Tree Removal Aimed At Saving Bluff At Monomoy Refuge Headquarters

By: Tim Wood

Machinery removes cut trees from the top of the bluff at the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge headquarters on Morris Island. TIM WOOD PHOTO

CHATHAM – Dozens of trees were “stump cut” at the top of the coastal bank at the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge's Morris Island headquarters last week in a move to slow ongoing erosion.

The clearing created an amazing view of the ocean and Monomoy Island, and refuge officials hope it will buy time to develop a plan to address the erosion that has reduced the property by a half acre since 2017.

From five to 80 feet has been lost along the face of the east-facing bluff from the northern property line around to a revetment on the western boundary. It averages out to about 60 feet of erosion, said Refuge Manager Rick Nye. The stairs to the beach, viewing platform and boardwalk had to be removed as they were undercut by erosion. The National Weather Service weather balloon launching station was demolished in April as the edge of the bluff encroached, and on corner of the refuge garage and dorm building is now 96 feet from the top of the bank.

“We calculate we have about 30 feet to go” before plans will have to be made to remove the building due to the relationship between the foundation and the slope of the bank, Nye said. Since June, erosion has carved six feet from the cliff in that location, but the heaviest erosion seasons, winter and spring, are yet to come.

The storage and dorm building predates the establishment of the refuge in 1944, when a Coast Guard station was located on the site. Material stored on the bluff side of the building is in the process of being moved.

A large crane was also used last week to remove trees that had fallen down the bank and were in danger of being swept off the beach and into the water. Harbormaster Stuart Smith said he requested that the trees be removed back in April that threatened to pose a hazard to navigation in the harbor.

“We had already seen them floating around the harbor,” he said. Debris floating in the harbor has proved fatal in the past. A boater died several years ago after being thrown in the water when his boat struck a floating log, Smith said.

Trees along the crest of the cliff were cut down to their stumps, Nye said, to prevent them from blowing or falling down “and taking the top of the bluff down with them.” By leaving the stump and roots, the hope is that the trees will remain alive and sprout in the spring, helping to stabilize the top of the bank. The work was done last Wednesday and Thursday.

“This is just to slow it down” while research is done to determine a more permanent solution to the erosion, said Nye. A rock revetment like the one on neighboring property to the west is not likely to be the choice, he added, but he's hoping to come up with a solution, such as a “living shoreline,” that will strengthen the bluff while being environmentally sensitive. He added that he has to take into consideration the impact to the Monomoy Islands, which are designated Wilderness Areas.

“It has to work for both sides,” Nye said, explaining that changing the Morris Island shoreline could have implications for the offshore area and even the barrier islands. “That's a tall order. But I'm going to look and see what's out there.”

The town has also been keeping an eye on the area, which is part of a coastal study recently done to identify ways to prevent shoaling of the Stage Harbor entrance channel and slow erosion of Crescent Beach, just west of the refuge headquarters. The study by Applied Coastal Research and Engineering recommended the town install temporary structures off the beach to reduce the amount of sand heading toward the channel.

A chief cause of the shoaling is the Fool's Cut, which opened east of the refuge headquarters in April 2017. While the coastal bank had been slowly eroding over the years, the loss of South Beach that followed the establishment of the cut opened the bluff up to more damaging waves and stronger currents.

The stump cutting of the trees opens up a panoramic vista revealing everything from North Beach Island to the northeast to Monomoy Island to the south. Nye said on a clear day the historic Monomoy Light is visible eight miles away. But at the moment it's not safe to go too near the edge of the cliff. While the boardwalk won't be restored – the small woods it used to wind through is gone – a split-rail fence will be restored and a viewing area reopened to the public.