Fish & Wildlife looks at trail reconstruction optionsProtection of the GSP also important
There is only the ghost of an old road leading to Beane Point, two vague ruts that have been washed over by relentless tides and various storms in the past several years. The place is accessible by foot, but getting there by boat is tough, and that is almost impossible at low tide unless you were coming in by dinghy or raft.
To the long-timers, Beane Point is called Hippocampus, and it’s owned and managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (since 1994 and is now known as the Block Island National Wildlife Refuge). A recent call for public comment asking for ideas on how best to reconstruct access to the property (which is called the West Beach Sand Trail) put this small section of Block Island back in the spotlight.
It also brought to mind a few questions: Why is Fish and Wildlife looking at options now, and what is the small camp they maintain there used for? A corollary to these questions is how, or even if, any development in the area would impact the Great Salt Pond, which sits right behind Beane Point.
According to Charlie Vandemoer, Refuge Manager for the Service, there’s a small cabin on the Campus, along with a couple of other buildings, and solar energy panels, propane tanks and a septic system that need to be maintained.
“It’s used for environmental education and for housing a seasonal volunteer,” said Vandemoer of the facility. “The volunteer gets to stay out there in exchange for some work doing education, piping plover management and for maintaining the buildings.” Although the property was acquired 20 years ago (after it was siezed in a marijuana bust before that), it went unused until the late 1990s, Vandemoer said, but was occupied as recently as last summer.
Vandemoer said the reconstruction project has come up now because of a need to maintain the facilities, which predate the sale to Fish & Wildlife in 1994, “but also to be able to have environmental educational activities out there.” If they bring people to the property, it needs to be accessible for emergency reasons as well, he said, in case anyone were to get hurt.
“There is a tremendous amount of erosion from [Superstorm] Sandy and the winter storm Nemo [in December of 2013],” said Vandemoer. “The storms that are happening out there have taken their toll. So where we are at now is to try to determine how best to have access in that area.”
Vandemoer said Fish & Wildlife is looking at the widest range of possibilities for rehabilitating the access road.
“One is to do nothing, keep it as it is,” he said. “The other is to reconstruct portions of the sand trail. If you look out there, there’s two wheel tracks. We’re not looking at building a road out there, but four-wheel drive access.”
Another option is for boat access. “We would be looking at a modest landing there.”
Vandemoer said that still another alternative would be to “abandond the site out there — the building — not the property.”
While Vandemoer said he could not be specific, there are cultural artifacts, Native American artifacts, that also need to be protected if there is going to be any reconstruction in the area. He also said the Service needs to be “concerned for the character of the beach and maintaining the environment.”
On the other side of the former road is one of the primary recreational and natural resources on the island: Great Salt Pond.
Sven Risom, president of the Committee for the Great Salt Pond, said the reconstruction project is a learning opportunity. Risom said the CGSP has not taken a position on what should be done to the access road, but he said the group will be meeting with the Town Council and will submit comments to Fish & Wildlife.
“I think what everyone should consider are the importance of barriers and proper buffer management to the pond from the ocean,” Risom said. “Whether they build a road or not there could be extreme implications to Block Island if that area breaches.”
Areas that could be affected by a storm breach are the recreational area of the Great Salt Pond, the marshland, the clamflats (and the revenue from the clamflats) and the control of backfill, which could build up sandbars in the pond if not mitigated.
“If breaches occur, we all need to be thinking about how we protect one of our great natural assets,” said Risom. “This [process with Fish & Wildlife] is all about us learning and getting smarter.”
The public comment period is open until March 25. Vandemoer said that it would then take about 30 days to prepare the document, which will then be made available for another 30 days of public comment. Vendemoer estimated that it would be about 90 days before any decision is made.
Comments can be submitted to: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, West Beach Sand Trail, 50 Bend Road, Charlestown, R.I. 02813. Comments can also be submitted to www.fws.gov/ninigret/complex/ and clicking on the “Contact us” link.