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‘Strings and Sticks’ Help Make Space on NJ Beaches for Rare Plants and Birds

Without impeding public access, a modest program at the Jersey Shore has allowed plants to grow and birds to breed undisturbed

Piping plover
The endangered piping plover is being helped by new protections at New Jersey beaches.

A new program to cordon off sections of New Jersey beaches is making it easier for rare plants and birds to survive while allowing beach lovers plenty of access for swimming or sunbathing.

Raritan Valley Community College worked with the Pinelands Preservation Alliance last year to create areas on four state-owned beaches that drivers and other beach users are discouraged from entering so that plants can grow and birds can breed undisturbed.

Volunteers marked the areas — on the upper sections of the beaches — with fences consisting of nothing more than “string and sticks” but they report that most beach users respect the areas, and that nature is already showing signs of coming back. The sections typically take up about a quarter of the width of a beach that is wide enough to also allow traditional uses.

Jay Kelly, an associate professor of environmental science and biology at Raritan Valley Community College, said the low-cost program is working because it has also allowed sunbathers, swimmers, and fisherman to use the beaches in the normal way.

“The good news is that there is a lot of room for compromise because plants grow at the top of the beach while people want to be close to the water,” Kelly told the biennial Science and Environmental Summit of the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary, an environmental nonprofit, at Cape May on Monday.

“People who are driving on the beaches typically don’t intend to do the kind of damage that they are doing,” Kelly said in an interview. “Many of them are actually ardent nature lovers and conservationists.”

The challenge is that many beaches are used by drivers year-round, and that prevents plants getting established even though they don’t germinate until June, Kelly said.

“People will drive all the way up to the dunes or anyway they can unless they are instructed to do otherwise,” he said. “Just putting out those markers indicating that they should follow that on their way out on to the beach means that there’s plenty of room for them to drive and they have no problem.”

Other challenges include vehicles used for beach raking and garbage collection, he said.

Allowing vegetation to re-establish on upper sections of beach is the first step to building the dunes that will be an important defense against the bigger storms that are expected to come with sea-level rise, Kelly said, in a presentation titled “Protecting Jersey Shore Residential and Ecological Communities by Changing the Culture of Beach Management.”

The two-year program, funded by New Jersey Sea Grant, worked on 13 miles of beach last year, and aims to expand to municipal beaches in 2017.

Ryan Rebozo, director of conservation science at the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, said Belmar has welcomed the program for the coming season, and he hopes that at least 10 more municipalities will join in. But he conceded that some towns may be reluctant to participate because they fear losing areas of beach that could be used by economically important summer visitors. “It’s tough for them because they don’t want to give up their beaches,” he said in an interview.

At Island Beach State Park, the endangered piping plover bred successfully at that site for the first time in 20 years, while the seabeach knotweed, a globally endangered plant, is expanding the area where it grows, both early signs that the program is working, Rebozo said.

Jon Hurdle is a writer based in Philadelphia. He often covers environmental issues.

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