Science Interviews: Jack Wiggin

Jack Wiggin

Jack Wiggin
Executive Director
Urban Harbors Institute

Interviewed by Tara Weaver 11/20/2008


How would you describe your personal connection to the islands?

I’ve been looking out at them from my office at UMass-Boston for almost 20 years now. My personal connection with the islands really is a professional connection to begin with, but since getting involved with some of the management back in the early 1990s, I’ve been out there a dozen times or more and really love them.

When was the Urban Harbors Institute established and what is its mission?

The Urban Harbors Institute was established in 1989. Its mission is to conduct applied research and provide technical assistance to those managing resources and uses in coastal and marine areas.

Our expertise is in policy, planning and management informed by science. We work mostly with government agencies—federal, state and local—helping them make better management decisions based on science. Our role is to transfer expertise at the University to the outside world. We do this through research that advances the knowledge base, technical assistance, and public educational programming.

How was the Urban Harbors Institute involved with the Boston Harbor Islands before they were established as a National Park area?

We were involved for a number of years in various capacities with Boston Harbor Islands State Park and then when the federal legislation was being drafted to make the islands a national park area. Our involvement stemmed from the work we and others at the University had contributed to addressing the water quality problems of the harbor in the 1980s. It was observed at that time that, while there was a wealth of scientific expertise available, there was no academic institution focusing on the public policy questions related to the coastal environment, particularly those areas affected by urbanization. Our Institute was created in response to that perceived need. As the harbor’s water quality improved over the years, we turned to other related issues, such as the renewed interest in improving the Boston Harbor Islands as a public park!

This year’s Science Symposium was hosted by UMass Boston; can you explain how the Urban Harbors Institute and University of Massachusetts-Boston are connected to the science initiatives happening at Boston Harbor Islands?

At the Urban Harbors Institute, we’ve been working with current and former park superintendents, Bruce Jacobson and George Price, from the beginning. They know that we are interested in supporting the islands in whatever way we can. Bruce asked us for help in coordinating the first symposium at the Museum of Science, because we had done many conference-type events. But we wouldn’t do this for just anybody—we have a longstanding relationship with Boston Harbor Islands.

This year’s symposium was held here on the UMass Boston campus and we were thrilled to host it. The University and the Urban Harbors Institute are close to the islands in many ways—it is a natural connection. Though our University scientists aren’t currently conducting natural science research supported by the park, many individual faculty members have done research on the islands others visit the islands on field trips with classes.

Coastal and Harbor Management in Boston Harbor Islands

What specific Boston Harbor Islands coastal management policies and plans have the Urban Harbors Institute helped develop or implement?

I chaired the Advisory Council when the park general management plan was being developed, so had a good opportunity to help shape that plan. At that time, the Advisory Council had two priority objectives for the park. The first was public access; the park had to be affordable and easily accessible to the people who lived in the urban area of Boston. The second was financing: how will park operations and needed improvements be supported? The Institute led a predevelopment study of renewables in the Boston Harbor Islands National Park Area, and contributed as an advisor on a scenic valuation study.

What is the “predevelopment of renewables in Boston Harbor Islands national park area”?

The Subcommittee on Renewable Energy and Sustainable Design, a subcommittee of the Partnership’s Planning Committee, was formed to answer the need for a focus on sustainable design and renewable energy.This committee asked the question, “How can we advance the park’s policies on sustainable design and renewable energy on the islands?” “Is it through solar power, wind turbines, etc? ... ” We decided to look at the possibility of developing renewable energy that would provide power on the islands, serve an educational purpose for visitors, demonstrate the park’s commitment to sustainability, and potentially bring in revenue for the park through the sale of energy. We wrote a proposal to the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative and they awarded a grant to the Boston Harbor Island Alliance and the Urban Harbors Institute to perform a renewable energy feasibility study.

That study recommended a number of sites on the islands for solar and wind power. Our study led to the owners of the islands seriously considering the implementation of renewable energy systems on their islands. It also influenced the Advisory Council’s ideas about the future possibilities of renewables and sustainable design.

In comparison to other national and international areas where you have worked, what are some of Boston Harbor Islands unique marine, watershed, and coastal issues?

The islands are unusual in the number of uses they have been put to in the past, and in how the legacy of those uses can sometimes be a management issue today. Environmentally speaking, remnant materials from past uses are a problem. For example, the asbestos on Gallops Island obviously presented a public safety problem and necessitated a management response. An interesting characteristic is the park’s pattern of ownership; it is unusual to have property in a park owned by several different governmental and nongovernmental entities. This is the reason the park has such a unique management structure. Erosion is an issue for the islands, but it is important to recognize this is a natural coastal process.

But doesn’t boat traffic contribute to the problem of erosion?

Yes, but the Boston Harbor Islands are located within an urban environment and ships, ferries, and recreational boats come with the territory. Adaptive management is needed to deal with issues like this. There might be ways, for example, to operate the ferries that minimizes the effect of their wakes.

The islands experience a lot of the impacts because of their location in an urban area. Unlike many parks that are established to preserve a time in history or a natural setting, part of the significance of the Boston Harbor Islands has always been their location in and relationship to the activities that surround them. The idea of building a wind turbine in many parks would not be viewed favorably, but being part of the urban environment is integral to the Boston Harbor Islands experience.

Are there environmental protection efforts that the Boston Harbor Islands Partnership should initiate or any ongoing efforts that should be given more attention? In what ways has the Partnership already demonstrated success in this area?

I think the Boston Harbor Islands Partnership and the National Park Service have focused very keenly on environmental issues. Their attention to and investment in natural science research on the islands clearly demonstrates that they intend to manage these islands based on an understanding of the ecosystem. A significant amount of environment remediation has been undertaken to restore areas impacted by former uses, including wetlands. They’ve done a good job with limited resources.

The UMass Community

How is Boston Harbor Islands national park area a resource for UMASS students?

It is a great resource! We have vessels to bring students out to the islands and onto the harbor. A lot of classes go out to the islands to supplement course content in history, archaeology, natural sciences, and resource management. Others have gone out on beach clean ups, as part of the annual COASTSWEEP campaign that we help organize. During the warmer months the University’s Division of Marine Operations provides boat trips for the community around the harbor islands during the lunch hour. Of course more could be done to utilize the islands, but with the time constraints of the class hour and the busy schedules of our students, it can be difficult to get out there and back.

Did UMass students attend this year’s symposium? What did the symposium have to offer them, and how do you see them becoming more involved in future Boston Harbor Islands Science Symposia?

A Coastal Zone Management class in its entirety attended the symposium, as well as other students from our Environmental, Earth and Ocean Sciences department and related departments. I was very impressed with the number of UMass students in attendance. I think the symposium was an eye-opener especially for our undergraduates, seeing the significance and quality of research in which graduate students are involved. It was great to have the symposium in the Campus Center so that our students could attend as much of the event as their schedules allowed between and during their classes. Bruce did a great job at making it accessible and making it user-friendly to students and other budding scientists.


How do you see the Urban Harbors Institute’s involvement in Boston Harbor Islands park management expanding and or evolving?

We’ve been associated with the islands for so long now that of course we will continue to do whatever we can to be useful. I also think there are many others at the university who would—if given the appropriate opportunity—be willing to contribute time and expertise to the islands. We’ve been fortunate to have had several of our students serve as summer rangers for the Park recently, and encouraging young people’s interests in resource management is the best way I can think of for us to contribute to the future of the Boston Harbor Islands.

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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