Back on Friday, May 19th, myself, Craig Berkhardt of Smith Point Bait & Tackle, and representatives from the Long Island Beach Buggy Association, including several board members, met with new Suffolk County Parks Commissioner, Philip Berdolt and principal environmental analyst, Nick Gibbons at County Park Headquarters in West Sayville. Also on hand was Suffolk County Legislator Kate Browning who has been a vocal supporter of working out a compromise for protect piping plovers, but without impeding public access during the summer nesting season. She has called the annual closures at Smith Point unreasonable and unfair to recreational park users. “With over six miles of beach there should and must be a way to coexist while protecting the birds. The biggest barrier to succeeding is the piping plover habitats that exist to the west, which are close to the outer beach entrance. These habitats were created by wash overs in the aftermath of Super Storm Sandy, but more importantly, continue to exist because U.S. Fish & Wildlife prevented full dune replenishment from moving forward that would have eliminated these prime plover areas.”
We appreciated the opportunity to share our concerns over beach access within the park system, particularly with maintaining access along Burma Road, the only link to the inlet during washouts or when plovers set up on the outer beach. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has been insisting on keeping Burma road passable for plovers, despite Suffolk County Parks already leveling 100 acres on the east end of the park for plover habitat. Plans are in the works for a barrier system on Burma Road to keep the birds on the oceanfront which will allow fisherman uninterrupted access to Moriches Inlet all season.
We were all encouraged by Mr. Berdolt’s commitment toward keeping the beaches accessible for all who utilize the county’s parks. He was also very supportive of working with LIBBA on cooperative projects like beach cleanups, fencing projects, the re-establishment of Operation Christmas Tree for dune restoration, Compressor repairs and maintenance, beach driving classes and maintaining access roads. He also touched on fixing the camping reservation system and fee structures. It was agreed at the meeting that new compressor systems will be put into each of the parks with the models being the same for easier maintenance. LIBBA will continue to keep up the maintenance and air chucks as they have been doing, a fact that escapes many of those who fish and drive our county and state beaches. Any surfcaster who does not belong to LIBBA is truly doing a disservice to the sport they love. LIBBA’s primary goal has always been to maintain beach access, and the county seems committed to doing their best to keep beaches like Smith Point, Cupsogue and Shagwong accessible to 4×4 vehicles.
I often hear anglers bashing County Parks for restricting access during plover season. Nothing could be further from the truth as far as parks being the ones to take the blame. Suffolk County Parks Department, and all state, county and local municipalities where plovers nest, are mandated by the Federal Government’s U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services to implement a plan to protect the piping plover. If a plover is killed and F&W decides that protection of the birds was insufficient, the fine for each bird can be $25,000.
While the county is doing what it can to balance access with protecting plovers, the real issue is with Fish & Wildlife and the federal government. F&W must lower the goals to more realistic levels, something that legislators like Congressman Lee Zeldin are in a position to help accomplish. He went to high school down the block from Smith Point so he should be well aware of the impact these closures have on his constituents. He showed interest in getting involved last year, now might be a good time to call on him for his support. His Washington Office phone is 202-225-3826. You can reach his Patchogue office (31 Oak Street – Suite 20) at 631-289-1097. You can also visit the office in person by calling ahead and making an appointment. Emails can be sent through his website.
As far as the county is concerned, I believe we all came away impressed by the commissioners commitment to maintaining access and making the recreational opportunities provided within our parks accessible to all. After all, isn’t that what parks were intended for in the first place?