October 2001 A Times Article Gets It Wrong

Note: When reporters write about shore protection projects for the first time, or the article seems biased, FIA sometrimes sends comments to public officials as well as to the reporter. The following is an example:

To: Interested Public Officials

The following comments expand on points made in the article, “A Creeping Sensation For Fire Island Owners” NY Times, Long Island Section, Sunday, October 14, 2001.

1.               “Holes along Fire Island” Holes were in the sand bar offshore, not in the island itself. “Holes in the bar” allow wave energy to be focused, unblunted, on particular sections of the shoreline. If there are no holes (i.e., discontinuities) in the bar, it serves to remove most of the energy from waves by causing them to break well offshore.

2.                “… an annual cycle” Wind direction, strength and duration is the key. Storm winds tend to be from the ENE and they cause acceleration in the alongshore current. A rapidly moving current carries sand along with it; a slow-moving one stirs up little sand and tends to drop that which is suspended. In the region, winds are predominantly from the WSW. These are gentler but of longer duration than storm winds from the east. The spring and summer westerlies slow or stop the east to west current and move the sand onshore. Sometimes hurricanes off the east coast will produce a big surf that comes straight onto Fire Island, pushing sand in front of it; this is different from the storm surge that precedes a direct hit by a hurricane. The most damaging storm is a northeaster that surrounds a stalled low pressure center. The counter clockwise winds cause huge waves from the east that move far up on the beach The result is a strong east to west current that can dislodge thousands of cubic yards of sand in a day or two.

3.               “… a popular theory” There is no dispute that improper construction of the groins at Westhampton Beach, and the impact of the Moriches Inlet jetties combined to block any sand from moving on to Fire Island from the east from 1975 to 1995. Not until 1996 did a detectable amount of sand start getting around Moriches Inlet. While some (not “many”) “coastal experts” may be “skeptical,” one reason for this is fear of the legal implications of an admission that the structure was improperly built by the government.

4.               Fire Island is “supposed to be preserved in a natural state” The proposed community projects are nowhere near a significant “undeveloped area” of the Seashore. Like any barrier island with stabilized inlets, Fire Island has long since ceased to be in any sense “natural.” For the Seashore Superintendent to deliberately interfere with the Corps of Engineers and New York DEC’s effort to make it function as if it were natural is not only harmful but far exceeds his scope of responsibility. He received a $2,500 award from the National Parks Conservation Association for preventing the Corps project from going forward, which shows how far the environment community will go to prevent the protection of the Fire Island dune houses.

5.               “ … added red tape” The article does not make clear that there are two kinds of “community projects” that the Superintendent refers to. “Beach scraping” is the practice of recontouring the summer buildup of sand by placing proportionally more sand in the form of a dune as opposed to a higher berm, or general beach elevation. Communities such as Kismet, Ocean Beach and Ocean Bay Park substantially strengthened their dunes in 2001 and were unaffected by the September storms. The NY DEC has issued a program permit that allows an interested community to perform annual beach scraping, using a licensed landscaping firm that operates within known guidelines and with monitoring provided. To say that each individual project should require review under the National Environmental Policy Act is ludicrous. Beach replenishment, the other type of community project, consists of importing sand, either from an offshore dredge or bringing it in by vehicle from a stockpile or upland source. Here the Superintendent argues that the vehicle access permit requires NEPA review, because the vehicles are larger than those that are issued permits all the time. Since permits are routinely issued for bulldozers, which have considerably more impact on a beach than vehicles equipped with oversize, low-pressure tires, designed for minimal impact on the environment, it is clear that the Superintendent is being obstructionist rather than cooperative with the communities.

6.               “… homes endanger the park.” Mr. Dillon cannot point to a single shred of scientific evidence that supports this assertion. While the Seashore may have filed a form letter objecting to reconstruction of damaged dune houses, permits were issued under a zoning code approved by the Secretary of the Interior. The homes are entirely legal and are part of what Congress intended to be a mixed-use National Park.

7.               “ … the park does not have funding” that would enable the Superintendent to condemn and acquire dune properties. The Superintendent continually alleges that the Park has insufficient funds for him to purchase the homes he would prefer not to have in the Park. The place for him to make this charge is within the Park Service, not to the press. He chooses the latter because his real support comes from environment groups that he hopes will pressure government to withhold beach nourishment, so that routine winter storms will destroy the houses.

8.               “… announced last April” In fact, the state of New York has avoided making any statement about the non-support of the Interim Project, except that an unnamed Department of  State official said the agency’s silence should be taken as disapproval. The reason the state has not made a statement is that it realizes that a policy of refusing to participate in routine dredge and fill operations to protect Fire Island in order that storms will knock down unwanted houses is difficult to justify as a rational public policy. Should major damage occur as a result of this policy, as seems likely, the state would like to be able to say, “We never said it was state policy not to protect the barrier island; it’s just that we never got around to it.”

9.               “… will consider non-structural approaches to managing the shoreline” “Non-structural” means elevating or relocating houses. All dune houses are already elevated. Relocation opportunities are virtually nil, because there is no comparable property to which they may be relocated. Where lots are deep enough to move a home back, the owner needs little prompting from the Seashore to do so. “Non-structural” should be recognized as a guise under which the Nature Conservancy, abandoning its hard won and well deserved reputation as honest broker in preserving sensitive lands at the behest of a willing seller, on Long Island appears to aggressively seek acquisition of properties they deem important, by whatever means possible.

10.             “offshore habitat destruction and temporary short-term disturbances to the intertidal zone” No offshore habitats have been “destroyed.” Intertidal and other areas recover quickly, essentially within 7 months according to the Corps’ Biological Monitoring Program mentioned in the article. Only the sand dollar population takes longer than 7 months to recover, but it, too, does so fully within a reasonably short period. A land preservation agency second guessing environmental scientists in the public press in order to effect a social policy agenda is just one aspect of an important public debate gone far off kilter.

11.            “beaches have to be able to move and islands have to be able to move” Apparently, geomorphology also is not beyond TNC’s expertise. The statement is simplistic and misleading. Barrier islands move landwards over millennial timeframes that are far beyond human planning horizons. At that, western Fire Island has not migrated in at least 500 years, according to experts. Beaches are relatively stable, but only in conditions of adequate sand supply. Absent sufficient sand, dunes will erode and then set up in a landward location unless the eroded sand is replaced.

12.            “… allow the buildup of natural dunes” There can be no “natural build up” until a normal flow of sand is restored. Pending that, replenishment by mechanical means is essential.

13.            “buy damaged properties … and prohibit rebuilding” This is the real objective of those opposed to beach nourishment: allow the unwanted houses to be damaged or destroyed, and then buy the land under them. As government policy, this is a travesty. It risks very major damage to private property and government infrastructure and vast amounts of flood damage should it result in an entirely preventable breach in the barrier island.

14.            “the alternative is dumping sand in perpetuity” Superintendent Dillon noted that Fire Island Pines bought $3 million worth of sand in 1997, is ready to do another replenishment. He does not explain why this expenditure of private funds should be a problem for the Park Service. The Pines project, though substantial for that community, is still small and isolated in the context of a 32-mile-long barrier island that needs protection. Nourishment project life is in part a function of the project length. Also, properly built projects employ the concept of “advance fill”. Roughly twice the amount of sand needed for a recreational beach is placed in a way that allows wave action to distribute part of it to the underwater beach and establish an equilibrium profile.

15.            “Piled sand does not stand up to time as much as a natural dune.” Natural and manmade dunes are both made of sand. The only difference between them, sometimes, is how much vegetation there is on one or the other. It is a requirement of all beach projects, including scraping projects, that artificial dunes be planted with vegetation. Most individual communities provide fertilizer and keep the dunes watered to insure the growth of the vegetation.

Fire Island Association
October 2001