WESTERLY — Hosting thousands of visitors, numerous scientists and school groups, the Napatree Point Conservation Area was once again the site of intensive and diverse activity in 2017.
Napatree Point is managed by the Watch Hill Conservancy and the Watch Hill Fire District, which recently released the 2017 State of Napatree report. Napatree Manager Janice Sassi prepared the fifth annual report with Peter August, a natural-resources professor at the University of Rhode Island who chairs the Napatree Science Advisory Board. All management decisions at Napatree are science-based.
Sassi said one of the biggest changes over the past several years has been the expansion of monitoring on the property.
“The more monitoring we do, the more we discover things and we think, ‘Oh we need to pay attention,’” she said.
In addition to the Watch Hill Conservancy and the Watch Hill Fire District, the Roberts Foundation and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) provided support to Napatree projects in 2017.
Additional project funding was provided by the Coastal Resources Management Council, the Lattner Foundation, the Washington Trust Company, the Rhode Island Foundation and the Coastal Resources Institute at the University of Rhode Island. There were also donations of equipment and hundreds of volunteer hours.
Native plants, shifting sands
In order to repair areas damaged by foot traffic, native plants have been added to block off certain trails and encourage visitors to use others. The project is led by URI botanist Hope Leeson.
“The objective is to fill those [trails] in with plants that pollinating insects and migratory birds will find beneficial,” August said. “What’s really exciting now is, some of those plants have been in the ground for three or four years, and our annual monitoring of what’s alive and what’s dead, what’s thriving and what’s not, is guiding our future decisions on what species to put in.”
Tracking shoreline change
Napatree Point is an example of a natural barrier ecosystem, and barriers must be allowed to migrate. Sand-friendly fencing in the form of split rails and ropes has been installed to allow the sand to move freely.
“The big dune, when you come into Napatree, has, I’m guessing, four heights [layers] of snow fence, because for years and years, that’s what was used, and it’s amazing how much sand it traps,” Sassi said. “That’s why that dune is so big.”
Napatree now has what is known as virtual fencing, consisting of poles with rope strung between them, that delineate sensitive and newly-planted areas but do not catch sand.
“Just roping and little signs, because we’re worried about a lot of our habitat restoration,” Sassi said.
There is also a split-rail fence near the entrance, which allows sand to move while keeping people out of certain areas.
“People respect it,” August said. “People know you don’t go on the other side of the split-rail fence.”
Bryan Oakley, a coastal geology professor at Eastern Connecticut State University, travels to Napatree every quarter to monitor the elevations and movements of the dunes and the shoreline.
“He has a terrific data set on how the geology of the dunes is changing,” August said. “One thing that Bryan is consistently preaching is the fact that he enjoys coming out to Napatree, he’s invested in this long-term study, which he’ll probably do his whole career.”
Long-term monitoring is becoming increasingly valuable to track the effects of natural disturbances from storms, extreme tides and sea-level rise, invasive plant and animal species, and pressures from human use.
Visitors behaving badly
Most of the people who visit Napatree Point are courteous and respectful, but there are always some who cause problems or leave their messes behind.
“What people will do is, they take the trouble to pick up after their dogs and they will leave the plastic bag on the beach, thinking that somebody is going to come along and clean up after them,” Sassi said.
(Dogs are prohibited from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. from May 2 to Labor Day.)
Then there was the guy with the machete who was caught cutting all the vegetation at the western end.
During the nighttime horseshoe crab survey, amorous couples are often discovered on the beach, along with the crabs.
But the most outrageous, Sassi said, was the helicopter.
“Somebody landed a helicopter on the fort,” she said. “But that’s going back a few years ago.”
A few people have driven their vehicles onto the sand.
“Some guy drove his Jeep out there last fall,” Sassi said. “Drove it right out onto the beach. We had the tracks that went right into the lagoon area.”
Reasons for optimism
Sassi, who is now in her 10th year as Napatree Conservation Area manager, said one of the things she loves about her job is meeting fascinating people.
“Some of the people have stories about growing up in the area or having family on Napatree,” she said. “I met a mother who was telling me that she had her young son, and they had masks and they were looking around in the eelgrass bed off Napatree and they found little seahorses.”
The children’s education program, which takes place in the summer, is a major success story. The “Investigator” program began 10 years ago and is described as a “free, hands-on learning experience” that encourages children from the ages of 7 to 14 to observe the ecosystem and research and analyze their findings.
“We have to go to a waiting list because we fill up,” Sassi said. “We’ve got buckets and nets and magnifying glasses and guides and it’s great and it’s always so fun to watch the kids totally by themselves and there’s nobody else around, and they’re looking at something.”
August said that overall, he believed that Napatree’s science-based and community-focused management strategy was working. One of the missions of the conservation area is to share data with scientists, students and the community at large.
“All our data is available to whoever wants to look at it,” Sassi said.
“That’s the core reason why we do the State of Napatree,” August added. “It’s to get that information out there.”