NEWBURY – Work is underway to rehabilitate 85 acres of compromised salt marsh at Old Town Hill in Newbury after preservationists obtained environmental and regulatory permits in the spring, according to Trustees of Reservations officials. 

The Trustees protect more than 15 percent of the Great Marsh, the largest coastal marsh ecosystem in New England, at 20,000 acres.

Trustees and partners will be using a new, nature-based technique to restore the marsh to a healthier condition, which over time has had its natural draining processes damaged by historic ditching, leaving the area increasingly vulnerable to floods and sea-level rise. This innovative method of “ditch remediation” has, to date, only been piloted on a limited basis on the neighboring U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's Parker River Wildlife Refuge.

“This marks the first time a project of this type – using the ‘ditch remediation’ technique—has been permitted in Massachusetts,” Russell Hopping, Trustees lead coastal ecologist said in a statement. “There are many layers of permitting involved for our coastal wetlands and salt marsh, especially in an area of critical environmental concern and the current regulations provide very little wiggle room for new restoration methods given the importance of salt marsh. The regulators involved were very supportive and saw the merit in its implementation as a means of helping the marsh be more resilient to sea-level rise, a serious threat to our coastal marshes.”

The permit approvals for the Newbury site followed a habitat monitoring period and 10 months of permitting processes. 

Using the nature-based “healing” technique, salt marsh hay is being harvested on-site, before being placed and staked into 138 of 219 existing ditches at Old Town Hill. All the work is being done by hand and with a walk-behind mower. The staked hay in the ditches will trap sediment from the incoming tides and rebuild marsh “peat” naturally over time, improving the health and natural function of the marsh. Once hay is layered in the ditches, an estimated five-year monitoring period begins, according to the Trustees. 

Much of the Great Marsh ecosystem has been damaged by ditching, an agricultural practice dating back to early colonial days and up until the early 1900s when marsh hay farming was ultimately abandoned. During the Great Depression, vast re-ditching programs were launched to drain the marsh, in some cases for mosquito control in areas viewed as swampy, nuisance land. 

The Trustees' Great Marsh project is funded through several grants, including a $217,931 National Coastal Resilience Fund grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, NOAA, Shell and TransRe; $100,000 from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service grant program, the North American Wetlands Conservation Act; $30,000 from the USFWS Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program; $80,000 in state grant funds through the Department of Fish and Game’s Division of Ecological Restoration’s Priority Projects Program; and a $15,740 MassBays grant. 

The full project will involve 350 acres of salt marsh, including Trustees properties in Essex and Ipswich, and up to 50 acres within a state-owned wildlife management area. The parcels in Essex and Ipswich are now in the permitting phase. 

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