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Thursday, May 30, 2024

Irresponsible Motorists Tear Up Dunes, Bird Nests for Fun

No justification

By Frank Carini / ecoRI News columnist

Driving on the beach, or in areas where dunes should be, is illegal in Rhode Island. This photo was taken May 8. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

Doughnuts, retied yellow rope, and sawed-off signposts mark where dunes and piping plover nests should rest, in peace. But thoughtless motorists, empowered by commercials that glamorize Jeeps pulverizing non-pavement space, treat the Quonochontaug Sand Trail, and the dunes and beach that run parallel with it, as their private racetrack.

The Sand Trail, 15 feet wide at best in some spots, runs along much of Quonochontaug Beach, one of the few remaining undeveloped barrier beaches in Rhode Island. This fragile stretch of sand runs nearly 2 miles between Spray Rock Road to the Breachway in Charlestown. 

It encompasses some 150 acres, which are largely privately owned — the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management owns some of the land at the tip that touches the Charlestown Breachway. It separates Quonochontaug Pond from the Atlantic Ocean, and is one of the Ocean State’s most beautiful coastal spots.

For those such as Westerly resident Michael Sands, “Quonnie Beach,” as the locals call it, is a tranquil coastal oasis whose ecological and social value easily exceeds its size.

This barrier beach is “a unique and special place for us all to enjoy,” according to the Nope’s Island Conservation Association (NICA). Sands is the nonprofit’s president. About 40% of the Quonochontaug coastal area is owned and protected by NICA. (Nope’s Island is a small island in Quonochontaug Pond that is home to a stand of trees.)

The nonprofit’s mission is to preserve Quonochontaug Beach as a “sustainable ecological environment capable of supporting plant and animal life and encouraging passive enjoyment of the beach by residents and visitors.”

This thankless job, including retying cut rope, being done by volunteers with a budget dependent upon donations and grants, is made more difficult by jackassery.

State law prohibits vehicles on dunes and within 75 feet of the dune crest, except on trails marked expressly for vehicular use. Alteration of the foredune zone adjacent to Type 1 (conservation) and Type 2 (low-intensity use) shoreline areas — Quonochontaug Beach is the former — is prohibited, except where the primary purpose is non-structural protection, restoration, nourishment, or improvement of the feature as a natural habitat.

Tire tracks and doughnuts don’t provide any of those services. In fact, they make that work both necessary and impossible.

“We can’t plant seagrass if people keep driving on the dunes,” Sands said. “It can’t happen when people are trampling it, and whipping doughnuts, and doing whatever they feel like down here.”

“Whatever they feel like” includes using the dunes as a toilet.

Vehicles are allowed to cruise the Sand Trail year-round, but driving on the beach is forbidden and parking is prohibited on the beach face and along the trail. Doughnuts, not the Allie’s kind, are most definitely illegal.

The Sand Trail parallels the shoreline from Spray Rock Road, formerly Spring Avenue, and crosses into Charlestown, ending on the western side of the Breachway. It provides the only land access to the peninsula, and crosses properties owned by the Weekapaug Fire District, the Weekapaug Foundation, the Haversham Beach Trust, the Shelter Harbor Fire District, the Rhode Island Mobile Sportsmen, the Anderson family, and the Nope’s Island Conservation Association.

Sands was named NICA’s president last August, and he’s been on the board for three years. He and the board of directors are committed to taking a more active role in Quonochontaug Beach’s conservation.

“This was an old conservation organization that was really pretty passive, and given the amount of use since COVID, we had to take a very active role,” he said. “We’ve worked really hard to pull that together.”

In March, Sands gave a PowerPoint presentation to local and state officials, including Westerly and Charlestown police, citing NICA’s concerns about allowing public vehicles on the Sand Trail. He noted this parade of traffic causes further erosion and accelerates the fragile beach’s destruction. He said motorists who don’t follow the rules and steal no-parking signs cause the most damage.

“We’re not believers that driving on the beach makes a lot of sense,” Sands told me during a recent tour he gave me of the South County barrier beach. “Public access doesn’t mean vehicle access. It just means it’s going to go away faster. We should be enjoying it responsibly.”

While he and NICA appreciate and support the public’s right to the shoreline as guaranteed in the state Constitution, Sands likes to note that the same paragraph also talks about protecting and conserving Rhode Island’s natural resources.

He wants the public to enjoy “our property.” In fact, NICA is implementing many of the conservation practices used at Napatree Point, which can get jammed in the summer. Vehicles, though, aren’t allowed on the Watch Hill peninsula. NICA’s new practices include creating a board of science advisors, planting native species, removing invasives, and more signage that points to beach access.

NICA believes traffic should be limited to the area’s land owners, for getting to their properties and for restoration work.

Sands noted the Sand Trail is used by businesses to drop off kayakers and other beachgoers. All of this traffic, both legal and illegal, is speeding up the barrier beach’s inevitable disappearance.

“This is a great recreation area, and everybody has the ability to come and enjoy this pristine piece of property,” Sands said. “If you’re bombing down here in Jeeps and ripping into dunes, it’s like finding logging in the middle of a national park. That’s why we’re trying to raise awareness so that people understand, yes, there’s this beautiful resource, use it, but don’t drive on it.”

He said there are sections of the barrier beach, especially the jetty at the Charlestown end, that are in danger of disappearing, now.

“The water breaches the jetty and comes in on the backside, and there’s about two feet between the front and the back,” Sands said. “The next hurricane, it’s going to flow right through. You know, the next high storm, it’s going to take it right out.”

His March 13 presentation included a chart showing the state (DEM and CRMC) and municipal (Westerly and Charlestown) regulations pertaining to motor vehicle restrictions along this section of Rhode Island’s coast. Vehicle access is strictly limited, at least on paper, but enforcement is essentially nonexistent.

Sands acknowledged DEM and CRMC don’t have the resources necessary to effectively enforce 420 miles of shoreline, which is why he hopes the two municipalities will have the ability to step up their enforce of Quonnie’s rules this summer.

Sands noted the area is subject to the Coastal Resources Management Council’s Salt Pond Region Special Area Management Plan (SAMP) regulations, which apply additional restrictions to ensure increased protection for the natural resources and coastal features of the state’s salt pond region.

One of the goals of the SAMP is to “restore barrier beaches, salt marshes, and fish and wildlife habitats damaged by past construction or present use.” It notes that dunes on barrier beaches haven’t even recovered from pre-1984 storms, and that “trampling by people and vehicles remains a major problem.”

The CRMC regulations also note that “south shore beaches are sand-starved and have an exceptionally narrow and low profile, which leaves them susceptible to erosion and overwash.”

Most of state’s southern beaches are eroding. Shoreline change maps show that the shoreline in many places, including Quonnie Beach, receded more than 200 feet between 1939 and 2014, according to CRMC.

“Coastal barriers are constantly shifting landforms that shield the salt ponds, wetlands and the low lying mainland from the ravages of coastal storms by absorbing and dissipating the energy of storm driven waves,” according to the CRMC document titled Beaches and Sand Trails of Southern Rhode Island.

Sand’s presentation included photos showing recent damage and recent motor vehicle violations. A 2023 NICA-made video documents a host of illegal driving and dune parking destruction. Most of the vehicles are Jeeps, with some pickups.

NICA has also documented, with photos here and here, of the rope used to identify piping plover nesting areas cut and tire tracks marring the protected areas.

Fourteen years after the “Great New England Hurricane” ripped through an unsuspecting populace and its hardened shoreline, a group of Quonochontaug Pond residents bought much of a barrier beach to protect it from future development.

The hurricane of 1938 pummeled a 7-mile stretch of South County barrier beach, including Quonochontaug. Ninety-nine percent of the shoreline properties, some 700 buildings, were demolished.

NICA formed in the wake of that 1952 land purchase, by Nope’s Island Association Inc.

As a barrier beach, Quonnie protects local salt marshes, Quonochontaug Pond, and the coastal communities that lie behind it from the surge of Block Island Sound and rising sea levels. But erosion — by both Mother Nature and irresponsible humans — is weakening the beach’s defenses and putting its own future at risk.

This stretch of barrier beach also provides habitat for many species of plants and animals, some of which are endangered or threatened, such as the piping plover, American oystercatcher, and least tern.

A study conducted last year by the Rhode Island Natural History Survey found the following plants and animals on the beach: 79 plant species, including five rare species and, unfortunately, 10 invasive species; 61 bird species, including one federally threatened, one state endangered, and seven of state concern; 10 species of mammals; and several species of invertebrates, including dragonflies, moths, tiger beetles, and horseshoe crabs.

Dune plants are vital to the health and stability of beaches, especially barrier beaches. They gather sand, shelter wildlife, protect wetlands, and limit coastal flooding.

Besides vehicle traffic, illegally parked cars, and all-terrain vehicles, this stretch of South County coast is also being trampled by careless feet.

Sands said that while great care is taken with signs and fencing to make sure visitors don’t walk upon the dunes and trample beach grasses and vegetated areas, it is a significant and growing problem.

The cutting of the yellow rope, though, is done by selfish motorists who know they shouldn’t be using this space to park or do doughnuts but feel entitled because they own a Jeep and bought a $75 permit.

Frank Carini can be reached at His opinions don’t reflect those of ecoRI News.