Globe editorial

Use these islands

SCIENTISTS ARE now studying the effects of ferry boat wakes on the topographic features of the Boston Harbor Islands. The goal of the National Park Service next summer should be to keep those researchers busy -- by making it easier for more visitors to experience the superb recreational opportunities in the 34-island national recreation area.

The popularity of Spectacle Island proves the pent-up demand for public access to this great resource. For years, it appeared that the 120-acre island would be little more than fill for the Central Artery project. Bickering among state agencies over maintenance responsibilities delayed the opening for almost four years. The septic system was balky, and promotion was limited. But people started arriving in June, along with their beach toys, kites, swimsuits, and hiking shoes. On one Saturday in July, nearly 1,000 visitors were splashing in the sea, relaxing on the veranda, and traversing Spectacle's trails, according to the Park Service.

The greatest barrier to the Harbor Islands park is the range, frequency, and cost of ferry service. State and federal agencies don't seem to appreciate that the waterways linking the Harbor Islands play the same vital role as the road systems through state and national parks.

Governance structure may be contributing to the problem. In 1996, Congress designated the Harbor Islands as a national recreation area to be run by a public-private partnership. But under the arrangement, small communities like Winthrop or Hingham , which own an island or two, and nonprofit groups are expected to raise funds for operating expenses on a par with the Park Service and the state Department of Conservation and Recreation. Ferry service is the first to suffer. This summer, for example, the private contractor that provides inter-island service from the central transit point at Georges Island was forced to cut service by half to avoid deep deficits.

The federal government provides generously to build floating docks and ramps on the island. Now it needs to step up with reasonable transportation subsidies. And so does the state, which owns about half of the Harbor Islands. Per capita spending on parks in Massachusetts falls well below the national average. That sad fact threatens the Harbor Islands as much as it does state forests in the outer suburbs.

Superintendent Bruce Jacobson of the National Park Service says one of the major goals of the Island Alliance, the public-private partnership that raises funds and awareness for the islands, is to encourage more visitors from Greater Boston's low-income and minority communities. But the roundtrip weekend fares of $12 for adults and $7 for children to Georges and Spectacle islands are well above what they should be to accommodate families on a tight budget.

Finding the right balance between the islands' role as a source of recreation and a preserve for scenery, wildlife, and historic sites is also critical. The fact that there is legislative support for a cockeyed scheme to put an import and storage facility for liquefied natural gas on Outer Brewster Island, a critical nesting site for shore birds, shows the vulnerability of the recreation area. It will be challenging, however, to build stewardship for an island that few people have visited. Preservation may be the first principle of the National Park Service. But encouraging a modest number of visitors to the more environmentally sensitive islands like Outer Brewster could prove the best preservation strategy of all.

Stretching across 50 square miles, the recreation area is big enough to accommodate all tastes. ``There's room to host a blues concert on one island and not disturb a nesting ibis on another," says Bruce Berman, the harbor watcher for the nonprofit Save the Harbor/Save the Bay.

Upping the fun quotient on the larger and more accessible islands needs to happen quickly. A waterslide and bathhouse would be terrific improvements to Spectacle Island. Empty cottages on Peddocks Island, just a stone's throw from Hull, would be ideal for family getaways. And Georges Island, with its roughly 80,000 visitors a year, would benefit greatly from expanded restrooms.

Erratic efforts to publicize the park system are undermining its success. On Friday, for example, the USS Constitution conducted a rare training run into the mouth of the harbor. The view from Spectacle Island was spectacular. But little was made of the opportunity. Hidden treasures and national parks don't mix. The islands will flourish only with greater awareness of their charms and better access to their shores.

Last of seven editorials about the Boston Harbor Islands published this summer. To read the series, go to boston.com/opinion.

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