Guest Op-Ed: A Climate Resilient Boston Needs Belle Isle Marsh

By Ana Tavares Leary

Nestled between the cities of Boston, Revere, and Winthrop lies a natural barrier to climate change, the 359-acre Belle Isle Marsh. A salt marsh is a low-lying, coastal area that mostly comprises grasses that are frequently flooded by ocean tides.

This wetland protects coastal areas from flooding, destructive winds, higher tides, and increasingly intense storms. Plants in salt marshes help buffer the coast and reduce the impacts of storm surges, such as those generated during hurricanes. The Marsh delivers essential ecosystem services, which are important to help reduce climate change impacts caused by rising sea levels and severe weather events. Belle Isle Marsh provides critical habitats for wildlife—including the 271 species of birds which have been documented there—and recreation areas for local communities.


In 1988, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts designated Belle Isle Marsh as an ACEC, or an Area of Critical Environmental Concern. This area once contaminated by industry is now one of the most biologically significant habitats in Boston, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Thousands of birds migrate to this area, and many endangered and threatened species can be found in the reservation year round.

The largest remaining salt marsh in Boston Harbor, Belle Isle Marsh plays an important role in the prevention of flooding by delivering flood storage capacity. This capacity is lost when marshlands are filled or degraded via poor water quality from stormwater, which can also negatively impact public health, wellbeing, and safety to surrounding communities. Marshland filling accelerated in Boston during the expansion of Logan Airport in the 1960s.

Investing in a wetland is investing in public health. Salt marshes contribute to positive physical and mental wellbeing; they clean polluted air and purify water. Also, they provide accessible green spaces for recreation, physical activity, and connection to nature, all of which are crucial for improved mental health.

Coastal ecosystems (mangroves, salt marshes, seagrass meadows) are also known as blue carbon systems. Salt marshes and seagrass beds can sequester carbon (like forests do) during plant photosynthesis creating a carbon “sink” (capture). If destroyed, these habitats would emit a large amount of carbon into the atmosphere. Preserving these vital coastal systems is essential to reducing the effects of climate change and protecting vulnerable communities.

Given the enormous benefits of the Marsh to its neighboring cities, what is being done to conserve it?


Local nonprofit and environmental advocacy group, Friends of Belle Isle Marsh (FBIM), has spent 40 years protecting and preserving critical conservation habitats, specifically Belle Isle Marsh. This group of volunteers and conservationists organized in 1983 to protect the Marsh from industrial use, and it continues to work in close partnership with the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) and other regional conservation groups. FBIM’s mandate is to protect the Marsh and its surroundings, to educate the public about the importance of salt marshes and barrier beaches, and to offer educational programming in all areas of the reservation.

Recently, the organization has partnered with the Mystic River Watershed Association, the Nature Conservancy, and the DCR to conduct an environmental inventory of Belle Isle Marsh, with technical assistance from the Woods Hole Group, to better understand the health of salt marsh’s ecosystem and to measure how it has changed over time. This inventory helps inform how the Marsh will adapt over the next 50 years to climate change, sea level rise, and increasing storms.

What can you do to get involved to help protect Belle Isle Marsh?

First, come visit Belle Isle to go bird watching, enjoy a leisurely walk, watch the sunset, or climb the observation tower. Then, read more about the organization on our website ( and join in on upcoming events, including monthly birdwatching walks, summer kayaking expedition, art painting night, and tide pool explorations for children. Finally, become a member to advocate for local conservation efforts, and take greater action in your community. 


Understanding the critical importance of protecting our natural habitats is a first step to preserving and cherishing them. Wetlands provide myriad ecosystem services that benefit surrounding communities and help cities fight climate change.

Preserving Belle Isle Marsh—an essential coastal resource—contributes to a more climate resilient Boston, Winthrop, and Revere.

Ana Tavares Leary is the Conservation Program Manager for Friends of the Belle Isle Marsh.

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