The idea of creating a nonprofit privately held land conservation group in Chatham was conceived by Robert McNeece, then Selectman in Chatham who enlisted the aid of John Manson and retired General Lucius Clay to find a way to answer the concerns of citizens who wanted to conserve land but were hesitant about donating land to a political entity. The Chatham Conservation Foundation, Inc. received its Charter from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1962, making it the first private land trust on Cape Cod. The purpose of the Foundation was to acquire open space to be held in its natural state. At the beginning there were seventeen life members and initial pledges of ten acres of land. The first gift was Fox Hill Island (Parcel #1), donated by Dorothy W. Smith. With membership currently around 700, the Foundation now protects some 224 parcels totaling more than 800 acres.

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In 1967, the Foundation began conserving land using a new device, the conservation easement or conservation restriction. This allows a landowner to retain title to the land but gives control over its use to a private land steward such as the Foundation.

The Foundation now holds deeded conservation restrictions on 45 parcels of beach and wetlands totaling 211 acres. Some of the largest parcels are along the Oyster River, Sears Point and beachfronts along Shore Road. 

In August 1976, the Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank gifted the Josiah Mayo House to the Foundation after purchasing the property for a new bank branch office. The antique house was moved onto a new foundation on the east side of the property at 540 Main St. The house and its collection of antique furnishings are maintained by the Foundation and are open to the public each summer and during special weekends throughout the year.

In 2000, after being an associate member for years, the Foundation became full members of the Cape Cod Compact of Conservation Trusts.

The Compact advises its members on non-profit administration, tax and legal questions, and also conducts research. It also promotes land projects that foster a regional approach to open space protection. It is supported by dues from member land trusts, donations, and grants from private foundations.

The Foundation receives some parcels that are intended to be enjoyed by the public. To that end, the Foundation has acquired and maintains three walking trails: Honeysuckle Lane, Frost Fish Creek and Barclays Pond.

Another area where the public is welcome is Strong Island in Pleasant Bay, with its sheltered beach on the north and walking trails on the upland. Three acres are privately reserved where the public is not allowed.

As land values have soared, the Foundation has found that it can, in some cases, best serve the need for preservation of open space by partnering with another group. Since the creation of the Chatham Land Bank in Chatham in 1998, the Foundation has worked closely with that organization to locate properties, discuss options with potential donors or sellers and cooperate on purchases.

In 2003 the Foundation made a significant donation to the Harwich Conservation Trust to purchase more than 43 acres along Muddy Creek, which forms the border between Harwich and Chatham. This parcel compliments CCF’s holdings on the Chatham side of Muddy Creek.

Once acquired, continuing land stewardship on the part of the Foundation is essential. The Foundation has cataloged each parcel and inspects them frequently to ensure they remain in their natural state, free from unauthorized view cutting, illegal dumping and encroachments.