Interpreter’s Notes – The Atlantic Path

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In the early years of European settlement of America residence along the coastline was considered appropriate only for the more economically disadvantaged among the community.  Needless to point out, things have certainly changed.  Today we’re all quite aware of the ever increasing material value of waterfront property.  Hand-in-hand with that truth goes a number of issues relating to public access of the coastal areas that belong to us all.  It’s estimated that in New England the public has easy access only to about half of the coastal topography that belongs to everyone.  In Massachusetts, the laws governing public access to coastal lands is even more restrictive than in other states with shorelines.  In 1647 the Massachusetts Bay Colony Ordinances moved the line between public and private property to the low water mark, a situation which still prevails and is in reverse of what exists in most states today.  In Massachusetts, the intertidal area between the low and high water mark is presumed to belong to the waterfront property owner.  In other words, the coastal property owner is considered the owner of the coastal area to the low tide mark.  The original intent in creating these “private tidelands” during the Colonial era was to facilitate private wharf construction and economic development.  Although the 1647 Colonial Ordinance transferred ownership of intertidal flats from public to private, it did not relinquish all property rights held in trust by the state.  It did not give up public rights to the waters above the land and also preserved the right for the public to continue to use private tidelands for the purposes of fishing, fowling and navigation.  Over time, with many new business and recreational activities the public enjoys, courts have had to step in to interpret the spirit of the initial Colonial Ordinance.  In 1991, Massachusetts passed a special act that requires a public on foot free right-of-passage along the shore between the low and high tide line subject to certain limitations.  Perhaps not surprisingly, waterfront property landowners had a frosty response to this new law, even with being absolved of liability from the results of the public’s access under the Massachusetts Recreational Use Law.  Today, even with this more recent legislation, public access to waterfront areas remains a sometimes contentious issue in the state, with the public unaware of their rights or not aware of how they can gain access to a shoreline that belongs to all. However, due in part to the efforts of the town of Rockport, the public can find almost two miles of unfettered coastal access that is called The Atlantic Path.  The nearly two miles of public coastline is, at its most informal definition, made up of three public resources – The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation at Halibut Point State Park, the abutting acres belonging to Trustees of Reservations, and the town of Rockport’s land next to it.  Although only the Rockport coast section is officially designated as The Atlantic Path and is partly called Sea Rocks, the land belonging to the public stretches from the northwest corner of Halibut Point State Park all the way to Pigeon Cove.  If you consider exploring The Atlantic Path, there are a couple of things you should know – the Path is not really a “path” per se; although some areas of it are a defined path, the route encompasses a bouldery shore, some clambering around jagged rocks by privately owned property as well as traveling through seaside thickets.  However, the reward is great for those embarking upon the trek – hikers will encounter numerous and diverse flora & fauna, wonderful tidepools and some of the most extraordinary geology found on Cape Ann.  (Including a sprawling, stunning pegmatitic formation you can see a bit of in the middle photo prefacing this version of Interpreter’s Notes – for more on pegmatites and their significance go here.)  Another factor to consider if considering an exploration of the path is where and how to access it.  Many points of access are narrow footpaths located on residential streets with limited or no parking for non-residents.  Those whom explore The Atlantic Path often find the best way to gain access to the area is to park at the Halibut Point parking lot and either head into the park and down to the shore from there or walk down to the end of Gott Ave. and onto the Trustees Path.  Several years ago Halibut Point initiated an Atlantic Path program that explores this wonderful shore.  The program, usually featuring a guest educator or two as well as park personnel, is scheduled monthly in June, July and August.  In 2009, Halibut Point’s first Atlantic Path program will be on Saturday, June 6th at 2:00pm.  Please check our monthly program schedules as they are are posted for details and dates for July & August.  If you plan on attending one of the park’s Atlantic Path programs there are some things to consider: remember that the path is sometimes challenging, with it often necessary to climb around boulders; the program is a solid three hours in length with no amenities once we are out there; and frequent bramble, thicket and poison ivy leave us recommending attendees do not wear shorts.  We hope you’ll attend an Atlantic Path program at Halibut Point State Park or find some time to enjoy the path on your own.  If you’d prefer to explore Rockport’s Atlantic Path on your own, you can find a map listing some path access points here.  As a member of  Rockport’s Right-of-Way Committee once said, “The best way to insure the posterity of your public lands is to use them.”

www.halibutpoint.wordpress.com

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