What would summer be without the usual gripes about piping plovers restricting beach access. We have addressed the issue every summer for as far back as I can remember, and while there have been brief glimpses of progress towards lessening restrictions, we always seem to wind up back at square one. We have had support from county legislators all the way up to U.S. Congressman Lee Zeldin but nothing seems to change. The bottom line is that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service appears to have some god-like power above everyone else to dictate how plovers must be protected. On Sunday, June 6, Suffolk County Parks was forced to shut down Shinnecock East County Park to all campers and outer beach permit holders due to a pair of nesting plovers within the park’s boundaries. Campers had until 2 p.m. to clear the beach. Among them were fishermen spending what were to be week-long vacations that had been in the planning stages since late winter. That left them with no other option but to return home since all of the Islands camping areas were filled, and most are completely booked until the fall. Fishermen may park in the lot at the park entrance and access the jetty by foot.
Smith Point County Park currently has 30 nesting pairs on the outer beach and bay side. Outer beach use as of June 10 was limited to 400 vehicles but is likely to be reduced to 200 in the near future. The beach is open to Cut Two and from there fishermen can access Moriches Inlet via Burma Road.
Plovers have affected state park beaches to a lesser degree, but it is still early. The eastern and western portions of Napeague State Park are closed to Beach Vehicle Permit holders, but the center section near the beach entrance remains open. Back west, the entire Democrat Bar west of the jetty is off limits.
Concerning Shinnecock East, it does not seem right that so many park users can basically be thrown out because of a pair of birds that are not even endangered, but instead on the threatened list, set up housekeeping in a park created and designated as a place for the public to recreate. The plovers in our Atlantic Flyway have been on the threatened list since the 1980s but seem to be everywhere and in increasing numbers, leading to more area closures and access restrictions. One has to ask the question “why has there been no change in the plover’s status for nearly four decades?” Are the birds being regulated based on old data that very likely should be updated, and which might improve on their threatened status?
There is an imbalance here between protecting these birds, and the public’s ability to use parks that were intended for recreation during the prime recreational season. There are also those businesses that rely on public access to some of these areas to support their families. That includes tackle shops, convenience stores, beverage distributors, delis, 7/11s and gas stations. Something has to change. It seems obvious that the concern for people and the birds is way out of balance. Yes, the birds need protection, but the responsibility for that protection should not fall on state, county or local municipalities. Moreover, the public should be entitled to use our state, county, town and village parks for the purpose they were designed – recreation. Google the Guidelines for Managing Recreational Activities in Piping Plover Breeding Habitat published by Fish & Wildlife and you will better understand the tremendous burden put on municipalities and local governments to ensure protection of piping plovers.
Most fishermen respect the need to protect piping plovers but in a way that still allows reasonable use of our beaches. One answer may be what’s known as the Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) which requires municipalities to meet certain guidelines that allow a more mutually beneficial approach when it comes to protecting plovers. Massachusetts had their HCP approved and it has resulted in expanded access, while also helping to rebuild the plover population in places like Cape Cod. The State Fishing Advisory Board first requested the state pursue this for state parks more than five years ago but progress towards meeting the requirements for a plan have been slow. A draft plan has been developed, but must be reviewed and accepted by Fish and Wildlife, a process that could easily take two or more years. It would be nice to see a plan that protects piping plover while providing fishermen, campers and other beachgoers the ability to do what they love to do most, and why so many live here in the first place.