Plugs of dune grass have been planted to help build the protective dunes on the beach in Sea Bright, N.J. But beachgoers who take shortcuts rather than using designated access points to the beach are damaging the dunes. / Mike DeSocio, Asbury Park (N.J.) Press
SEA BRIGHT, N.J. - Some tip toe through the dune grass while taking a short cut to the beach, hoping light feet won't cause damage.
Other beachgoers have been more blatant: They cut the fencing meant to protect fledgling plants so they can make a bee line to the waves.
Either way, it's killing the dune grass, which volunteers in Sea Bright along the Jersey shore spent countless hours planting in hopes of protecting the beachside town from another bludgeoning like it took from Superstorm Sandy.
"It protects our homes. It protects our businesses. But it can't protect us if we don't have it everywhere," said Heather Bedenko, a member of Sea Bright's borough-appointed, all-volunteer dune committee.
The importance of dunes was a hard lesson learned during Sandy. Millions in state and federal dollars will be spent to build dunes in an effort to protect New Jersey's coast from future storms.
But there's no statewide law to protect the dune grass from plodding feet hoping to dip their toes in the water at our shoreline. Those laws are up to the municipalities, and they vary town-to-town, if they exist at all.
New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection doesn't specifically limit beach access just to crossovers, but the agency "highly encourages" towns to include vegetation and fencing to stabilize and limit access to the dunes, said Larry Hajna, an agency spokesman.
But it's proving to be hit or miss if beachgoers are actually following them.
The dune grass acts almost as a net to grab wind-blown sand and bind it together into a dune.
The plants form deep root systems that connect to the neighboring plants, forming a web that anchor dunes, said Louise Wooten, a biology professor at Georgian Court University in Lakewood who helped Sea Bright as it began its effort to naturally grow its dunes.
Its leaves catch the passing sand and hold it in place and cause the dunes to grow. And the entire plant continues to grow, which continues the process and makes it a stronger anchor for the dunes than sand fencing, Wooten said.
The dune grass puts its energy into growing, but not its immune system. A tiny crack caused when someone steps on it, what Wooten called the equivalent to a graze on a human knee, can prove fatal for dune grass.
And because the grass is intertwined, "you don't just kill the one you stepped on, you kill all of its friends and neighbors," she said.
That's what's happening in Sea Bright, where the volunteers are working to preserve their fledgling dune grass.
The dune committee developed a network of access points for the public to reach the beach, each of which is marked with signs and orange flags, Bedenko said.
"The problem we are having is people think they are too far out and have made their own crossovers," she said.
The committee has tried to work with them to make the access points convenient.
In other places, the access points are well placed, but beachgoers are adamant about taking the shortest route possible. The committee has repaired fencing that was cut, only to return and find it cut again, Bedenko said.
The committee is trying to educate the public with fliers handed out at local businesses, a public services announcement that plays before movies on local beaches and a website, www.gotdunegrass.com.
Sea Bright does have a local ordinance that prohibits walking in the dunes, with a potential fine of up to $2,000. But police have to see the offender walk in the dunes to enforce it, Bedenko said.
Other states have statewide laws that prohibit walking in the dunes.
In Delaware, state laws control where crossings are constructed on beaches, with beach replenishment project done in conjunction with the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said Tony Pratt, Delaware's administrator of shoreline and waterway management.
The public is only allowed to cross at designated crossings. Failing to do so is can bring with it arrest and fine of between $50 to $10,000.
Delaware's staff also works to teach the public about the protection dunes provide, using the devastation that hit the state's beaches during a 1962 nor'easter of 1962.
"People understand how a 2-foot gap in the dunes can become 50 feet in a matter of a few waves," Pratt said.
The combined penalty and education have created an environment where its become socially unacceptable for people to walk through the dunes. Pratt said its common to see Delaware beachgoers tell others to get off the dunes.
"When a community grasps the importance itself, and the people who are most exposed to the storm, if those people understand the value of the dune and they can impose that value, that's the most important thing," he said.
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