Birds vs. People on Sandy Point

Every so often somebody says something that makes me want to stand up and cheer while other people want to throw rocks. My new hero is Anne Roberts-Pierson, president of the Avalonia Land Conservancy, who put elements of a hostile crowd in its place the other night in Stonington during a forum that highlighted one of my favorite topics: the so-called rights of people vs. the need to protect wildlife. First, some background. Only a few hundred yards from shore in the protected waters of Little Narragansett Bay, Sandy Point has for decades been a popular sunbathing and picnic site for boaters who make the short trip from marinas and public launch sites in Stonington and neighboring Westerly, R.I. The narrow, mile-long, 35-acre island, which had been part of Napatree Point until the Hurricane of 1938 ripped a new channel, also is a nesting ground for a variety of shore birds, including some endangered species – and therein lies the conflict. I’ve kayaked past there many times in all seasons, and it’s easy to see why so many people find Sandy Point so appealing. In particular families with kids enjoy it because even in high tide the water near shore doesn’t get above knee-deep. Unfortunately Sandy Point also on occasion has been a favorite place for late-night beer parties. The Stonington Community Center, through an arrangement with the Avalonia Land Conservancy, had for years overseen Sandy Point and charged visitors modest fees for daily or seasonal use. But earlier this year the land conservancy – formerly the Mashantucket Land Trust, which was given Sandy Point in 1982 by the Gildersleeve family of Stonington – signed a five-year management contract with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The federal agency then announced it would close off about half the island above the mean high-water mark from April to September to protect the nests of endangered and threatened birds such as piping plovers, American oystercatchers and least terns. When word of this new decree spread, the sand hit the fan and a letter was circulated among those who evidently felt they, not some dumb birds, were being treated like a threatened species. The letter urged all those concerned about the change to attend a Land Conservancy meeting Feb. 3 to voice their displeasure. Conservancy members and advocates, aware of the potential uprising, brought along reinforcements; some 200 people packed the Stonington Community Center. That’s when Ms. Roberts-Pierson stood up and calmly announced that the forum was not a municipal meeting in which a commission had to take into consideration comments from the public before making a decision. The contract was signed, the new management was a done deal. “We’re neither asking permission or your approval to do this,” she said. In his account of the meeting in The Day, reporter Joe Wojtas also quoted Richard Potvin of the Fish & Wildlife Service, who sought to allay unfounded fears that people were being booted off Sandy Point. “We want people using Sandy Point for many years. We want them to come out to learn about the wildlife and appreciate the wildlife,” he said. Potvin, manager of the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge that spans 70 miles of Connecticut coastline, explained that refuge rules will be enforced on Sandy Point: no dogs, overnight camping, discarding cooking charcoal, entering closed nesting areas or disposing of trash. The community center will continue to sell seasonal and day passes. Fish and wildlife enforcement officer Sean Healy said staff will serve mainly to educate users about birds and their habitat. “We’re not going to go out there and start slapping handcuffs on people. That’s not what we’re there for,” he said. “If it’s something minor, we’ll talk to people and point out what they’re doing. We’re not going out there to destroy everyone’s fun.” I understand how some people chafe at new rules and are wary of government takeovers, but it sounds like the only people whose “fun” will be destroyed will be those who have left beer cans, trash and hot charcoal in the sand. Too bad.

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