Researcher documents Wasque forest before it is lost to the sea

Wasque Point, on the southeast corner of Chappaquiddick, a favorite spot for recreational fishermen, would hardly be recognizable to a visitor returning this summer after an absence of only a few years.

Where a parking lot once existed and provided room for 100 vehicles, now fewer than 10 cars can park. Stairs that were part of a pathway down to the beach have disappeared, washed away by the ocean. Trees are continually uprooted and a fence blocks the old path. A sign cautions visitors of a 20-foot drop to the water.

The “tremendous rate of erosion” is due in large part to the breach in Norton Point Beach that occurred in April 2007, according to Chris Kennedy, Martha’s Vineyard superintendent for The Trustees of Reservations (TTOR), which manages the property.

The beach once connected Katama to Chappaquiddick and made a land route for off-road vehicles that no longer exists.

As the ocean currents continue to eat away at the beach, in a cycle of erosion and replenishment that has played out for generations, uprooted trees lie along the tideline.

In the off-season, Mr. Kennedy said TTOR tried to clear the trees, but trees continue to fall. “As much as it bothers me to see a beautiful beach covered with debris, as soon as we clean the beach it comes back,” Mr. Kennedy said. “It is like trying to put your finger in a dam.”

Such drastic changes attracted David Foster, director of the 3,500-acre Harvard Forest in Petersham. Mr. Foster is documenting the changes with a team of researchers this summer.

“What we’re trying to do here is both understand why the landscape is eroding and what’s growing out here, because this may be our last chance to study it,” Mr. Foster said in a conversation with The Times.

In early May, Mr. Foster walked along the Island’s shoreline with a handheld GPS device, recording his path along the water. His path showed that the Atlantic had taken significant amounts of land on Chappaquiddick. “More than 50 yards of this shore have been lost in the last year, so we could easily lose the rest of this forest in the next couple of years,” he said.

Mr. Foster is not your typical Harvard University faculty member. As a paleoecologist, he spends much of his time outdoors, studying forest structure and composition. Though based in Petersham at the Harvard Forest, he and other researchers study forests throughout New England.

Along the shoreline at Wasque Point, piles of uprooted trees are hit by waves, but Mr. Foster worries about the effect sea water will have on the white oaks and pitch pines still standing.

The trees in Wasque look like those one might imagine populating a fairy tale, many with multiple stems and branches that grow in contorted configurations.

“If you just came out here you’d think the trees were a characteristic of the forest, but they only grow that way because of their history,” Mr. Foster explained.

When Europeans settled on Chappaquiddick, they cut trees for firewood and cleared land for agriculture and animals to graze. Since 1890, TTOR, a statewide nonprofit organization, has managed properties across Massachusetts, protecting them from development. TTOR took over the Wasque property in 1967. Trees were allowed to grow again, and many sprouted multiple stems. Branches on the trees grew at irregular angles while competing with other young trees for sunlight.

But now, erosion presents a new problem for trees. With nothing to shield them from the sea water and salt-laden wind, many trees with deep roots still in the ground are dying. Though the trees are largely salt resistant, with too much exposure, absorbed salt can reach the roots and kill the trees.

“The wind is really harsh. You get wind with salt, with ice, and that damages the trees,” said Mr. Foster. “It makes them grow into this contorted shape.”

To further study the forest, Mr. Foster and his team are looking within the trees and in the sediment.

Two undergraduate students, Erik Jorgensen and Ava Foster, are working with Mr. Foster for the summer.

Every day, they take core samples of trees from different forests on the Island and sediment samples from ponds, recording vegetation and soil makeup. A core sample allows them to extract a thin tube of wood from the tree, and study tree rings. On average, the two core between 40 and 50 trees per day to document a range of trees in each Island forest.

The rings identify the age of the tree and can show what environmental factors helped or hindered its growth.

Once they’ve taken samples throughout the Island, the researchers will write a paper for publication and compile the information into a database, documenting the age of the forests. “The idea is to understand how much variation there is across the island,” Mr. Foster said.

While the area will continue to change and some trees are lost, Mr. Foster said learning to adapt is key. “It’s a natural process that we need to help people cope with,” he said.

Mr. Kennedy agreed. “This is a natural process. The only was to stop it is to wait.”

As to how long the wait will be before the cut in Norton Beach closes and the beach rebuilds, Mr. Kennedy isn’t sure. “Some people have said one year, others five and some people say it will be ten years until the breech closes.”

Until then, Mr. Kennedy asks visitors to follow the guidelines posted on signs. “Clearly things have changed,” he said. The beach that people remember going to with gentle waters is a very different beach now. The currents are vastly different this year.”