Dune restoration offers hope for more resilient New England coastal communities

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For the residents of five coastal New England communities grappling with rapid shoreline erosion and coastal flooding, a new feeling of hope is beginning to emerge.

Armed with the knowledge that they can improve the resilience of their coastlines, more than 1,100 community members and students from three towns in Mass. — Newbury, Newburyport and Salisbury — and two in N.H. — Seabrook and Hampton — have eagerly thrown themselves into the restoration of their native sand dunes. Dunes provide the front lines of coastal storm defense, absorbing wave energy and reducing the extent of coastal flooding and erosion.

Ecologists call the roughly 10-mile coastal area stretching from Newbury, Mass., up to Hampton, N.H. the “Great Marsh Estuary,” which contains numerous fragile habitats like salt marshes, tidal creeks, mudflats and dunes. Encroachment from homes, businesses, roads and infrastructure has hindered natural dune processes in this region. Dune restoration usually involves re-establishing native plants and installing fencing to anchor sand in place and help the dunes grow; this is considered a “soft” solution to the problem — compared to “hard” solutions like sea walls — and can be an important part of the overall plan to improve coastal resilience to storm surge and sea-level rise.  

Aerial view of Hampton Beach State Park dunes

Above: Volunteers plant beachgrass on dunes at Hampton Beach State Park. Photo by: Gregg Moore.

Spearheading these dune restoration efforts is a four-person group, the self-dubbed UNH Coastal Habitat Restoration Team, consisting of: Alyson Eberhardt, coastal ecosystems specialist for N.H. Sea Grant/UNH Cooperative Extension; Gregg Moore, a coastal restoration ecologist and research associate professor in the UNH Department of Biological Sciences; David Burdick, UNH research associate professor of coastal ecology and restoration; and Catherine Ashcraft, assistant professor in the UNH Department of Natural Resources and the Environment. The team is working closely with numerous partners and organizations in the region to accomplish their goals.

“Each community is different in terms of the status of their sand dunes, the built environment surrounding the dunes, the culture of the town, and the nearshore processes affecting the shoreline,” Eberhardt explained.

More than 80 percent of N.H.’s native dunes have been destroyed or developed, so what’s left is considered remnant dune and is subject to destabilization by the numerous walking paths created by beachgoers heading to the ocean. In addition, nearby sea walls and jetties can rob the dunes of their necessary sand, storm surge exacerbates the loss and there has been a recent die-off of the native beachgrass — the cause of which will be examined in a new project funded by N.H. Sea Grant.

Man and woman smile while planting beachgrass

Above: Gregg Moore (L) works with volunteers to help plant beachgrass on dunes.

The level of community support for dune restoration has been “unprecedented,” said Moore, with the residents pitching in to help wherever they can, providing parking areas, hand tools and supplies, and sometimes even food and water for the volunteers. The team’s willingness to be flexible is a likely reason for the support. Finding a balance point to provide beach access for people, habitat for animals — including the federally threatened piping plovers  — and space for dunes to grow is a challenge. The towns’ conservation commissions, residents, state agencies and town natural resource planners (in communities that have them) have been involved in every step of the decision-making process to make sure all needs are being addressed.

“When we have a town meeting, the community members tell us what they want, and we try to directly address their needs with boots on the ground and acres restored,” Moore said. “We’re on a first-name basis with these community members. We’re transferring skills, empowering leadership at a grassroots level and facilitating where we can. It’s a dream come true,” he added.

Woman walks to dunes with beachgrass in hand.

Above: Hampton Beach resident Julie Martinelli has been a fixture at many of the area's dune restoration efforts.

Hampton Beach resident Julie Martinelli has helped out with many of the restoration events. “I believe strongly in being a good steward of nature,” Martinelli explained. “Given how close residents and businesses are to the beach, we need to help sustain the dunes,” she said. “Working on the dunes has given me an avenue to meet other like-minded people and begin to weave my own fabric of community,” she added.

The UNH Coastal Habitat Restoration Team has also engaged 32 teachers and 814 students in the restoration efforts. Eberhardt provides a brief lesson in dune ecology, then students spend half a day planting beachgrass and other native dune species, including goldenrod, sea rocket, bayberry and beach plum. This demonstrates to students how they can get involved in helping their community and the importance of volunteering, and the efforts often tie into national science teaching standards.  

Three young students smile and plant beachgrass in sand.

Above: Fourth-grade students from the High Plains Elementary School in Andover, Mass., help to plant beachgrass for dune restoration efforts. Photo by: Gregg Moore.

Another benefit of these efforts has been the establishment of a beachgrass community garden at Hampton Beach State Park. The garden was created to provide a local source of plants for the dune restoration efforts. Beachfront homeowners who are interested in building up the dunes in front of their houses also have free access to transplant the beachgrass from the community garden to their property.

Man and woman separate sections of beachgrass on sand.

Above: David Burdick (L) and Alyson Eberhardt (R) separate stems of beachgrass near the common garden at Hampton Beach State Park.

Overall, Eberhardt said she finds the entire process incredibly rewarding. “I feel like I’m really doing my job as a Sea Grant extension agent, which is listening to the challenges of the people, their needs, and then addressing them,” she said.

UNH’s dune restoration work in Mass. was funded by the Mass. Coastal Zone Management Green Infrastructure Grant in collaboration with the Town of Newbury, and by a Department of Interior Hurricane Sandy Coastal Resiliency Grant awarded to partners at the National Wildlife Federation. The dune restoration work in N.H. has been supported by the N.H. Coastal Program and N.H. Sea Grant. You can check out more photos of these dune restoration efforts or watch a video created by UNH.

For more information, please contact Alyson Eberhardt at alyson.eberhardt@unh.edu or 603.862.6709, or Gregg Moore at gregg.moore@unh.edu or 603.862.5138. 

N.H. Sea Grant promotes the wise use, conservation and sustainable development of marine and coastal resources in the state, the region and beyond. Located at the University of New Hampshire, NHSG is part of a national network of programs located in our coastal and Great Lakes states as well as in Puerto Rico and Guam. 

Rebecca Zeiber, N.H. Sea Grant Science Writer