This year marks the 60th anniversary of the creation of the Cape Cod National Seashore, probably the most important event in Outer Cape history since the fateful advent of Europeans,
Every once in a while you’ll hear someone give credit for the Seashore park to progressive, nature-loving Outer Cape residents. A article published in the Cape Cod Times around the time of the 50th anniversary went so far as to claim that the Seashore was created by a vote of Outer Cape towns–that we, in our wisdom, willingly handed over most of our area to the feds.
The creation of the Seashore amounted to land reform, that feature of thorough-going revolutions. Inspired by the Kennedys and others, it was a taking in the name of the whole American people of land which had formerly belonged to American individuals who had ideas about exploiting their holdings to p ursue happiness. A certain kind of pursuit on the part of a few was thus replaced by a very different sort of pursuit—regulated enjoyment of open space– on the part of everybody else.
I have often in this space argued for the wisdom of local decision making over that of larger governmental agencies. For instance, in the issue of the extension of the Rail Trail bike path, the state should be guided by the widely-held local, on-the-ground opinion that depositing crowds of cyclists on a very congested stretch of Route 6 would be a dangerous idea.
The basic concept: we who are here know more about our traffic problems than you do simply because they are our problems.
But in the c ase of the Seashore, in what seems anyway the overwhelming opinion of Outer Cape residents, our predecessors , including those still alive who were here then, were wrong about the Seashore issue.
It would be nice to be able to take credit for something so much part of our current identity and image. In reality, the closest we the people of the Outer Cape came to voting was nonbinding hearings. And given what was reportedly said at those meetings, if there had been a vote the two-thirds of the Outer Cape now presently lying fallow would now be developed coast-to-coast.
If our bitter opposition to the Seashore 60 years ago was a sort of Original Sin, in a feel-good reversal of the original story, we sinners got kicked into Eden (if Eden can be imagined with seven months of weather during which you definitely want to wear your fur-lined fig leaf).
The original opposition locally to the proposed park is not too surprising when you think that in 1959, when the Seashore was introduced in Congress, this town had barely recovered from its Depression and World War Two low point in population. After hitting 2400 or so in our mid-19th century fishing heydey, our population had been for several decades under 1000. We really did not at the time seem in danger of overdevelopment. On the contrary, our problem had long been underdevelopment.
Our normal American towns, already popular tourist destinations, were turned by decree into a “national treasure”. Most residents weren’t impressed with the compliment.
I haven’t seen any polls on the subject, but you get the sense that most locals have for a long time accepted the Seashore’s bold, anti-capitalist premise. In fact I imagine a lot of Wellfleetians think of the Seashore as a sort of natural expression of this liberal, eco- hip town.
At some point the tide of opinion turned and Seashore became the greatest thing since sliced bread. I do wonder when that change occurred. Probably about the same time—the 1960s and 70s– when we turned from solidly Republican to solidly Democratic and our population jumped from 1000 to over 2000, heading for today’s 3000. Most of this Washashore Invasion, as I like to characterize it, was progressive young people.
But it should be humbling to this town with our pride in and idealizing of the local, to realize that locals don’t always know best. Are we willing, 60 years down the road, to admit that the best interests of our town were guarded not by the majority of local citizens but by a bunch of nonlocal politicians?
( Not to take this humility theme too far: the state, highway pros of the DOT are still wrong about the terminus of the Rail Trail.)