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‘Ironclad’ protection: Federal landmark designation sought for Nantucket Sound

‘Ironclad’ protection: Federal landmark designation sought for Nantucket Sound

Rachael Devaney, Cape Cod Times

December 7, 2021

When Wampanoag tribal member Bettina Washington catches the first ferry from Martha’s Vineyard to the mainland, she looks over Nantucket Sound to greet the day.

“We are still living, and we are contemporary Wampanoag people — trying to carry forth our traditions,” said Washington, who is tribal historic preservation officer for the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah).

“We are the eastern-most people, the People of the First Light. It’s our responsibility to greet the day but also take responsibility for our own. Part of that is a formalized way to protect Nantucket Sound against commercial development,” she said.

Unique to any waters in the U.S., Nantucket Sound is roughly 760 square miles of ocean situated at the junction of the Labrador Current and the Gulf Stream — the waters split between state and federal jurisdiction.

For roughly 3 miles from the shoreline of Cape Cod and the Islands to the center of the sphere-shaped Nantucket Sound, the area is protected as a state ocean sanctuary.

But the same can’t be said for federal waters.

Federally controlled areas of Nantucket Sound are eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, and as such would benefit from protection as a historic, archaeological, traditional and cultural property. But tribes, such as the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) and Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, and organizations like the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, are looking for the highest level of protection available on the federal level for Nantucket Sound: a National Historic Landmark designation.

The designation will require federal legislation through congressional hearings in the House or Senate, said Audra Parker, president and chief executive officer of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound.

“We’ve spent a lot of time reaching out to other Nantucket Sound stakeholders and refining and broadening and strengthening (draft legislation) based on their input and through a coalition-building process,” Parker said.

If the legislation becomes law, Parker said the bill will “increase the consistency between the federal waters and the state waters.”

What is a National Historic Landmark?

The designation would “effectively prohibit industrial development in the Sound — consistent with what’s already prohibited in state waters,” Parker said. “For example, you could not build industrial scale wind turbines in Nantucket Sound. However, in the stakeholders process, we worked with companies like Vineyard Wind to ensure that (the bill) would not prohibit laying cable infrastructure through Nantucket Sound like what Vineyard Wind is doing.”

The Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound spearheaded opposition to Cape Wind, which had proposed the nation’s first offshore wind farm with a 130-turbine project in Nantucket Sound. In 2017, Cape Wind surrendering its federal lease on the project.

Vineyard Wind: The nation’s first utility-scale wind farm is being built off Cape Cod

Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, chairwoman of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), in Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard earlier this week.

Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, chairwoman of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard earlier this week.

For Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, chairwoman of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), the legislation will help “ensure the ecological balance of the Sound is protected because of its critical components to Native and non-Native people alike.”

“Without these protections in place we don’t know exactly how much damage can be done. And what type of damage can take place in perpetuity,” she said. “Mass development and industrial construction have the potential to simply choke the life out of the water. If we choke the life out of the water, that means we choke the life out of everything that lives within the water from the micro invertebrates to the macro.”

Parker refers to Nantucket Sound as the “heart and soul of the Cape and Islands,” and said there are other offshore wind leaseholders adjacent to Vineyard Wind that hope to also develop offshore wind resources. But if the bill is passed into law, projects will be prohibited from Nantucket Sound.

“It’s similar to zoning on land. Parts of downtown Hyannis are zoned commercially and then you have big areas that are protected as open space where there is no development,” Parker said. “So it’s that same notion in the ocean as technology develops. Some areas are more suitable for development and some areas should be off limits to development – particularly with the rich tribal history that Nantucket Sound has,” Parker said.

Audra Parker

Audra Parker

“Nantucket Sound is very important from a tribal perspective, but it also has a very rich maritime history,” Parker said. “The idea is to designate all of Nantucket Sound as a National Historic Landmark through federal legislation, which will recognize this rich history and permanently protect it.”

William Burke, cultural resources program manager for Cape Cod National Seashore and a National Park Service historian, said National Historic Landmark status is a “heavily loaded title because of the layers of historical protection the designation offers on a federal level.”

“National Historic Register protection is granted to tens of thousands of properties across the country and it could be a house or bridge or an archaeological site,” Burke said. “But a National Historic Landmark listing is elite in the fact that it denotes a much higher level of protection and affords a very tight threshold for disturbance or change.”

Out of 43,000 acres at Cape Cod National Seashore, the Nauset Archaeological District in Eastham is the only National Historic Landmark designation in the National Seashore, Burke said.

“We have a variety of national listings but that’s the one that is truly nationally significant,” he said. “We protect that site with a vengeance any time there is a threat because as custodians of a landmark site, we can’t allow any degradation of that area.”

Nationally, there are more than 2,600 National Historic Landmark designations for historic buildings, structures, sites, objects and districts, according to the National Park Service. Massachusetts has 191 designations, including Boston Common and Faneuil Hall, the Kennedy Compound in Hyannisport and Nantucket Historic District.

Parker, who garnered support for the landmark legislation from roughly 80 stakeholders throughout the local area and beyond, calls the potential act a “legacy bill,” and said protection afforded through a historic landmark designation would keep projects like oil and gas exploration, offshore wind or mining developments away from Nantucket Sound for “the long term.”

“We’re talking about projects that could instigate threats facing Nantucket Sound like algae blooms, diminished water quality and coastal erosion,” Parker said.

The proposed legislation will also secure traditional laws, cultures and way of life for federally recognized Native nations that continue to inhabit their ancestral homelands.

Andrews-Maltais pointed to the ancient forests that were found underneath Nantucket Sound’s seabed in 2005 as an example of why federal waters need to have “ironclad” protection. Birch wood, yellowish-green grass, soil and insect parts were found to be part of a forest floor from the coastline 5,500 years ago.

The elements of old were found during Cape Wind mapping by scientists and Cape Wind Associates, and was the catalyst behind the push for eligibility protection, which made Nantucket Sound the first ocean-based traditional cultural property, and ultimately contributed to the termination of the Cape Wind project in 2017, according to Andrews-Maltais.

“We have lived on Noepe — what is now known as Martha’s Vineyard — for over 13,000 years and our occupation, our oral tradition and our oral history tells us that we occupied all the way out to what is considered the edge of the continental shelf before sea levels rose,” Andrews-Maltais said. “The find supported archeological evidence of Wampanoag living patterns.”

With federal waters still partially unprotected, Andrews-Maltais said any kind of industrial projects could destroy archaeological evidence — and the resting place of Wampanoag ancestors.

“Archaeological evidence is non-renewable. Once it’s destroyed, it’s gone forever,” she said. “The timeline is so distorted that (archaeologists) have no idea how much critical information has been lost already.”

Brian Weeden, chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council, agreed with Andrews-Maltais and said one reason tribal nations opposed the former Cape Wind project was because of undiscovered ancestral remains.

“Our people are still out there from the last glacier melt, the last ice age,” he said.

Familiar with underwater indigenous archaeological findings, Burke said “there is presumably thousands of years of Native American life that is now submerged.”

“The tribe is concerned that as you attempt to dig up the bottom of the ocean floor to construct wind turbines, you could potentially be destroying or damaging a village site or burial area, even though it’s underwater,” he said.

Unlike Cape Wind, Vineyard Wind, owned by Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners and Avangrid Renewables LLC, will build 62 wind turbines outside Nantucket Sound — 15 miles southwest of Martha’s Vineyard. But construction will require a jetplow to dig 6 feet below the seafloor, and across Nantucket Sound, to bury cables from its offshore substation to Covell Beach in Barnstable on Nantucket Sound, according to the Vineyard Wind website.

Parker, who has been working with the offshore wind community in her quest for the historical landmark designation, said the act won’t allow turbines to be built within Nantucket Sound but “does facilitate and allow for cable infrastructure.”

“Vineyard Wind is one of our 80 stakeholders and they will be running the cables underground through Nantucket Sound and this legislation allows for that,” Parker said. “Part of this whole process was working with Vineyard Wind, working with fishermen, and working with the towns to make sure there were no unintended consequences and there were no negatives. That’s why we’ve been able to establish this very broad coalition of support.”

As Vineyard Wind moves forward, Andrews-Maltais said, it has “made attempts” at keeping tribal entities “in the loop” during the decision-making process for the commercial-scale offshore wind project, but hasn’t given local tribes “equal weight in the deliberative process.”

“From our perspective, and in our opinion, they have not given us the satisfactory answers we need in terms of the timetables, and the prolonged disturbance of our North Atlantic Right Whale brothers and sisters. They are part of our existence and we need answers,” she said. “But we also want to make sure that when we’re talking about protection and preservation — we aren’t just talking about offshore wind projects. We are talking about protection and preservation against all projects that could harm Nantucket Sound.”

Vineyard Wind did not return calls or emails for comment.

Regardless of the extra protection a historic landmark designation may offer federally controlled Nantucket Sound waters, for Wampanoag tribal member Washington it’s most important that the designation raises awareness of the culture and traditions of the “original Wampanoag people.”

“As a tribal person, we all have our own reasons for that place being significant for tribal members, and those reasons go back thousands of years,” she said. “This is where we lived, we walked, and we buried our loved ones. This is a very significant place for us.”

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