Primehook Beach residents: We want the dunes back

Refuge management collects final comments on conservation plan
Primehook Beach Organization Vice Chairman Richard Allan reads from an eight-page report. BY RON MACARTHUR
June 22, 2012

Primehook Beach residents rejected three alternatives proposed in a long-awated draft conservation plan for Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge.

More than two dozen speakers at a June 19 agreed that none of three proposed alternatives for refuge and habitat management addresses public health and safety, private property, infrastructure and overall sustainability of Primehook Beach and nearby farms. Residents said the plan ignores their concerns, and they demanded that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service go back to the drawing board.

Speakers also agreed that whatever alternative is adopted, the breaches that allow free flow of saltwater into the Unit 2 impoundment should be filled and the dunes restored.

“What we all want is the dunes back. The dunes can be replaced; you can find the money,” said Otis Clifton, who lives near the refuge.

The 1,100-page draft plan has been in the works for eight years.

“Kicking the can down the road management policy for a few more years while the Delaware Bay has free play in our neighborhoods and with our lives does not pass muster,” said Richard Allan, vice chairman of the Primehook Beach Organization.

Allan read an eight-page report into the record during the hearing at Cape Henlopen High School. “We urge the service to forge a responsible preferred alternative that takes into account the conditions on the ground and the day-to- day threat of flooding and inundation from the breaches to Primehook Beach residents and infrastructure from the refuge impoundments – one that affords a reasonable plan for protection of life, property and general wellbeing,” he said.

Allan said the refuge owns and manages an open front door on the shoreline because of breaches and overwashes that have created a counterpart open back door where bay waters flow into adjacent communities.

Jim Bailey of Broadkill Beach read a press release from the Department of Interior written in July 1963, the year the refuge was established. “With the ever increasing shrinkage of public access to our East Coast beaches, the citizens of Delaware can be assured that the beaches within the Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge will be preserved for the benefit of present and future generations,” the press release noted.

Bailey said proper water management was critical to protect residents in the bay communities. “Your premier obligation is to protect the citizens,” he said.

Federal plan contains three options

The federal plan offers three alternatives: Option A would maintain status quo, continuing current management practices; Option B – the preferred alternative – would manage the refuge to mimic natural processes by restoring all four impoundments to salt marsh, doing away with freshwater marsh; and Option C would return the refuge to the way it was managed early in the last decade by maintaining artificial freshwater impoundments behind a restored dune line along Delaware Bay.

Refuge officials have selected Alternative B as the preferred alternative based on sustainability and cost effectiveness.

Since 2009, several breaches in the dune line have allowed the free flow of saltwater into refuge marshes. Saltwater has caused extensive damage to the Unit 2 freshwater impoundment; that damage now extends into Unit 3. Refuge officials say no work can be done to repair the dunes until after the conservation plan is adopted.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Regional Planner Tom Bonetti said the planning process started in the late 1990s. “It's taken much longer than two to three years because doing the plans has been more complicated than expected,” he said. The Prime Hook plan has taken eight years to publish.

Bonetti outlined the issues facing Prime Hook. “It's not just wildlife issues, but many more serious issues that even go on beyond refuge boundaries that include flooding and transportation. There have to be more than just biological solutions that might include engineering and hydrology.”

The public comes out to comment

Sussex County Councilman Joan Deaver said bay residents are in jeopardy and conditions are getting worse every day. “There has to be a way to save the dunes; why can't the federal government figure it out?” she asked. “We are all more than frustrated and disappointed.”

She said the Fish and Wildlife Service created a beautiful thing when the refuge was established, and the county has benefited tremendously. “Now the government has been asleep at the switch,” she said.

Primehook Beach resident Joe McCannn said the Fish and Wildlife Service's failure to fill the breaches is the most significant decision made at the refuge in 50 years. He said understands the pros and cons of living on a barrier island. “I pay insurance premiums to live here, but I can't purchase insurance against negligence,” he said.

He, like several others, said the plan deals with the refuge over the next 15 years. “We are concerned about the next five years,” he said.

Another Primehook Beach resident, Richard Huffman, urged refuge managers to cut through the red tape and fill the breaches this summer before the fall storms hit.

Richard Rogers of Primehook Beach said the 800-pound gorilla that has not been addressed in the plan is flooding. “There is nothing in there, specifically, on what to do with flooding waters,” he said. He read into the record two presidential executive orders requiring actions to alleviate the impact of flooding and cooperative conservation. “I see nothing in the plan that establishes compliance with the executive orders,” he said.

Slaughter Beach resident Bill Krause, an engineer, said he didn't understand the relevance of sea-level rise in the plan. He said over the past 30,000 years there has been 300 feet of sea-level. “In this 15-year plan, that's less than 2 inches. It's ludicrous to say we can't do anything,” he said.

Nearby resident Hank Draper said if all the options in the preferred alternative are enacted, refuge staff won't have much work to do. “Are layoffs in store? What is everyone going to do?” he asked. He called the lack of maintenance on the refuge shameful. “I'd love to work with you and be on your side.”

Another public hearing scheduled

Bonetti said because of public demand, another hearing has been scheduled at 6 p.m. Thursday, July 19, at the Milford Senior Center. The deadline for written comments on the plan is Monday, Aug. 6.

Comments on the plan can be made at the hearings or by mail, fax and e-mail with a deadline of Monday, Aug. 6. Addresses and numbers are:; 413-253-8468; Thomas Bonetti, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 300 Westgate Center Dr., Hadly, MA 01035.

Copies of the plan can be downloaded at or ask for a copy on CD-ROM from refuge staff at 302-684-8419 or at the above email address.

Bonetti outlined the following as a tentative schedule: October – release final plan for 30-day public review; November – plan to regional director for approval; December – distribute final plan; January, 2013 – begin implementation of plan.

Hunters urge officials to keep structures

Several hunters spoke out against regulations in the draft conservation plan. Possible changes include the removal of 130 duck blinds and deer stands on the refuge. Hank Draper said hunting proposals in the plan are far from what hunters want. “You either want to shut down deer hunting or hunters are being set up to fail on their own by the parameters you have set up,” he said.

Karl Schweiger said open, roaming hunting – without deer stands – is fine for large parcels but not on small wooded lots like those found on the refuge. “It's a safety issue, and it's not good, quality hunting. In a deer stand you are elevated, can see all and know where other hunters are,” he said.

Every hunter who spoke urged refuge management not to change the current practice of using hunting structures. “Going back to the old ways leads to trespassing and possible injuries,” said Michael Volzone.

David Weber, a bird watcher and photographer who frequents the refuge, said the proposal allowing for extended hunting seasons leaves just three months to those who “like to get out there” and hike and observe wildlife in the refuge. “We don't want to interfere with hunters, but we want our fair share as well,” he said.


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