Friday, July 16, 2010

The dark side of beach grass removal

The European beach grass has been vilified over the last decade or so and serious and expensive efforts have been directed at its eradication. Words like invasive, exotic, non-native and so on have been used to solicit support and donations for its removal.

The fact is that this plant is one of the most popular and effective methods for stopping dune movement and erosion and therefore is used throughout the world. It was planted here as early as the late 1800s so that homes and business, roads and rails as well as the Coast Guard station could be developed and protected from the relentless eastward march of the wind driven coastal dunes.

Since those times more infrastructure has been added to our peninsulas and coastal areas. Water pipelines, electrical transmission lines, roads, homes, community trails, all were protected by the effective stabilizing nature of the European beach grass. It really is a critical part of our history. It does its job much like an apple orchard very useful, but not exactly native.

The attempts to replace this protective cover with what is called native vegetation results in a much less stable barrier and lower dunes. There is no disputing that. The dunes once set again into motion radically alters the habitat that had developed to house a wide variety of plant and animal life as well. The dunes deflating meaning becoming smaller among other changes also increases the chances of a tidal breach like has already happened across the South Jetty road. This happened soon after the grass was removed from a section on the west side of the road this year. This also happened at Little River State Beach where salt water poured over the dunes into the freshwater wetlands behind the once secure fore dune. Fresh water wetlands do not like salt water.

Part of the push to eradicate this grass was to benefit the western snowy plover. Despite vast stretches of these project areas there are far fewer plovers now than before these programs began. This is probably due in part to the decrease in cover from predators the beach grass offered. Which is why eggs often fail to hatch in restored areas.

The cost of removing the beach grass is rather remarkable. We have spent $38,000 dollars per acre with nearly 3,000 person hours per acre removing this protective habitat. Volunteer and school children hours are not actually free. They account for $17.85 per hour toward matching funds when contractors apply for grant money. Supervising these volunteers is worth considerably more.

Many of these projects proceed with what is called a negative declaration instead of a much more involved and expensive environmental impact report (EIR). These negative declarations basically say there is no negative impact associated with the project. The problem is that they obviously do have negative impact, sometimes a huge one. Roads, forests, community trails, water and electrical infrastructure etc.... are all negatively effected or threatened. By removing stabilizing vegetation on the windward side of these important structures, forests and favorite pathways we are removing the security that was put in place over a century ago. These systems are dependent on the protective qualities of this intentionally planted grass.

Oregon State University has recently accepted a $600K grant to assess the threat that results from the removal of the European beach grass. Oddly enough, that is about what State Parks has spent attempting to remove beach grass on 31 acres at Little River. The concerns stem from the reduced height of the dunes that result after the European beach grass is removed. With rising sea levels and increased storm intensity predicted, their concerns seem additionally warranted.

Restoration has been the buzz word for ushering through these projects, yet it is very hard to imagine that increasing erosion should ever be an accepted result of restoring habitat. Removing proven and effective vegetation planted intentionally by our forefathers and mothers makes me think of the story of the woman who has been removing the beach grass her mother had planted. One wonders will the granddaughter be replanting it again to help save the family home, neighborhood and infrastructure? Or will they already have been swept away by the relentless tide of sand set in motion once again by well-meaning, but short-sighted interests?

My Word: The dark side of beach grass removal - Uri Driscoll/For the Times-Standard 7/16/2010 - Uri Driscoll is a trail advocate living in Arcata.

Response: ◼ Let's wait and see Iver Iverson