This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Cape Cod (Mass.) National Seashore, the fifth most visited unit in our National Park System with five million visitors annually.
Yet there are those who think this coastal oasis should not exist. They are thankfully part of a small minority who believe the federal government has no business owning land in a nation whose philosophical underpinning revolves around the concept of private property.
The objections are always the same, whether the land in question is a national seashore or national park. Setting aside such large tracts for strictly controlled public use is denounced as a federal land grab that stifles economic development while inflating nearby property values beyond the reach of many working American families. It is also argued that the profit motive incentivizes the private sector to manage land better than government bureaucrats do.
The Cape Cod National Seashore dramatically refutes these allegations. A local veteran real estate agent speaks for most on the peninsula when she says that without the National Seashore and its majestic dunes and expanse of beach, the Outer Cape would probably be littered with "thousands of little junky cottages all on quarter-acre lots." Indeed, the inner Cape which is closest to Boston and lacks the protective buffer of a national seashore has had its natural beauty marred by pockets of tacky commercial and residential development.
Even after 50 years of success as a tourist bonanza, the National Seashore still has a smattering of critics who complain it deprives people of residential space and drives up surrounding property values to exclude all but the very rich.
Certainly prior to the creation of the Seashore in 1961, many of the locals had serious reservations. Victor Adams, a Barnstable selectman, warned that "if Cape Cod is made available to the entire country, its attraction will cease to exist. Swarms of people will climb over the dunes and destroy them."
Charles Ayling, a local banker, declared that a national seashore would ruin the economy by reducing the Cape's developmental potential. One objector asserted that the seashore would attract crowds who would drive away long term visitors while spending little themselves. Many residents feared they would be denied freedom to hunt and fish as well as retain adequate public access to the Cape's beaches.
The past 50 years have demonstrated that all these fears are unfounded. Cape Cod National Seashore has become a cornerstone of the region's economy while preserving its natural beauty and guaranteeing the egalitarian public access that could be problematic under private ownership.
Yes, the seashore has raised property values, but comparable price increases would have occurred without the seashore's existence, and low-income Americans might have been denied the generous recreational access to the Cape's natural wonders that the federal presence makes possible in perpetuity.
If anyone still harbors doubts about the managerial capacity of public servants, compare their skillful husbandry of a pristine seashore with how commercial interests have been allowed to spread ugly sprawl across various parts of the Cape.
So happy anniversary, National Seashore, and with climate change willing, here's hoping for many more.