CHATHAM – It took just a couple of hours Tuesday for Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge staff to remove the bottom section of the stairs that led to the beach below the agency's Morris Island headquarters. The impact on public access, however, will be felt for months, maybe years to come.
Erosion that Acting Refuge Manager Eileen McGourty called “extreme” has clawed away at the bluff that runs along the east and southwest section of the refuge's Morris Island property, creating a safety hazard both on the pathway at the top of the cliff and on the beach below. Storms and even regularly high tides are undermining the rocks which serve as the foundation for the stairs, causing them to twist to one side and making them unsafe. The beach north of the stairs is littered with denuded trees that have fallen down the bluff.
“At high tide you can't even walk the beach anymore” because the water is so high, McGourty said.
To try to preserve the observation deck and the upper portion of the stairs, the lower section was removed by Maintenance worker Cory Shannon Tuesday morning.
“This will essentially eliminate beach access from our parking lot, at least for the time being,” McGourty said. The refuge's Morris Island walking trails and beach can still be reached via a path off Tisquantum Road, about a quarter mile from the headquarters and parking lot. Much of the trail, however, especially along the beach west of the stairs, is also submerged except a few hours before and after low tide. Access below a viewing platform at the north side of the headquarters is over private property owned by the Quitnessett Association. McGourty said the last storm carved out a four-foot drop to the beach there, and the association erected a fence to preserve the dunes and keep people out.
Because of the instability of the bluff, the beach from the stairs north is closed.
Given the extent of the erosion, it's uncertain when or if the stairs will be replaced, said Linh Phu, refuge complex manager of the Eastern Massachusetts National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes Monomoy.
“At the moment we don't have plans to find another way” to access the beach, she said. Refuge officials have been watching nature's attack on the bluff for a while, but, said Phu, “We didn't realize the erosion would be so quick.” The accelerating erosion calls into question the future of the headquarters facilities, including a new rest room built this summer, a garage/workshop/dorm, and the visitors center. The rest rooms are designed to be easily relocated, and options for possibly relocating the other refuge facilities will be explored with regional engineers, Phu said, but the time frame is likely to depend on the erosion.
“Right now it's kind of unpredictable,” Phu said. “We could have another year or two or we could have five to 10 years, depending on weather patterns.”
McGourty estimated that at its most severe spots, erosion has carved 40 feet from the cliff.
“It's been eroding, we knew it was going on, but these last few months it really hit that bluff hard,” she said. “We've lost a lot. It seems to have sped up.”
Since the 1987 break in North Beach, dozens of revetments have been built along the Chatham shoreline to stem erosion. Even though there are revetments protecting homes immediately west of the stairs, building a rock wall on refuge property is “out of the question,” said Phu. “It's not something we would consider.” Because protecting natural resources is a priority, nature will be allowed to take its course.
Erosion of the bluff has been accelerating since the April Fool's cut in 2017 led to the gradual loss of South Beach, once a buffer against the power of the Atlantic. The rate of erosion picked up about a year ago. An overlook along the boardwalk that leads from the refuge parking lot to the stairs was closed last last year, and about two weeks ago, another section of the boardwalk had to be removed and the path rerouted after erosion took a section of the steep coastal bank that faces the southeast. The boardwalk is now closed. The edge of the bluff near the stairs is also creeping up on the National Weather Service building just south of the parking lot.
Rodney Chi, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service, said the agency is aware of the situation but has no firm plans to relocate the Morris Island station. The facility's only function at this time is to launch daily weather balloons.
Last winter sand dredged from Outermost Harbor was spread along the beach below the bluff, but the higher tides rolling in over the now mostly open water to the east quickly swept it away. The large rocks that are the foundation of the access stairs were buried under sand this summer; now they are exposed and being undermined at every high tide. Spray from waves at high tide regular soaks the observation deck, and stormwaters are overtopping the adjacent revetments, threatening to undermine them from behind.
A new study looking at the shoaling issues impacting the Stage Harbor entrance channel and ongoing erosion of Crescent Beach, just to the east of the refuge's Morris Island property, is just getting underway, according to Coastal Resources Director Ted Keon. Although not specifically focused on the Morris Island erosion, since it is part of the same geomorphic system, the study will take the situation there into account, he said.
Most of the refuge's 7,604 acres lay offshore on Monomoy Island, one of the most important shorebird nesting areas on the east coast. But a boat is need to get there, and for most visitors, the 40-acre Morris Island headquarters and beach are the only accessible part of the refuge. During the summer, the parking lot is often full with many people walking the beach or sunbathing. Even during the offseason, the beach is a popular walking spot, especially on weekends.
“For a lot of people, that boardwalk and those stairs are what Monomoy is,” McGourty said. “It's going to be pretty upsetting for a lot of people to remove that beach access.”
The refuge's priority, however, is protecting its natural resources as well as keeping people safe, said Phu. “We're not a park,” she said. Wildlife-dependent recreation, such as bird watching and fishing, are a priority. Walking along the beach and sunbathing is “something people enjoy, but at the same time not one of our priority uses,” she said.