State, Feds Unveil Environmental Trail Adjacent to Causeway

Jul 04, 2018
Photo by: Ryan Morrill

Under a cloudy summer sky, 9-year-old Adrian Labetti epitomized excitement as he, his mother and grandmother walked the Cedar Bonnet Island Environmental Trail, a dog-friendly site located on the eastbound side of the Causeway. It’s a collaborative effort between state and federal agencies.

“My sister is at camp today in Surf City and we were looking for something to do, so we thought we’d come out here. It’s really worth it. I mean this is beautiful,” Labetti said, stopping to stretch his arms wide, noting he could see his home at the end of Mill Creek Road in Beach Haven West from both pavilion sites. “Being here has changed my perspective of the Island and the mainland.”

Labetti is too young to remember the site as a former confined disposal facility, which once accepted dredge materials from adjoining marina construction and channel maintenance that dated back to the 1950s. That was before it was snatched up in the early 1990s by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It hasn’t been open to the public since – until now.

“It was a dream for so long,” Virginia Rettig, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Edwin B. Forsythe Wildlife Refuge manager, said at the grand opening ceremony June 27 to a crowd of local dignitaries, including Stafford Township Mayor John Spodofora and Ship Bottom Councilmen Robert Butkus, Tom Tallon and Joe Valyo, as well as representatives from the offices of Congressmen Frank LoBiondo (R-2nd) and Thomas MacArthur (R-3rd) and state Department of Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti. “You couldn’t walk through here. It was very inaccessible.”

The state DOT worked closely with the USFWS and other stakeholders on the $9.6 million federal and state funded environmental mitigation at the site, which began in early 2015. The work included creating wetlands, mitigation for existing freshwater wetlands and modifications of two existing storm water basins within the Barnegat Bay watershed.

“This project is a real example of how the NJDOT adds to the quality of life here in the state in ways that are not always related to what we do. People don’t expect the DOT to be concerned about the environment,” Gutierrez-Scaccetti said, “but we very much respect it.”

Spodofora, who grew up locally and used to duck hunt at the site, called the final product “awesome.” “When I was first on the (township) council there was a plan to build condos here. We had to rezone the area for conservation so we could preserve it.”

The environmental mitigation project for the site is part of the larger $312 million federally funded Causeway expansion and rehabilitation project that connects the 3-mile roadway from Stafford on the mainland with Ship Bottom on Long Beach Island. A new bridge was constructed parallel to the existing one over Manahawkin Bay, providing the safety of a redundant route on or off the Island. The new bridge is 2,400 feet long with a vertical clearance of 55 feet over Manahawkin Bay. It currently has two lanes in each direction while the original Causeway Bridge is being rehabilitated. Ultimately, it will function as the bridge for eastbound traffic once the project is completed, with the rehabilitated original bridge carrying westbound traffic.

“Creating nearly 20 acres of tidal salt marsh is a true feat, and we are delighted with the results,” Rettig said.

Salt marsh is the most productive land on earth, making it an important nursery for young fish and a buffer to the upland coastline from nor’easters, hurricanes and strong waves.

“People need to understand this will help protect us from future storms,” Spodofora said, noting the trail is something the public can truly enjoy. “A lot of time the public doesn’t get to appreciate what we’re trying to preserve.”

Public Access Improvements. Included in the public access improvements for the project is a 1-mile walking path with pedestrian benches, two gazebo overlooks with picnic tables and interpretive signs located along the path. From the path, there are unblemished views of Atlantic City, the Causeway, Long Beach Island and coastal marshes and Barnegat Bay, as well as opportunities to view shore-area wildlife.

Barnegat Bay Watershed. The Route 72 Manahawkin Bay Bridges project is also located within the Barnegat Bay watershed, an area of significant ecological and recreational importance to the state. To help improve water quality within the bay and comply with the state Department of Environmental Protection storm-water management rules, the DOT took into consideration many traditional best practices for the project, resulting in significant construction and maintenance cost, as well as constructability concerns, DOT officials said.

The state agencies worked together to meet the storm-water management requirements for the project through an advanced regional approach that retrofitted two existing state-owned detention basins within the Barnegat Bay watershed, as subsurface storm-water gravel wetlands. This is the first-time storm-water gravel wetlands were constructed on a state DOT project. The approach helped the DOT exceed the water treatment requirements as well as reduce construction and maintenance costs, according to DOT officials. It also helped to accelerate the construction schedule. The subsurface gravel wetlands will help to improve the health of Barnegat Bay by reducing the amount of total suspended solids and nitrogen being deposited into the bay.

The Peregrine Falcons. The DOT also worked with USFWS, N.J  Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and DEP Endangered and Nongame Species Program to design a permanent peregrine falcon nest on a wooden tower next to the new Causeway to help provide the falcons who nest there a decent shot at success in one of the most precarious locations. These birds often make their homes under large bridges, utilizing tall structures in an urban setting to hunt.

A few things to remember when heading out on the trail for the first time: It’s pack in and pack out, which means if you bring something in, it is your responsibility to leave with it. There are no garbage bins along the trail. Once the refuge staff is ready, there will be a landing zone for kayaking. There will be a no-push-off zone. Lastly, the trail is loose gravel and roughly a mile long, so wear appropriate shoes.

For more information on NJDOT projects, follow them on Twitter @NJDOT_info and on the NJDOT Facebook page.

— Gina G. Scala

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