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Dr. John Portnoy, Ecologist

Herring River Salt Marsh Restoration, Cape Cod National Seashore, NPS.

Dr. John Portnoy, Ecologist
National Park Service, Wellfleet, MA
Phone: 508-487-3262
Email: john_portnoy@nps.gov

Summary

On September 14, 2005, the Cape Cod National Seashore and the Town of Wellfleet, MA signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) agreeing to proceed with the restoration of the Herring River system. Signing of the MOU represents the culmination of over twenty years of study, planning, and fundraising for the restoration of the Seashore's largest salt water estuary by Dr. John Portnoy. John has been a determined champion of the Herring River restoration project, dedicating many years of diligent advocacy and science to the cause. The Herring River, currently listed as a federally Impaired Water was diked in 1908, leading to a decrease in water quality, loss of shellfish and finfish populations, and destruction of native salt marsh vegetation and habitat. John carefully and meticulously conducted research to answer all stakeholder questions about the past, present, and future of the Herring River. In laying this foundation of scientific support, John educated the public and changed the attitude of many people. During Fiscal Year 2005, John developed and presented a careful stepwise restoration plan, supported by local and regional officials, leading to the signing of the MOU. In addition, John has worked with many local, regional and Federal partners to secure approximately $1.5 million in funding for the project. As this project proceeds, we can expect to see the recovery of native salt marsh vegetation, and the return of river herring, striped bass, and shellfish. The restoration of nearly 1,100 acres of marshlands will be ours to enjoy for generations.

Detailed Description

John Portnoy has been a staff Ecologist with the Cape Cod National Seashore for nearly 30 years. While John has worked on a myriad of topics in the fields of aquatic biology and biogeochemistry, much of his time and energy has focused on tidal marshes. More specifically, John has led the effort to restore three large salt marsh ecosystems severely degraded by the restricted tidal exchange from roads and dike structures. Two of these systems are now in the process of restoring, while the third is awaiting agreement on details of a formal plan. The latter is a 1,100-acre river and floodplain known as the Herring River. The beginning of its restoration represents the culmination of years of scientific research backed up by an unwavering commitment to the cause.

Over the past 20+ years, John Portnoy has worked tirelessly to restore the Herring River. Although most of this highly degraded marshland is within the Seashore boundary, the structure that impedes seawater exchange (an earthen dike with three gated culverts) at the mouth of the river lies within the town of Wellfleet and is controlled by the State. The impacts of almost 100 years of tidal restriction are extensive. John has published numerous reports and articles describing impacts to the ecosystem and possible restoration strategies (see publication list). In 1997, he authored a seminal document entitled Wellfleet's Herring River: the case for habitat restoration. In this paper, published in the scientific journal Environment Cape Cod, John discusses in detail how human alterations have resulted in numerous ecological problems and how restoration would reduce or reverse the damage. This manuscript synthesized many years of previous studies conducted by John and other scientists and it very skillfully argues for action to remedy the situation. A few years later, John coordinated the development of a hydrological model of the system under current and restored conditions. This model played a critical role in educating local stakeholders about the ecological and economic benefits of returning salt water flow.

Along the way, while trying to convince people that restoration was in public's best interest, John has come up against countless social hurdles. The level of animosity and, occasionally, outright anger by those resistant to any kind of change in the status quo has been astounding. John's personal and professional credibility has been assaulted at town meetings and in the print media, primarily by people who either refused to listen to the logic and reasoning behind his proposal or who simply didnt understand the science behind it. However, John never once reacted negatively to such criticism. Instead, he methodically went about compiling existing data and conducting new studies to address every concern put forth by a wide variety of stakeholders. His extraordinary patience and quiet resolve allowed him to interact positively with people on many levels, from individual homeowners to town committees to private businesses. John also formed relationships with numerous outside agencies and organizations, including the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE), the University of Rhode Island (URI), Massachusetts Department of Coastal Zone Management (MCZM), the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, Massachusetts Audubon, and the Nature Conservancy. In fact, by bringing together the Nature Conservancy and MCZM, who jointly applied for a NOAA grant in 2005, a substantial sum of money (~$1.5 million) was recently approved to help fund the project. Through these collaborative efforts, John cultivated a diversity of ideas and viewpoints. The fact that so many other agencies and environmental groups have joined the restoration effort also lent further credibility to the idea that restoration is not simply Johns own personal crusade, but something that is the right choice for the broader community and region.

The year 2005 was a critical turning point in the push for restoration. During this time John sensed that the political climate of Wellfleet had shifted enough that he could re-engage with public officials and make another strong push for Herring River restoration. In August 2005, the Seashore asked the town to vote on entering into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) an agreement to thoroughly explore exactly how restoration would proceed. The town voted in favor of the MOU and a Herring River technical committee was formed soon thereafter to investigate, and provide answers for, a multitude of stakeholder issues and concerns. John synthesized and presented an enormous amount of data to address each point. After digesting and discussing this wealth of material, the technical committee voted in favor of full restoration and turned over a final report of their findings to the town board of selectmen who gave it high praise. Their positive outlook on the project was enabled by the rock-solid foundation of good science that John Portnoy has both conducted and helped organize over the years. With the project now going forward, John, along withy other NPS staff, MCZM (Wetland Restoration Program), NOAA, and the Wellfleet Conservation Commission have begun to develop a program of restoration management that will outline the specifics of construction, monitoring, and assessment.

Although John Portnoy is being nominated for his efforts to restore the Herring River, it is worth mentioning two other large tidal restoration projects that he spearheaded. Hatches Harbor (Provincetown) and East harbor (Truro) are in their 10th and 4th year of restoration, respectively. Responses to seawater reintroduction have been rapid and extremely positive. As such, these projects have been influential in swaying public opinion on the Herring River. Simply put, as people have witnessed how well these systems have responded, much of their cynicism has evaporated and many of their fears have been alleviated. In general, they have served as excellent test cases for the larger Herring River endeavor, which will be the largest tidal restoration project ever attempted in the Gulf of Maine.

In conclusion, we feel that John Portnoy is highly deserving of this award. During 2005, John cemented his legacy of environmental stewardship by putting the Herring River restoration project over the hump. He accomplished this with an amazing amount of determination and an unbelievable work ethic. Evening meetings and working weekends have been a regular part of John's life over the past two decades and this continues today. In fact, John recently spent an entire weekend helping to cut and clear woody vegetation from the floodplain in anticipation of the salt-induced mortality that will occur when tidal exchange is finally restored. His dedication is obvious on all levels and this important project would have never seen the light of day without his perseverance and commitment.

Additional Information

  • Nature Conservancy Report moremore

 


U.S. Department of the Interior

Greening of the Interior

catherine_cesnik@ios.doi.gov