Perspectives Online

Sea oats researcher co-authors book on coastal dunes

David Nash holds The Dune Book, which explains dune management and beach protection methods.
Photo by Art Latham

The 320 miles of North Carolina's shoreline bordering the Atlantic Ocean are among the state's most valuable resources.

But, as David Nash, North Carolina Cooperative Extension area specialized agent in coastal management, continues to warn oceanfront property-owners, "whatever the water wants, it takes."

To emphasize that dictum, Nash and Spencer Rogers, N.C. Sea Grant coastal construction and erosion specialist, recently co-authored The Dune Book, an easily understood, graphically pleasing explanation of how dunes and sea interact and the proper methods for building and anchoring protective sand dunes.

In part due to the book, Nash was named the N.C. and National Wildlife Federation Governor's Award conservation educator for 2004.

The Dune Book addresses dune management practices such as protecting beach access ways, sand and rope fences, Christmas trees, vehicular ramps, permits and the myth of beach scraping or bulldozing. (Not recommended, since it's temporary, cosmetic and can kill useful sand-anchoring plants and waves.)

Water levels and sand sizes are what actually sculpt the dune line, says Nash, who works in Brunswick, Carteret, New Hanover, Onslow and Pender counties.

Why worry about a little sand and water?

The beach, Nash says, is the state's top tourist destination, contributing millions of dollars to economies that in turn provide thousands of jobs. And coastal property real estate values are among the state's highest, providing a substantial tax base for coastal counties.

As more people move the coast, the need for coastal management and conservation programs becomes critical.

"Cooperative Extension is uniquely positioned to address these emerging needs and issues," Nash says on his Web site. "Through public education programs and working with coastal municipalities and residents, Extension provides answers to meet the needs of coastal communities, residents and visitors."

To develop one of those answers, Nash introduced a system for cultivating local sea oat seeds. Based on tobacco germination techniques, it involves growing seedlings on floating greenhouse beds.

In addition to cultivating sea oats for dune establishment, for the last four years, Nash has grown seabeach amaranth at the Town of Oak Island greenhouse for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Charleston office.  

"The plant is on their federal threatened list," he said recently. "They use the plants we grow for them to re-establish it along the South Carolina coast."

Along with sea oats, Nash starts bitter panicum, seashore elder and saltmeadow cordgrass. And he's growing a few estuary species - smooth and giant cordgrass and sea oxeye daisy - important for erosion control and pollution buffers.

"Each is important to mix in with sea oats to build and add stability to the ecology of the dune environment, and all appear to be able to be commercially produced using the float system method," Nash said.  

He's working now on the best methods to develop each species, making sure the Carolina coast remains a valuable resource for future generations.

Currently offered Extension coastal programs include:

. Understanding the beach and dune system and home landscaping on barrier islands

. Vegetation's role in dune-building and stabilization; dune vegetation planning for coastal communities, property owners; dune fertilization and management; commercial production of native dune and estuary species

. A dune conservation volunteer program

. Educational programs for elementary through high school, adult and youth, civic groups and clubs

. Eco-tourism education programs  

 - Art Latham