Editor's note: Milan Bull is the Connecticut Audubon Society's senior director of science and conservation, as well as a member of the commission that has been reviewing , which includes a 1,320-foot-long boardwalk.
By Milan Bull
It will come as no surprise to Connecticut residents that unspoiled natural habitat on Long Island Sound is rare.
We have miles and miles of shorefront development -- condos, houses, subdivisions -- that put the squeeze on our remaining natural areas, the small patches of salt marsh and strips of beach and mudflat. And in the warm weather most of those beaches are crowded with people.
That makes it important to protect, as much as possible, beaches that provide first-rate habitat. And that's why Connecticut Audubon Society is against a proposal to build an excessively large boardwalk on Long Beach in Stratford.
A barrier beach that stretches for a mile from Stratford to Bridgeport, Long Beach is an important part of a mosaic of habitats near the mouth of the Housatonic River. That mosaic includes 1,500 acres of salt marsh, vast mudflats, the dunes and beaches at Milford Point and Stratford Point, and the Housatonic estuary itself.
Tens of thousands of birds nest and feed there. Diamondback terrapins nest there. Fish swim upriver to spawn, use the marshes as nurseries, and feed on the millions of tiny plants and animals that make up the rich mass of plankton at the river's mouth. Oysters spawn there and the river's current helps shellfish beds in other parts of the Sound.
Much of the area is part of the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge, and the natural habitats that aren't technically in the refuge are nevertheless an important part of the whole.
Long Beach fits into that category. Among other things, the barrier beach helps protect the Great Meadows salt marsh and it provides excellent habitat for Piping Plovers, which are listed as threatened under the federal and state Endangered Species Acts, and therefore afforded the exact same protections as endangered species.
Piping Plovers nest in only 14 of the 25 towns and cities along the Sound in Connecticut, and they nest only on untrammelled beaches -- the more that people (and dogs) use a beach, the less likely Piping Plovers are to successfully nest. Over the last 22 years, Piping Plovers have done OK at Long Beach: 144 pairs have nested there, an average of 6.5 pairs a year. In a state where only 748 pairs have nested in total over that same period, that's a significant percentage.
A committee formed by the Town of Stratford has been debating the future of Long Beach, and the most contentious issue is the boardwalk. Some members want a boardwalk that stretches 12 feet wide and 1,320 feet long -- a replica of a popular boardwalk at Silver Sands State Park, in Milford. Others want no boardwalk.
Connecticut Audubon Society recognizes that there are legitimate competing uses for the Long Island Sound waterfront, and we know that public access to the Sound is important for maintaining support for the expensive Sound cleanup that is now underway.
We think that a much smaller boardwalk than the 1,320-feet long proposal would be more than adequate. It will give the public access that's appropriate for a sensitive conservation area while also helping to protect the beach and its nesting birds.
Having collaborated for many years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, we are confident they can collaborate to design and locate an appropriately-sized boardwalk that makes it easier for people to use Long Beach while also providing Piping Plovers and other sensitive wildlife the habitat they need.