Massachusetts Conservation Summary

From the beaches of Cape Cod on the Atlantic Ocean to the Berkshire Hills in the west, Massachusetts has a remarkably rich biological legacy for a small and highly populated state.

Rare Species and Characteristic Habitats

In the east, the glacial moraines and outwash plains of Cape Cod and southeastern Massachusetts are home to hundreds of Coastal Plain Ponds and thousands of acres of pitch pine/scrub oak woodlands, two globally rare natural communities. The rolling hills of central Massachusetts contain the “accidental wilderness” of the man-made Quabbin Reservoir and the tens of thousands of adjacent upland acres that protect this drinking-water supply for the Boston area.

Just west of the Quabbin Reservoir, the Connecticut River flows south through the fertile agricultural valley left behind when Pleistocene-era Lake Hitchcock drained. The striking basalt ridges of Mt. Tom and the Holyoke Range rise a thousand feet above the middle of this flat valley, having resisted both the grinding glaciers and the erosive Connecticut River. These hard rock ridges support many rare plants on their circumneutral talus slopes and rock cliffs.

Farthest west, the Housatonic River meanders back and forth across the calcium-rich valley floor amongst the Berkshires hills. Calcareous fens and black ash/red maple/tamarack calcareous seepage swamps are but two of the small, yet highly significant, natural communities in this river valley, which supports numerous rare plants and animals found nowhere else in Massachusetts.

This diversity of ecosystems and geologic features in Massachusetts supports some 1,500 native vascular plant species, 400 native vertebrates, and uncounted thousands of invertebrate species, as well as more than 100 described natural communities. The water-willow stem-borer, a moth of southeastern Massachusetts, is found nowhere else on Earth. The beautiful Plymouth gentian enchants visitors to coastal plain ponds every summer when its large pink flowers dot the pond shorelines. Bald eagles and peregrine falcons, once extirpated as breeding birds from the state, now fledge from twenty or so nests every year. Even more strikingly, the wild turkey, hunted to extirpation in Massachusetts by the 1850s, is now a common inhabitant in much of the state.

Public and Private Conservation Efforts

Massachusetts residents have long valued and protected their state’s landscape. About 20 percent of the state is protected from future development, in areas ranging from the 7,000-acre Blue Hills State Reservation in greater Boston, to the 450-acre High Ledges Sanctuary of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, overlooking the Deerfield River in western Massachusetts. The first land trust in the nation, The Trustees of Reservations, was founded in 1891 in Massachusetts, and is still a major force in land protection in the state today. In fact, one of Massachusetts’ strengths is the lively and cooperative network of conservation organizations and agencies all working to protect the landscape of the Commonwealth. These range from the major state agencies—the Department of Conservation and Recreation and the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife—to state-wide nonprofits (The Trustees of Reservations, the Massachusetts Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy, and others) to the more than one hundred local and regional land trusts across Massachusetts, as well as the federal Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service.

Threats

Despite this network of committed conservation partners, the biodiversity of Massachusetts is facing significant threats. Suburban sprawl, particularly within an hour’s drive of Boston and on Cape Cod and the Islands, is consuming and impacting some 78 acres a day of the natural landscape. Suppression of natural processes, especially fire, is threatening exceptional natural communities such as pitch pine/scrub oak woodlands with succession to closed-canopy, less diverse forests. Demand for drinking water is causing the Ipswich River to run dry in some summers and disturbing the natural groundwater regime supporting rare plants on the shores of coastal plain ponds. Exotic invasive plants are not only springing up in disturbed areas, but are spreading into intact rich mesic forests and hickory-hop hornbeam woodlands.

Massachusetts’ Future

These threats and challenges have sharpened awareness in Massachusetts for the need to pinpoint and prioritize the most important unprotected landscapes. Numerous organizations and individuals are identifying conservation targets and sounding calls to action throughout the commonwealth. These initiatives, coupled with the continued support and cooperation of its citizens, will ensure the preservation of Massachusetts’ biodiversity for generations to come.

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