Commission Approves Bell's Neck Management Plan Revisions

by William F. Galvin
Members of the Cape Cod Nordic Walking Club visit the fishway at the Bell's Neck Conservation Area in West Harwich to observe the herring run. WILLIAM F. GALVIN PHOTO Members of the Cape Cod Nordic Walking Club visit the fishway at the Bell's Neck Conservation Area in West Harwich to observe the herring run. WILLIAM F. GALVIN PHOTO

HARWICH – The conservation commission has approved a major revision to the Bell’s Neck Conservation Area Land Management Plan that focuses on greater protection of natural resources and providing better access for recreation.

The initial plan was adopted in 2012 for the 280-acre conservation area that straddles the Herring River, West and East reservoirs, retired cranberry bogs and wetlands. Conservation Administrator Amy Usowski said the initial plan was developed by BSC Group, an environmental consulting group from Yarmouth, after a year of observing the ecosystem.

“Twelve years later, it’s still in pretty good shape, but it needs some updates,” said Usowski.

The revisions highlight nine goals, including reconstruction of the West Reservoir dam and fishway; naturalizing the Depot Street cranberry bogs; improving Bell’s Neck Road and relocating the parking area: eliminating erosion along finger trails; increasing buffer zones at trails; establishing an invasive species management plan; registering a vernal pool; and improving access to West Reservoir while reducing illicit activity at night and poaching of herring and American eels during the spring fish migrations.

In the commission’s May 29 public hearing, the placement of a gate to control access to West Reservoir and the fishway drew the most debate. Commission member Brad Chase said a gate is necessary to keep people out at night, when illicit activities and poaching occurs.

He recommended the placement of a gate at the entrance to the conservation area off Depot Street. It was also suggested that a second gate could be placed just to the east of the cranberry bogs, where the road narrows. It was suggested an electronically timed gate would resolve the need for staff to open and close it each day.

Member Mark Coleman expressed concern for a gate just off Depot Street, suggesting vehicles turning in when the gate was locked would then have to back out onto the street, increasing the potential for accidents. Usowski also raised the issue of people inside the conservation area not being aware of the electronically timed gate closure and getting locked inside. That would likely require a call to the police department to open the gate, she said.

Tom Evans said people park on Bell’s Neck Road and bike into the fishway and reservoir at all hours. It was suggested that cameras be installed that trigger a spotlight as a means of deterring poaching and other illegal activities at night. Usowski said her department has four cameras that could be used, but they do not have spotlights. There was even discussion about hiring a natural resources warden to oversee the area during the two-and-a half months the migrations occur.

The conservation department has $12,000 in Community Preservation Act funds that need to be spent this year, which could be used to purchase a gate, according to Usowski.

The commission did not make a final decision on a gate.

There has been much discussion over the past decade on whether the cranberry bogs in the Bell’s Neck should continue to be farmed or be allowed to return to nature. Chase said the conservation area has had adverse impacts from the use of pesticides and herbicides in the bogs. Water from the reservoir flows into the bogs and there have been fish kills, he said, adding that there has been a lot of efforts lately on the Cape to naturalize fallow bogs.

The commission’s position is to allow bogs to return to nature. Given the locations of the bogs, the southern bog, which is much wetter, would return to wetlands. The northern bog is expected to transition to upland forest and the middle bog still contains cranberry vines and could be used as a public pick-your-own cranberries location, according to the plan.

The bogs were formerly flooded by water from the reservoir, and on several occasions juvenile river herring were observed dying in the bogs. Netting was used to prevent the herring from accessing the sluiceway, but the netting has deteriorated and the plan recommends a more permanent solution.

The commission recommends pursuing a cooperative restoration project that includes full rehabilitation of the West Reservoir dam, fishway, and surrounding berm with site improvements for parking close to the fishway.

“The large rehabilitation project provides a unique opportunity to redesign this invaluable location to include features for ADA access, reduce buffer zone impacts, provide public education, and to protect the spring herring run while supporting the traditional spring harvest,” the plan reads.

Relocating the parking area on Bell’s Neck Road is recommended, moving it north and outside any buffer zones. Bell’s Neck Road, just south of the vehicle bridge heading north to the rail trail, needs to be re-graded and surfaced to stop erosion. A berm should also be added to direct runoff away from West Reservoir.

The plan calls for finger trails with steep grades which cause high erosion to be eliminated. The width of trails should also be minimized to reduce erosion, prevent ORV use, increase buffer zones and wildlife habitat and reduce soil impacts, according to the plan. An active management plan should also be adopted to control new colonies of invasive plant species.

Usowski said she breaks the plan into two categories, one that can be done by volunteer and staff that will cost little to no money and another requiring money, studies and permitting. The commission praised Usowski for her work on the land management plan and approved the revisions.