Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Irony on the dunes; pretense we can't afford

School children, grant fund sources and the general public are still being told beach grass removal directly benefits the snowy plover. However, according to published reports, plover counts and, most importantly, fledge rates are all down significantly. This has happened since the accelerated beach grass removal and plover monitoring programs began 10 years ago or so.

Little River State Beach had been a reliable place for a few nests and fledged birds in past years. For some reason State Parks decided to spend over a half million dollars to bulldoze it. Ironically, not a chirp from the environmental community.

Now there is almost no protective cover for the plovers or their nests, and it has become a gathering ground for ravens and crows.

A single plover was hatched on Clam Beach this year in an unrestored area way up close to Moonstone Beach. In its first 10 days the little fella and its papa traversed all the way south past the county park and across Strawberry Creek to below Vista Point. A distance of about two miles. Maybe a record. Ironically, previous reports state that chicks have trouble getting out of tire tracks. Unfortunately, it disappeared before fledging.


Plover monitors have observed plover chicks using the beach grass for cover from predators. Yet many of the published reports still suggest removing this protective cover without explaining this contradiction.

A clever way to dissuade ravens from eating plover eggs was devised by an HSU student. He painted fake plover eggs, hundreds of them, and placed them up and down the beach hoping ravens would realize they were inedible and thus ignore the real ones. Ironically, ravens would follow him around to gather and cache these fake eggs. This should be reason enough to suspect that researchers' attentiveness to plover nests, eggs and chicks do not go unnoticed by the ravens.

Interestingly, the most successful fledging this year (six) happened on the Eel River bar where there is a high concentration of ravens as well as vehicular traffic.

While local plover populations never were very high in this county, the recovery goals have been set at a number most plover experts acknowledge is unattainable. Fortunately, there are thousands of snowy plovers with identical DNA in other western states, according to a university study.

The installation of the symbolic fencing or seasonally closing the beach access below Vista Point has shown no tangible benefits for the plover. Some interesting mathematical gymnastics have been used in an attempt to suggest that it does, however. The bottom line is that there has not been a fledged plover chick on Clam Beach for over four years. A sign on a fence stating that it is plover habitat doesn't make it so. And in the case of Little River State beach, perhaps it should read that it “once was” before the bulldozing project began.

The freshwater wetland between the fore and back dunes at Little River was said to be, for no specified reason, too fragile for the occasional horse to wander by. Controversial signs were posted changing the previous no restriction policy. Ironically, part of this wetland was inundated with tidal surges of salt water last winter after the fore dunes had been flattened with heavy equipment. Freshwater wetlands don't like salt.

Wetlands die when they don't receive water. Reducing the height of a dune and removing its vegetation causes a reduced volume of available water. This happens because of the changes in the mineral makeup and the microbial crust caused by removing the dune vegetation. Ironically a good part of the grant money used to remove this beach grass cover has come from wetland enhancement grant sources.

Meanwhile, further south in Manila, the popular lookout and tsunami gathering area near the Community Center was recently made off limits. After much of the beach grass surrounding the lookout was removed, the ensuing erosion undermined the footings, thus making it unsafe. Ironically, the educational panels on the lookout expound the benefits of removing the grass that had been helping to hold it in place. The nearby transmission tower is also threatened by a now moving dune that has also had much of the beach grass removed upwind from it.

The Samoa peninsula is home to some unique and very old dune forests. However, the dune forests downwind of “restored” areas are being smothered with wind-blown sand and are dying as a result. This in itself is unacceptable. Are we just replacing these forests with open sand and a few flowers? Landscaping with partial revegetation does not make restoration.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency will be in town next year evaluating our flood readiness. This will affect our insurance rates countywide. It would seem important, then, to keep our dunes and their vegetation in place as sea levels rise and increased storm activity is predicted.

We cannot afford to keep pretending these projects are helping what they clearly are not. If we are going to be responsible and these costly projects are to be at all credible, then radically changing vast areas of our coastline needs to be put under far more objective scrutiny. So far, the beach grass removers have been under no obligation to monitor the effects of removing acres and acres of coastal vegetation. This is done by filing what is called a negative declaration with the permit application. Negative declarations have been used as a convenient way to sidestep the process of serious oversight.

Sadly, keying in on plovers and eradicating our beach grass may well be adding to the snowy plovers' demise and certainly seems to be threatening our dune forests and wetlands as well. The forced migration of animal and insect populations that developed with the dunes has also not been taken into account.

We need to do more thinking about how we are going to repair our dunes and bring back their stability. The trees, the wetlands, the critters and the safety of our homes and infrastructure need them stable. Hopefully, we are mature enough to admit these mistakes and will act quickly to remedy them.

Irony on the dunes; pretense we can't afford
Uri Driscoll can be reached at HumboldtHorse@yahoo.com.

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