The small and picturesque town of Ogunquit is one of Maine's magnets for tourists. The lure that brings them there is the beach - what town leaders call the "town's treasure."
When a violent storm struck on Patriots Day 2007, sand dunes at the beach were eroded and a snow fence was destroyed. The question of what to do next caused great concern for many people. Because the beach is crucial to the town's economy, town officials felt responsible for protecting the flow of tourist dollars and wanted to assure adequate access to the beach.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has the responsibility to protect endangered species and wanted to ensure that any beach restoration efforts didn't damage wildlife habitat. A group of community members were particularly concerned about the Piping Plover, an endangered species of bird protected by federal environmental law.
Balancing these interests and bringing the parties together took time, patience, consultation and cooperation. But after nearly two years of meetings and negotiations, a number of agreements were reached among the parties.
They agreed to maintain a section of the beach as a "natural beach." When grooming that section of beach, the town will not remove seaweed, allowing it to remain as a source of nutrients for wildlife and for dune grass.
The parties also agreed to install a stretch of fence made of two strands of wire rather than the common type of snow fence, so movement of the birds to and from their nesting area would not be impeded. The fence is also intended to keep people from trampling the dune grass, which is needed to stabilize the dunes.
Until FEMA was certain that all the environmental and historic agencies were in agreement and the needs of the stakeholders were met, the Federal Emergency Management Agency could not approve funding for the fence. When the parties reached these agreements, FEMA's Public Assistance program (through the Maine Emergency Management Agency) was able to fund 75% of the cost of installing the fence, which had been damaged during the federally declared disaster.
The results were encouraging to conservationists who celebrated the return of a pair of piping plovers in the summer of 2009. Chicks were hatched and three survived. "We really feel proud about the little family raised here this summer," said Laura Jaquays, the volunteer coordinator of Ogunquit's Piping Plover Project.
Volunteers monitor the beach and explain the project to beachgoers. "No one has given us any problem about the protective fencing," she said.
The Piping Plover warrants attention because the population has been declining. Mark McCollough of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said there were 60 known pairs of Piping Plovers in Maine in 2001. By 2009, the number had dwindled from 60 to 20.
"The Piping Plovers are like canaries in the coal mine," said McCollough. "When they're not doing well, the ecosystem isn't doing well."
This effort to protect the birds gained praise from Peter Slovinski of the Maine Geological Survey. "It's an educational process that can be extremely positive," he said.
Town Manager Tom Fortier called the agreements "a win-win solution" that satisfies the town's economic interest, protects the piping plovers and helps keep people off the dunes. "It's fantastic," he said. "Everyone had their own interests but they were able to meet the goals within their own agency and come to agreement with others."
Nowadays, everyone looks to manage risks. But the ocean and beach are dynamic. A severe storm could wipe out the work that was done. The stakeholders acknowledged that risk but were not deterred by it. Advocates for the agreement were pleased that stakeholders had accepted a plan that gives nature time to heal itself.