Conserving the Cultural Landscape

How the National Estuarine Research Reserve System protects ecological and human history.

Sapelo Island, Georgia

An avenue of centuries-old oak trees leads visitors back in time to a Geechie-Gullah community still residing within Georgia’s Sapelo Island Reserve. Throughout the National Estuarine Research Reserve System are numerous examples of Americans’ heritage being interwoven with the land. Like the endangered species and estuarine habitats that are safe under the reserve system’s care, so is the cultural history of the people who, for centuries, have woven their stories into the landscape.

In the spring of 2018, a centuries-old ship washed up on the shore of Guana Tolomato Research Reserve in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. It was almost as if its long journey through the years and the sea was destined to end at the reserve, where it will be protected, studied, and preserved. After all, the human history of this country is interwoven with its ecological history, and this connectedness is a large part of what the National Estuarine Research Reserve System works so hard to safeguard.

Native American camp, Great Bay, NH

A replica Native American camp offers a glimpse into life 6,000 years ago at New Hampshire’s Great Bay Reserve.

From Coast to Coast

Within the historic marshes and wetlands of San Francisco Bay Reserve’s China Camp State Park is the site of a late 1800s Chinese shrimp fishing village, where about 500 immigrants from Canton brought the shrimping skills from their native land to San Francisco’s estuarine environment to create a successful life in their new home. Today, in addition to hiking and kayaking through this rare surviving remnant of California’s original landscape, visitors can learn the story of China Camp’s fishermen at the onsite museum.

On the other side of the country, among the diverse eelgrass, salt marsh, and rocky intertidal habitats at the convergence of five major river systems, the cultural history of New Hampshire’s Great Bay Reserve is equally diverse, dating back 6,000 years and spanning every stage of this country’s development. From its first residents—the Abenaki Native Americans—to the arrival of European settlers in the early 1600s, up until the 1970s, when local citizens rallied against shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis and his plans to turn Durham Point into the world’s largest oil refinery, its people have been as hardy as its forests and fields.

Their history and contributions are not only acknowledged at the reserve—they’re on full display. A natural history educational program includes “Trail of the Arrowhead” discovery walks, student “archaeology” digs, Native American-focused field trips, and hands-on interaction with native tools and traps. Visitors can also explore a replica Native American camp and life-sized diorama, and can climb aboard the deck of a replica 19th century Colonial era vessel.

China Camp State Park

The remains of an 1800s Chinese fishing village are preserved—and open to visitors—at China Camp State Park in the San Francisco Bay Research Reserve.

Keeping Cultural History Alive

Cultural history is very much alive at Georgia’s Sapelo Island Reserve, home to Hog Hammock, a private Gullah-Geechie community living on the otherwise state-owned island. The Hog Hammock residents are direct descendants of slaves who lived and toiled on the island in the 1800s, and remnants of that past, from the ruins of slave cabins made out of oyster shells to the Gullah language and food, are part of the life there.

The human history of this country is interwoven with its ecological history, and this connectedness is a large part of what the National Estuarine Research Reserve System works so hard to safeguard.

Their culture is not memorialized, but rather tasted, spoken, and enjoyed—along with the moss-draped oak trees, maritime forest, and barrier island beach that look much like they did when Hog Hammock’s first residents arrived.

Throughout the reserve system are numerous examples of Americans’ heritage being interwoven with the land: historic farm buildings at Wells Reserve, which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places; the ancestral lands of the Wampaloag people at Waquoit Bay in Massachusetts, whose ancestors greeted the pilgrims in 1620; and the Seldovia Village Tribe community living within the borders of Alaska’s Kachemak Bay Reserve.

Like the endangered species and estuarine habitats that are safe under the reserve system’s care, so is the cultural history of the people who, for centuries, have woven their stories into the landscape.

Did you know?

Estuaries and their surrounding wetlands are bodies of water usually found where rivers meet the sea. Estuaries are home to unique plant and animal communities that have adapted to brackish water—a mixture of fresh water draining from the land and salty seawater. Estuaries are among the most productive ecosystems in the world. Many animals rely on estuaries for food, places to breed, and migration stopovers.

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Last updated:
09/17/18

Author: NOAA

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