Nature Notes: Natives Are Winning

Sammy’s Beach was named in the East Hampton Town Code as one of the four original “nature preserves”
During the 12-plus years of grow-back at Sammy’s Beach, very few alien plants have managed to find a niche, and the replanted area is practically free of invasives. Vicki Bustamante

   In 1999, an area two times the size of a football field was dug out of Sammy’s Beach in East Hampton to accommodate dredge spoil from the Three Mile Harbor inlet and channel. The hole was big enough to accommodate nearly 100,000 cubic yards, but the dredge job produced less than a fifth of that.
    Four years earlier, Sammy’s Beach was named in the East Hampton Town Code as one of the four original “nature preserves.” The construction of the dredge spoil pit scarred the nature preserve badly and half of the town’s populace, including residents from nearby communities, was up in arms about it. It may have cost the Democrats the 1999 election, as the late Cathy Lester was voted out and Jay Schneiderman of the opposition party became the new town supervisor in January of 2000.
    Ms. Lester set up a working committee to try to right the situation before her departure and the town received a grant of $137,000 from New York State to help with Sammy’s restoration. The committee formulated a plan with three main objectives in mind. The first was to return the beach and dunes to the original topography. Suffolk County, which was responsible for the dredging, paid for that heavy equipment work, which came to about $200,000, and was completed by the end of the year. Ironically, the contractor that was paid to dig the hole, was later paid to fill it in and return Sammy’s Beach to its original topography.
    Secondly, an unpaved marl road for four-wheel-drive vehicles would be constructed down the center of the site from the terminus of Sammy’s Beach Road to the west jetty of Three Mile Harbor’s newly dredged inlet. Such a road was constructed and then bordered on each side from one end to the other with a split-rail fence.
    The last phase of the reconstruction was the most difficult and, from an engineer’s point-of-view, the most speculative. The entire disturbed, re-contoured area would be revegetated with native beach and dune vegetation in such a way as to create the original look and feel of the nature preserve before desecration. The state grant would cover most of the expense. It was also decided that the native vegetation used would be gleaned from similar habitats, including what was left of Sammy’s Beach, so that the species would be as similar to East Hampton in genotype as possible.
    The bulk of the replacement vegetation was to be American beach grass, which was plentiful and which would keep the replenished dune sands from blowing into Three Mile Harbor during the winter. In the summer of 1999 East Hampton Town staff collected some 20,000 beach grass plants from different parts of the town and carted them over to Talmage Farms in north Riverhead, where Ellen Talmage and her workers planted them in a farm field prior to the fall so that they would start actively growing in their new and temporary habitat.
    Town staff studied the Sammy’s Beach flora remaining on undisturbed parts using transect analysis and other means. A list of more than 50 native Sammy’s Beach plants was generated. Meanwhile, a local gardening firm, Botanic East, run by Ron Jawin, submitted the lowest quote for raising some of these plants, such as prickly pear cactus, bayberry, Virginia rose, and the like, after gleaning them from their natural town habitats. In a 1999 floristic study there were a few southern native species of interest found. One was a blue-green beach grass, marram grass, a species in its first stage of Long Island colonization. I had first discovered this grass growing in Mattituck in sands edging Long Island Sound in 1991.
    In the spring of 1990, Ms. Talmage was successful in growing about 120,000 beach grass plants from the East Hampton originals at a total cost to the town of about $22,000. Warren’s Nursery of Water Mill submitted the lowest bid, and the entire disturbed area, save for the road, was planted in May and June of 2000 with the Talmage-grown plants and then some. At first the planted area looked like rows of corn, but as the plants spread by the sprouting of underground rhizomes, the empty spaces filled in nicely.
    A little later, Ron Jawin and workers from Botanic East planted the plants that they had raised in several circles scattered throughout out the recovery plot. It was a dryish summer. The Botanic East plants were watered regularly but, nonetheless, didn’t do so well. On the other hand, the beach grass grew like gangbusters. All the while diamondback terrapins used the spot for laying eggs, while piping plovers and least terns raised several young to fledging. But even in the fall of that year, the planting resembled a big unmowed lawn, nothing like it was prior to the hole being dug.
    Year after year, Sammy’s Beach came back by degrees. The hews and cries died away. Residents of the Sammy’s Beach community and those from nearby took it upon themselves to police and clean up the area. The road to the jetty proved so successful that the old trail that ran through the wetlands edging Three Mile Harbor was cut off without serious repercussions. I and others would visit each year to check the recovery process; it was slow but progressive.
    After an absence of a couple of years I returned only last Friday as a retired citizen with a companion to monitor the situation. I was frankly amazed at how successful the recovery had been. All of the plants were in bloom or fruiting. The prickly pears were thick with fruit, figidini in Italian, the flowers of the falcate-leaved golden asters were peaking and produced a broad yellow haze that blended nicely with the blues of the marram grass. What was even more amazing is that during the 12-plus years of grow-back very few alien plants had managed to find a niche, the replanted area was practically free of invasives.
    American beach grass adores shifting sands, the marram grass prefers more stabilized situations. In the interim, although not intentionally planted, it now had become the common grass, but it worked as well as the former. Eastern red cedars had sprouted up here and there, at the very eastern end which had not been disturbed, the leaves of a low-slung bigtooth aspen, a long-lived survivor of many a storm, trembled and murmured in the southerly breeze.
    We took the southern route back. The old track had completely filled in with high marsh species, sea lavender, pickleweed, sea blite, marsh elder, saltmarsh aster and the like, a few of which are considered New York State rarities. The road since closing had filled in by itself, observing Karen Blumer’s rule, don’t plant it if it is disturbed, let it grow back on its own and the natives will win out.