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Cape Cod National Seashore Reports on Status of Dune Shack Ethnographic Study

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Date: October 31, 2006
Contact: George E. Price, Jr., Superintendent, (508) 349-3785 x203

George Price, Superintendent of the Cape Cod National Seashore, has distributed an update to the occupants of the Dune Shacks of the Peaked Hill Bars Historic District about the status of the ethnographic study and the subsequent evaluation of whether the area will be considered a Traditional Cultural Property (TCP) under the guidelines of the National Register. At the request of the Provincetown Board of Selectmen, the park, along with its Advisory Commission, suspended efforts in 2003 to develop a long-term management plan for the historic district in order to undertake the ethnographic study.

Dr. Robert J. Wolfe conducted a thorough study in 2004-2005, resulting in his report, “Dwelling in the Dunes: Traditional Use of the Dune Shacks of the Peaked Hill Bars Historic District, Cape Cod.”  Dr. Wolfe and Dr. T.J. Ferguson were then engaged by the National Park Service (NPS) to prepare an evaluation of the cultural significance of the district using National Register TCP eligibility criteria.  Under TCP guidelines, the traditional cultural significance of a historic property is derived from the role the property plays in a community’s historically rooted beliefs, customs, and practices.  The researchers based their evaluation on the study’s findings, as well as information sent to the NPS during a public comment period in spring, 2006.  They concluded that the historic district meets the criteria for a TCP.

However, NPS ethnographers, historians, and cultural compliance specialists who then reviewed this evaluation against the same National Register criteria, did not come to the same conclusion.  They believe that the multiplicity of groups and subgroups identified by the consultants do not meet the meaning of a traditional cultural community or group as described in the National Register Guidelines for Evaluating and Documenting Traditional Cultural Properties.

Price feels it is important to state that he has the highest respect and admiration for the credentials, background and professionalism of all the specialists involved in the evaluation.  Drs. Wolfe and Ferguson are respected for their body of work.  Likewise, the NPS professionals have decades of experience as accomplished professional historians and ethnographers who have worked on very complex projects.  Price sees this situation as an instance of  professionals agreeing to disagree.

The NPS is required to consult with the Massachusetts Historical Commission’s State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) and the National Register on questions regarding National Register eligibility.  The NPS consulted with the Massachusetts SHPO in September. The SHPO informed the park that she agrees with the consultants’ findings.  The NPS is now preparing to provide all the material, including the conclusion by the SHPO, to the National Register for a final determination of eligibility.

Because of the emotion, intensity and history of contentiousness regarding the dune shacks, Price understands how many may perceive this process as unfair, with different sides using different information or criteria to reach differing conclusions.  However, Price describes it as similar to a case before the Supreme Court, in which the justices all have similar professional backgrounds, years of experience, and receive the same background information on a particular case.  They each evaluate the merits of the case against the specific law and appropriate case law.  The outcome may be unanimous, or there may be strong dissenting opinions.

This conflicting assessment of the same material only underscores the complex and difficult questions facing the historic district.  Price recognizes that long-term dune shack occupants and regular users are extremely interested in the future of the district as it relates to preservation, access and use. 

The next step will be to request a determination from the Keeper of the National Register.  Regardless of the eligibility finding, all of the information will be digested through a process involving the Dune Shack Subcommittee of the Cape Cod National Seashore Advisory Commission.  The beliefs, customs and practices of the dune shack residents, as described in the Dr. Wolfe’s report, will be given full consideration, and the dune dwellers will be consulted to take their views into account no matter what the outcome of the TCP designation.  All of this information will inform the development of a long-term dune shack management plan. 

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Did You Know?

Cape Cod

In the mid-19th century, Henry David Thoreau walked the Atlantic coastline of Cape Cod, recording his adventures in his narrative "Cape Cod". To literally follow in Thoreau’s footsteps today would require scuba gear. Cape Cod’s Outer Beach sees an average erosion rate of close to 4 feet per year.