ROWLEY — Mass Audubon is close to protecting some of the most significant coastal open space remaining in the Northeast.

In partnership with Essex County Greenbelt Association and the Town of Rowley, they are spearheading the Great Marsh Conservation Initiative, an effort to raise $3 million to purchase and protect 75 acres of salt marsh and coastal forest in Rowley. And Mass Audubon is now reaching out to all members of the community, seeking funds to match a $50,000 challenge grant before the Sept. 30 deadline.

The land is located between Route 1A and Plum Island Sound, and is part of the spectacular Great Marsh, a 20,000-acre expanse of salt marsh, tidal creeks and sand flats stretching from Rockport to the New Hampshire Seacoast. Salt marshes comprise one of the most threatened habitats due to extensive coastal development and predicted sea level rise as a result of climate change, and are therefore a local as well as a federal priority for protection.

Currently under threat of foreclosure and development, the property when conserved will close a gap in a mosaic of 8,000 acres of already protected land and wildlife habitat. If developed, upward of a dozen houses could be built, to the detriment of the habitat and the distinct beauty of the area.

"From species diversity to aesthetics to its ability to buffer the effects of climate change, the Great Marsh is one of the richest landscapes in this region," said Mass Audubon President Laura Johnson. "We must take advantage of the opportunity to protect this property now to prevent further fragmentation of the largest intact salt marsh north of Chesapeake Bay."

This past spring, Mass Audubon was awarded a $1 million North American Wetlands Conservation Act grant, a milestone in an ambitious fundraising campaign. In addition, a $250,000 grant from the Town of Rowley's Community Preservation Act Fund has been approved.

The vision for this property includes recreation, exploration and education. Bill Gette, director of Mass Audubon's Joppa Flats Wildlife Sanctuary in Newburyport, explained it best. "This is one of the best bird habitats in the state for wading and marsh birds and for ducks and waterfowl. There are endless educational opportunities with the land, including sharing the important and unique transition between forest and marsh with school groups, and allowing young minds to appreciate the vast ecological and aesthetic importance of this landscape. I also see adult visitors enjoying the trails for the same reasons — to learn, explore, and reflect."

"We have been conserving land in the Great Marsh for many years," said Essex County Greenbelt Executive Director Ed Becker. "This land connects an incredible mosaic of open space and we are thrilled to be partnering with Mass Audubon to make this land protection vision a reality. Protecting this property will benefit both the wildlife and the community by preventing the fragmentation of critical habitat, and by expanding and enhancing recreational and educational opportunities for the public."

Mass Audubon and Essex County Greenbelt Association will be leading a walk of the property on Tuesday, Sept. 13, at 5:30 p.m. to explore the unique salt marshes, coastal oak woodland communities, tidal creeks and estuaries.

To learn more about the project, to RSVP for a walk or to pledge support (gifts will be doubled until the challenge grant is matched), contact Liz Albert at 781-259-2104 or lalbert@massaudubon.org.

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