Don't be fooled by the peaceful look of Fire Island.
There's a large-scale, high-stakes battle going on. And it's not the one that
gets top billing, the skirmishes between the National Park Service and some of
the island's 4,200 homeowners. It's bigger than that.
The island is home to the Fire Island National Seashore, the only developed
barrier island without roads in the United States. For the past few years,
outgoing Superintendent Constantine Dillon has worked diligently,
controversially even, to remind visitors, islanders, public officials and any
one else who will listen about the island's uniqueness.
Dillon is leaving Fire Island this summer, for a bigger National Park Service
job at the Grand Canyon. But his work to reframe the public's perception of
Fire Island and refocus it on a national resource worthy of preservation and
public use rather than as the exclusive domain of a lucky few should continue.
Dillon has drawn a line in the sand. The Department of Interior ought to
appoint a successor who will do the same thing.
Incredibly, the concept that the National Seashore should be open to and
enjoyed by everybody seems novel on Fire Island, home to a host of
long-established communities whose residents return summer after summer. It is
also home to a few hundred hearty souls who live there year-round.
But the number of visitors who board ferries or pilot their own boats to the
National Seashore is rising as well. And no wonder: The island has miles of
pristine beach, with a rare three-color blend of sand on the Atlantic Ocean
side. To the north lies the Great South Bay.
The bent-at-the-elbow, 32-mile-long barrier island hosts the only federally
designated wilderness area in New York. There are verdant maritime forests.
There are thickets, salt marshes and freshwater bogs. There are piping plovers,
an endangered species of bird, whose nesting season closes down whole portions
of the beach. And then there are dunes, which stand, in fatted majesty, as the
island's guardians against the ocean.
Banish any picture of a meager sand pile from your mind and try this
instead: Find the largest molar in the bottom of your mouth. It rises high on
one side, slides into a wide depression and then rises slightly once more
before falling off. Imagine that shape, hugely magnified and plopped down on
Fire Island. There, it becomes a delicate and heavy sand block, held together
by interlocking roots of beach grass.
That first rise, the higher primary dune, forms a barrier between nature
and the interior of the island. Like your tooth, it falls into a depression,
called the swale, and then rises again to form a secondary dune before falling
off into a thicket or salt marsh.
Dunes are geological marvels built by wind, waves and time in an eternal
cycle that pushes sand onto Fire Island and pulls it away, only to push it back
again. The dunes, barring a truly major storm, protect the island and keep the
waters of the bay and the ocean from meeting.
In a perfect world, nature would have its way. It works so well, that,
despite constant assertions to the contrary, Fire Island is in no danger of
being worn away, geologists say.
The problem is that some dunes have been razed to make way for buildings.
Other dunes have been weakened by buildings squatting atop them. And when
storms knock the homes aside, owners build again.
For years, some homeowners have been fighting Dillon and the National Park
Service, which has responsibility for overseeing the National Seashore, over
proposals for building houses on dunes and for replenishing sand on the beach.
Residents want projects that will add sand to the beach to protect houses
built on the dune line. And, on an island that has no roads, they also want
more sand to repair damage caused by drivers on the beach. Some residents also
want permits to build bulkheads on the bay, dredge permits for ferry channels
and an OK for more cars on the beach.
Contrast that with what the Seashore's more than 2 million visitors say
they want: More and better marinas, more lifeguards, more and cleaner
restrooms, no driving on the beach, cheaper ferry service, food concessions.
It makes for quite a balancing act for the park service, which is caught
with residents on one side and park patrons on the other. The situation is
complex because the towns of Brookhaven and Islip also have jurisdiction.
Dillon, to his credit, took an aggressive stand against building on the
island's dune line. In some cases, he won; in others, he lost. He brought in an
outside firm to pull residents, government officials, environmentalists and
others together to recommend changes in the way driving permits are
distributed. And, on the volatile sand-replenishing issue, his efforts will
result in an island-wide review of what projects really are necessary. He has
won high marks from environmentalists and from the National Park Service, which
recently gave him a Superior Services Award.
But his biggest contribution was in bringing the park service, which in the
past stayed in the background, to the forefront in advocating not just for the
island but for its visitors as well. His successor should continue that
commitment. Other suggestions:
The Seashore needs high-powered advocates here and in Washington. Some
possibilities: Sens. Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton, and Rep. Peter King.
The Seashore needs better public relations. Battles between residents and
the park get plenty of ink, while the park's larger efforts go unnoticed. The
Seashore has a website (www.nps.gov/fiis/) but it should work with the Long
Island Convention and Visitors Bureau and others to bring in more visitors.
The Seashore should continue pushing for an expanded visitors' center and
more parking in Patchogue. The center would add to the village's revitalization
effort and enhance public understanding of the island's assets.
But above all, the park service should continue its years-long push for
federal money to buy up undeveloped lots in the National Seashore and to
purchase land when nature takes its course and knocks buildings off the dune
Last week, Jim Dunphy, a carpenter at Watch Hill, hinted at what was to
come during Dillon's retirement party. "He should get an alarm clock," Dunphy
said. "We were asleep. He managed to wake everybody up."