The story of the Mashpee National Wildlife Refuge begins thousands of years before the incorporation of the Town of Mashpee in 1870, as told in a new booklet by the Friends of the MNWR.
What is now the second-largest accessible open space on Cape Cod—almost 6,000 acres of conservation land in Mashpee and Falmouth—was born of the Laurentide ice sheet which left outwash plains as it receded at the end of the last ice age, some 18,000 years ago.
As much of the rest of the Cape has become developed with roadways, houses, and businesses crowding out the natural environment, the wildlife refuge has preserved wetlands, ponds, upland meadows, Atlantic white cedar swamps, pine barrens and forests.
The forthcoming booklet, titled “How We Got Here: The History of the Mashpee National Wildlife Refuge,” documents the transitions which brought the landscapes of present-day Mashpee and Falmouth from untouched by humans to being protected against encroaching development.
It traces the land’s origins from the end of the last ice age to the arrival of the ancestors of the Wampanoag Tribe between 11,000 and 8,000 years ago, through 400 years of post-colonization which saw Mashpee transform from a plantation to an Indian District to a town with a rapidly growing population.
The history contextualizes the major events leading to the creation of the refuge—including the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s federal land suit in the 1970s and the subsequent burst of development throughout Mashpee in the 1980s and ‘90s.
The booklet interviews those who led the creation of the MNWR and chronicles the development of a partnership between refuge’s eight conservation landowners, a group which includes federal, state, tribal, private and nonprofit entities.
With the new trail guide, visitors can locate their position on the expansive refuge and contextualize their surroundings.
The guide’s map is divided into nine separate sections, each with a brief description of the encompassed area.
With the trail guide in hand, a visitor to the refuge will learn that the boggy waters in the Johns Pond Conservation Areas were once used for cranberry farming or that Makepeace Wildlife Sanctuary was once a woodlot, which fueled the furnaces of the West Barnstable Brick Company.
Where nascent explorers might only have seen simple forests, the guide will tell them that the Makepeace Wildlife Sanctuary “is a prime example of a pitch pine and oak forest” or that the pine barrens found in the South Mashpee Pine Barrens are “now rare and imperiled globally.”
They will learn that the refuge is the habitat of animals such as river otter, gray squirrel, flying squirrel, whitetail deer, long-eared bats, spotted turtles, rare moths and more.
Spend enough time in the refuge and one may spot a bald eagle flying overhead, deer jumping silently through the woods, a fox peeking out of the undergrowth, or a turtle near the water’s edge.
Mashpee’s Assistant Conservation Agent Katelyn W. Cadoret said that visitors are encouraged to practice the “Big Six”—hunting, fishing, photography, environmental education, interpretation, and wildlife observation—in the MNWR so long as they follow applicable laws.
She credited MaryKay Fox—a longtime Friends of MNWR board member—with the initiation of the project which led to the new trail guide, booklet, and Friends of MNWR pamphlet. The historical booklet was written and edited by Brian H. Kehrl. Mr. Kehrl is a teacher and English department chairman at Mashpee Middle-High School.
Of the refuge, Ms. Cadoret said, “you could be looking at a swath of condominiums but instead you’re looking at a forest.”
She pointed to the Pickerel Cove Recreation Area and Jehu Pond Conservation Area as some of her favorite spots in the refuge, describing the Atlantic white cedar swamp—a globally rare ecosystem—found in the Jehu area as a “vestige to the natural history of the area.”
How one chooses to enjoy the refuge is a personal choice, Ms. Cadoret said. The Mashpee Conservation Department has planned walks and educational programs, as do the refuge’s other partners such as the Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.
Individual could choose to volunteer their time or join the Friends of MNWR.
But, Ms. Cadoret said, even “just going out and enjoying the refuge is a big help.”
The history booklet will be available at local bookstores and at the offices of the MNWR in coming weeks.
Trail guides and pamphlets will be available in coming weeks at Mashpee Town Hall, trail heads in the MNWR and partners’ offices.
MNWR partners include the Friends of MNWR, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, the Falmouth Rod & Gun Club, the Orenda Wildlife Land Trust, the Town of Mashpee, the Town of Falmouth, and the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe.