Volunteers are shoveling on the beach, though not for sand castles. At Island Beach State Park, volunteers are digging holes for beachgrass.
“It’s native to this area and it grows on the dunes. It’s a very special plant because not a lot of plants can grow this close to the ocean, so it’s very sandy conditions, a lot of salt spray, a lot of high wind. So it’s really one of the only plants that thrives in those types of conditions,” said Friends of Island Beach State Park volunteer coordinator Stevie Thorsen.
About 250 people joined together on a chilly Saturday morning for the Friends of Island Beach State Park’s annual Fall Beach Grass Planting. The nonprofit, which raises funds for many of the park’s events and conservation efforts, also hosts a planting in March.
“It always has to be in cooler weather because the plants that we’re planting are dormant,” Thorsen said. “We get them harvested from a nursery in Cape May. They pull up, they are these bundles of beachgrass, they look dead at the time, they are dried up combs, they’re called, and in the spring they will start to come back to life.”
So why is beachgrass so important?
“American beachgrass is the most common type of dune grass that we have here. It’s actually the most common type all along the Eastern Seaboard so it’s a really important species of grass. The roots grow vertically and horizontally down into the ground and it holds the sand in place, and the shoots that grow up catch the sand. So not only does it hold the dune in place, but it also helps the dune grow higher. Without the beachgrass on the dunes, the sand would essentially blow away,” said Kelly Scott, park naturalist at Island Beach State Park.
“The dunes are really important. They’re our first line of defense from storms, high winds, flooding. Without the dunes, we don’t have any protection from the ocean,” said Thorsen.
The volunteers are with the Friends of the Judge’s Shack. They work to preserve and interpret a fishing hut which dates back to 1911. On this day, they’re planting in front of the building.
“If the dune is high in front of the shack, the shack is safe from storms and such,” said Ted Nickles, trustee of Friends of the Judge’s Shack.
Friends of Island Beach State Park began coordinating the plantings in the 1990s, but many of the volunteers began doing this decades before that. In 1970, they were high school students in Toms River, and they started planting then.
“It’s a great park and there’s not a lot of undeveloped barrier island in New Jersey. It’s good to make a contribution,” volunteer said George Kotzas.
By the end of the day, 15,000 beachgrass plants were added to the park.
“One beachgrass comb can actually sprout up, up to 25 new combs in a year. So one little stalk of beachgrass is going to grow really big over the course of a year. And then it actually sends out shoots underneath the ground to breed entirely new plants,” Thorsen said.
Which means they’ll be a lot more greenery to look at this summer.