From The Archives: Great Bay Estuary Joins National Reserve System

Jul 23, 2015

The condition of New Hampshire’s Great Bay Estuary has been one of the biggest environmental priorities in New Hampshire for decades -- and NHPR has been covering the story extensively.

We were there in 2010, when the Environmental Protection Agency designated Great Bay as officially impaired – meaning it could mandate upgrades to wastewater treatment plants that discharge into the estuary.

We were there in 2012, when several communities on Great Bay sued the state Department of Environmental Services, disputing the science DES used to require multi-million dollar investments to those wastewater treatment plants.

And finally, we were there in 2014, when a peer-review found that DES science didn't support the conclusion that requiring the most expensive upgrades was needed to improve the Bay's ecosystem. 

Back in 1989, however, the future was looking bright for environmentalists. That’s when Great Bay was added to the National Estuarine Reserve Research System – a federal network of protected coastal areas.

From the Archives this week, Margaret Landsmen-Weiner’s 1989 report on the Great Bay Estuary.

In 1972, the Coastal Zone Management Act was signed into law to help protect fragile coastal areas from pollution and overdevelopment. Chief among the framers’ concerns was the country’s estuaries, where salt and fresh waters meet and mix. Joanne Casullo, a principal planner at the N.H. Office of State Planning, said that brackish blend creates a unique environment.

“It’s a breeding ground for all of your shrimp, your crab,” she said. “It also has a very unique habitat. It’s a unique blend of both fresh and salt water, and hence your vegetation and a lot of your plants that grow in there are different.”

Achieving National Recognition

Estuaries are common in many coastal states, but few are as impressive as New Hampshire’s Great Bay.

“How pristine they are or how undeveloped they are is what makes Great Bay unique in that it really isn’t as developed as some of the systems on the west coast or even the Atlantic coast,” Casullo said.

Great Bay, with its nearly 4,500 acres of tidal waters and over 800 acres of land and water areas, became part of the National Estuarine Reserve Research System in 1989. It joined a select group of sites from Hawaii to Maine which all benefit from federal money. The competition was stiff, because at the time only $4 million per year was available for the 18 members. It’s pressure that Casullo, who worked for the designation for a long time, was used to. Just getting there, she said, wasn’t easy.

Credit Robert H. Goun (RogerGoun) via Flickr / Creative Commons / https://flic.kr/p/2JtugA

“It was tough, no question about it,” she said. “We started planning for this project back in 1981 in the office, eight years ago. Everyone in this office has had some involvement over the years. And what makes it hard is that you’re under – it is competitive, and you’re under a lot of scrutiny for your program. And whether it’s really going to contribute to the whole system as a whole – whether the research that you’re going to do here and the education you can offer is really going to be important to the whole system. Because it’s a federal program and you have to show that it has national significance.”

How did Casullo and her colleagues display Great Bay’s importance?

“Well, we did it in several ways,” Casullo said. “Probably a significant reason is the fact that we have a Jackson Estuarine Laboratory that the University [of New Hampshire] runs right within our boundary. And that helps them to understand at the national level that there’s already a commitment by the state to running that laboratory and to fostering research activities and funding.”

An Assist From Landowners

Besides the research lab, Casullo’s team pointed out that Great Bay was less developed than some other estuaries, with state efforts already underway to keep it that way. Casullo’s team also showed the willingness of landowners around Great Bay to either put their land into easements or donate property – no small sacrifice. For example, the value of 39 acres of land right on the bay was $950,000. One particular landowner was willing to donate over 50 percent of that valuable land for the estuary protection effort.

Great Bay was particularly dependent on land donation, more so than many of the other protected sites.

Credit: Greg Thompson/USFWS via Flickr / Creative Commons / https://flic.kr/p/7jFwR4

“A lot of the other reserves have already had either a lot of state land within their boundary, or federal land,” Casullo said. “And Great Bay really has very little state-owned or federal land within their boundary. And we needed to rely on local landowners’ commitment to this type of program, to want to work with us on resource protection. Because if we did not get the landowners we had identified as having key areas within the reserve, we wouldn’t have a program.”

While the program didn’t guarantee that development on the bay would stop, conservation got a boost.

“This isn’t a regulatory program, so it certainly cannot control development,” Casullo said. “I think it can help people begin to understand that if they are going to put in a project, if a developer is going to put in a larger project, putting an easement on a property is something to consider. It’s an alternative.”

The Fish and Game Department oversees the reserve.