bog of 50 acres that are dry-harvested in late October.
“We are cognizant of the important role cranberries played in the island economy after the Great Fire and the end of whaling,” Beattie said. “We hope to maintain cranberry-growing as a demonstration bog at Milestone.”
Marianne Stanton is the former editor and publisher of The Inquirer and Mirror and Nantucket Today. She retired this summer after 42 years at the newspaper. She is also a member of the Nantucket Conservation Foundation’s board of trustees.