By Steve Greer
First published in the Summer 2003 edition of New Jersey Outdoors
“My classroom is 10 miles long.”
With arms outstretched like a fisherman describing the one that got away, Diane Bennett-Chase, a full time naturalist with Island Beach State Park, defines her working environment. Created by eons of geological forces, and molded by ocean currents and winds, IBSP is one of the last surviving examples of an undeveloped barrier island along the Atlantic coast. Over 3000 acres of sand dunes, salt-sculpted trees and green salt marshes make it an ideal outdoor classroom to study an intact coastal ecosystem.
It is here, on a cool blustery morning that Diane prepares for one of the most important environmental interpretations the park offers. Loading provisions into her truck, she explains that a local group of students will be arriving to learn the role of the American Beach Grass plant and its tremendous responsibility to the island.
As a retired elementary school teacher with a love for science, Diane began volunteering at IBSP to write interpretive programs. Before long, she was hired to guide the summer kayak tours. Being involved with the educational programs over the years, gave way to the likely transition of becoming the park’s full-time naturalist.
With the truck filled with equipment and supplies, we head for the beach. The fast moving clouds and ominous sound of the waves gives us a not so subtle indication that the Atlantic is anxious today. Driving through a beach access path, we see it. With winds coming directly off the ocean at 20 mph, the surf coils and jumps high onto the wet beach, precariously close to the primary dunes. It is both magnificent and a bit scary. In a landscape where sand and wind are the principal actors, we stand for a moment transfixed by the power and beauty of the rolling waves.
The balancing act between the sand dunes and ocean can be a fine line at best. In a perfect world, sand from the dunes is blown out to sea during winter storms, creating steep shallow beaches and ocean sand bars. From Spring to Autumn, the ocean waves and tides return the sand back to shore establishing long and gradual sloping beaches once again. The reality of this cycle is that sand can relocate to another beach, move far out to sea, or be deposited into the bay. The loss of this sand causes permanent changes in beach size and composition. Convincing the blowing sand to stay on the island is a full time job for Diane and her dedicated staff of volunteers. Armed with hundreds of small orange flags, she looks for any chinks in the armor of the primary dunes – the first line of defense for the barrier island.
As we walk along the edge of the dunes, we come across a section that has a gaping 20-foot wide hole carved completely through it. Literally tons of sand have been blown away, allowing us to see into the secondary dunes and thicket community. Created by the storm winds and ocean waves, this lack of sand along the primary dune is known as a depression. “See the angle and sharpness of this depression?” Diane points towards the upper section of remaining dune that is a sheer vertical cliff. Its face is heavily scoured with sharp, jagged lines. ” This is known as a scarp and it has been carved and shaped by blowing storm winds. And now that this dune has been compromised, this area of Barrier Island is especially vulnerable to erosion from future storms – like leaving the front door of your house open during a driving rainstorm.” It becomes evident to me that the wind and ocean make no distinction between their treatment of sand castles built by summer beach-goers, and the 20-foot high sand dunes standing tall next to them.
We walk through the depression and back into the secondary dunes to see the effects of a washover – a condition where the ocean has actually blown through the depression and flowed back and into the secondary dunes. Carrying sand and debris, the ocean has uprooted plants, rearranged vegetation, and literally changed the landscape overnight. “Some plants can tolerate the salt water, and are conditioned to sporadic flooding, but others simply die”, says Diane.
Identifying a specific area at the base of the depression, where the beach grass will be the most beneficial, she begins dotting the base (or swale as it is called) with her flags. Soon, she has row after row of neatly planted flags waving in unison, signaling where the beach grass will help heal and re-establish the dune.
To understand how the barrier island and the sand dunes were formed, we have to go back a few years. Well, several thousand years in fact. Over 50,000 years ago, a massive glacier occupied what is known now as Canada and the northern part of the United States, including half of New Jersey. During the glacier’s advancement from the north, it pushed rocks, trees, soil, and anything else in its path as it scoured and reshaped the land. During the next 40,000 years, the earth began to warm, prompting the glacier to retreat. The glacial melt caused a rapid rise in sea level, and the land that was under the enormous weight of the glacier rose up, creating the coastal ecosystem that we recognize today. New Jersey’s barrier islands were formed about 6000 to 7000 years ago thanks in part to a low profile landscape and continued sediment build-up from moderate off shore currents and tides. Then, about 4000 years ago, when sea-level rise slowed considerably, salt-marshes were formed on the bay side of what is now Island Beach State Park.
During this time, sand dunes were forming along the leading edge of the ocean. Strong ocean winds moved large amounts of sand from the dry section of the beach further inland. Along the way, established maritime vegetation served as stumbling blocks, collecting the blowing sand around them. Over time, the mounds of sand grew and the beginnings of the primary dunes were formed.
With the flags in place, we begin to make our way back to the nature center. Walking the narrow width of the island we pass through the dunes, thicket, and forest communities. The change between habitats is abrupt, and in only a short distance we move from open shifting sands, devoid of vegetation, to a dense maritime forest of Wild Black Cherry, Red Cedars, American Holly, and Willow Oak. To date, there are 395 known plant species, including the largest expanse of beach heather in New Jersey. This remarkable diversity of habitats also supports 241 species of wildlife, including the largest colony of nesting Osprey in the state. Endangered species of Piping Plovers, Least Terns, and Black Skimmers complete this list. For park visitors, there are two observation blinds located near a tidal marsh and a fresh water pond, providing excellent opportunities for viewing the island’s flora and fauna.
Back at the nature center, and between bites of her lunch, Diane is answering the phone, loading more beach grass into the truck, answering questions to park visitors, all just before responding to an impromptu meeting with a private company wanting to organize a volunteer day for it’s employees. Within moments, she reappears in time to conduct the presentation on beach grass planting.
Today, Cub Scout Pack 92 and their families are getting a crash course in barrier island biology. Pointing to a mural of dune habitat, Diane asks, “why do we plant beach grass?” All the hands in the room go up with a unified response of, “to protect the island!” “That’s right!” Holding up an unassuming, scraggly looking stalk of beach grass, she declares “this plant is about to do something amazing – it’s going to hold that huge pile of sand in place.”
Diane explains that the American Beach Grass (Ammophila breviligulata) is a cool-weather plant. Most of its growth and root expansion happens in early spring, making March and April the best time to plant the individual stalks, called culms. Thriving in a condition of blowing wind and sand, the grass is planted in the primary dunes. The interconnected root system, called rhizomes, begin to spread out and support the ever-shifting sands. The more movement and depositing of fresh sand, the more the plants are stimulated to grow. In turn, the growing plants and their roots stabilize the dunes allowing more and more sand to be deposited. It’s this amazing cycle that captivates everyone in the room.
With the delivery of an infomercial host and the creditability of a naturalist, Diane asks “how many culms are we going to plant today?!” Shouts of “50!”, and “100!” come from the young audience. “More!” Diane responds. “300!” “More!” “600!” “More!” 1000?!” “Yes! Today, we are going to plant 1000 culms of American Beach grass!” After a demonstration of the proper planting techniques and a rally cry of “We have the grass! Do you have the power?!” the kids head for the dunes.
This spring, Diane will teach 15 different groups the science and techniques used to protect the primary dunes. Bill Vibbert, the park’s superintendent says, ”its not just about getting the beach grass planted, it’s about education. We are providing experiences for young people so they will understand the importance of preserving the dunes. They are integral in helping to protect the coast.”
Managed by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, the park offers many interpretive programs about beach ecology to students in grades K-12 and other interested groups. Staff is available year-round to tailor programs and nature walks to meet specific needs and interests. With prior approval, schools and nonprofit organizations may reserve an area for independent field study.
“Environmental education is the key to protecting our natural coastal resources” says Diane. “People are interested in learning about the island and how they can make a hands-on contribution to protect it.”
Meeting the kids at the beach is Frank Mulroony, a retired IBM Executive who has logged 550 volunteer hours last year in the park. Today he is assisting Diane in handing out gloves, shovels and beach grass to the enthusiastic participants. When asked why he does this, he responds, “for a love of nature and for the park. I fish here a lot, and it’s a way I can give back to the natural resources that offer me so much enjoyment.” Frank’s spirit of volunteerism is echoed by all who contribute to this extraordinary place. These people and their resources come in all shapes and sizes.
Wakefern Food Corporation, the distribution arm of ShopRite Supermarkets, donated the necessary funds to purchase the 12000 individual plants from a local nursery. Tim Vogel, Project Manager of Environmental Affairs for Wakefern says, “participating in the beach grass program is a natural extension to the products and services provided from our family-run supermarkets. Its a chance to show we care about the community in which we live and work.”
The New Jersey Beach Buggy Association, founded at Island Beach State Park, is also involved in protecting the coastal resources in the park. “Each May, our members participate with the nature center staff to install fencing along the primary dunes,” says Bob DeLeonard, president of NJBBA. “Blowing sand from the beach hits the fencing and drops. In less than 2 years, an 8 foot high fence and can be completely covered with sand.“
Like a modern-day Pied Piper, Diane leads her students with shovels and bundles of grass in tow, up and into the dunes. Being careful to walk in only the designated planting area, they hike to the spot where she has placed her flags. As each orange flag is removed, the grass is planted in its place. Soon, the flowing curves of the dune are accentuated with long strings of beach grass.
With the satisfaction of a job well done, everyone hikes back to the beach knowing that the new plants are already attracting the blowing sand. Before long, the efforts of these young naturalists will transform this landscape, making it hard to recognize when they return next spring.
Standing in stark contrast to the highly developed shore region, this resilient ribbon of white-sand beach and Barrier Island has much to offer. Within the diverse landscape of sand dunes, forest, freshwater wetlands and tidal marshes is an array of plants and animals found nowhere else in New Jersey. To learn more about these habitats, including the geologic processes, animal life, and the rich cultural history, a visit to the Forked River Interpretive Center is a must. A highlight of the center is the Emily de Camp Herbarium, which supports an extensive collection of plant species available for hands on study.
With activities like swimming, fishing, biking, horseback riding, birdwatching, picnicking and canoeing, it’s easy to see that Island Beach State Park is truly our greatest coastal treasure.
Located in Ocean County, between the Atlantic Ocean and Barnegat Bay, IBSP can be reached by following Route 37 east to Seaside Heights. Once on the island, follow Route 35 south all the way to the main entrance. The park is open daily from 8:00am to dusk. On weekends and holidays during the summer season, the park opens at 7:00am.
Through the Volunteers in Park (VIP) program, several different activities, including interpretation and education, are available to the public. Volunteers learn new skills, meet different people, and engage in a variety of environmental challenges. Not to mention, it’s a lot of fun. For more information on the many educational programs or contributing as a volunteer, contact Diane Bennett-Chase at 732-793-1698.
1. New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, http://www.state.nj.us/dep/
2. Island Beach State Park, http://www.state.nj.us/dep/forestry/parks/island.htm
3. Garden State Preservation Trust, http://www.state.nj.us/gspt/
4. U.S. Geological Survey, http://www.usgs.gov/
5. ‘A Naturalist Along the Jersey Shore’ by Joanna Burger, professor of biological sciences at Rutgers University.