The shoreline surrounding the iconic Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse is falling away at an accelerated rate.
Over the holiday season, vandalism and unauthorized use of the dunes along the shoreline put the lighthouse area on track for erosion to go up even more than its already stepped-up pace of seven feet per year over the last ten years, up from its historical average of two feet per year.
“I think the holiday period just gone is one of the worst and most impactful I’ve seen over my tenure,” said Peter DeWitt, who manages the site for the federal Bureau of Land Management. “Safety fencing was torn up from the ground, we had vegetation dragged down the dune, and evidence of other unsavory behavior.”
The areas managed by the Loxahatchee River Historical Society – the lighthouse itself, as well as a museum and other educational facilities – saw hundreds of visitors over the holiday season, but no problems, said historical society president Jamie Stuve.
The issues arose mostly from people coming in from the water and climbing up the dunes along areas that aren’t supposed to be accessed due to concerns over erosion and safety. Stuve walked the lighthouse trails with some of her own family members over the holiday, and said she was shocked by the damage she could see along the route.
“Where there had been erected some light fencing to keep people off the worst places, people had torn them down, thrown them off to the side and dug underneath them,” she said. “It resulted in feet disappearing – and it's not over years now, it's over weeks and months.”
The lighthouse area has been federally protected for more than a decade as an “outstanding natural area,” which comes with many of the same protections – and mission of education and preservation – as national parks and monuments. The protected area has more than 800 native species of plants and animals, some of which are endangered or threatened.
Throughout that whole period, DeWitt and his predecessor have been trying to get the federal government to allocate funding to protect the shoreline from erosion. They want to put in permanent structures that will stop sand from sliding and bar unauthorized use, and hire an enforcement agent who could discourage people digging caves, climbing dunes and otherwise causing sand to fall into the sea.
Residents around the lighthouse area also have safety concerns. Some of that same behavior – crawling up dunes, digging caves that can bring down sand and vegetation, pulling out fences that are meant to keep people away from steep drops – put people at risk.
Chip Block, the vice mayor of the Jupiter Inlet Colony, lives across from the lighthouse, and can see the beacon and its surrounding shoreline out of his windows. He said he’s concerned by what he sees.
“What I see when I look across the way is, there are people who are jeopardizing their safety,” he said. “In the long term, if we don’t do something, there’s going to be further degradation of the shoreline and the safety issue is going to come to a head – somebody is going to get killed over there, or badly injured.”
Block said enforcement can be tough. The lighthouse falls under several overlapping jurisdictions – federal, state Fish and Wildlife, county sheriff and several municipal agencies. The Bureau of Land Management has a law enforcement arm, but hasn’t allocated funding for an enforcement agent on the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse site. The sheriff and police departments nearby often have more pressing threats to deal with than coastal erosion and the vandalism of site trees, fences and signs.
Gene Kopf is a Jupiter resident who used to live right across from the lighthouse and fish around it almost daily. During the 16 years since he first moved to the area, he said he’s seen the edge of the inlet lighthouse area erode from a sloping 45 degree angle into the water to a carved-out cliff edge.
With the physical damage has come habitat damage, he said.
"It's screwing up the wildlife," Kopf said. "People used to snorkel there all the time, and all that's just gone – the fish are just not hanging out there any more."
He’s not convinced mere enforcement will adequately slow the damage to the natural area. He wants to see the anti-erosion barriers that the Bureau of Land Management had sketched out when it drafted its initial plan for the site.
“Having a policeman patrol it night and day is not going to stop the erosion,” he said. “If you don’t put the steel work up there, it’s going to erode anyhow.”
That, too, requires funding – it was estimated at around $3 to $4 million, and likely has an even higher price tag now, some 12 years later.
Kopf said he’s writing to his representatives in Congress to ask for the federal funds.
Stuve, with the historical society, said she feels like some of the damage reflects the failure of those working toward the lighthouse area’s future to explain why the Bureau of Land Management and others at the site are putting up fences and warning signs in the first place.
She wants people to understand what the lighthouse area could look like without constant damage – if seagrass and mangroves were allowed to thrive, and the waning fish populations started to come back as their habitat becomes less damaged.
“One of the things that is critical is that we get the vision of this as an optimized site out to the public,” she said, “so they know that it's not just, ‘No you can't do this here,’ but, ‘We're in the process of rebuilding this habitat so it'll be fantastic for you and your families to enjoy in many more – safe – ways.’”
Still, she said, education might not be enough.
“Perhaps we could reach more people that are damaging these things inadvertently, but it is tricky, because when there's a fence and people pull it down, I don't know that education is the answer there,” she said. “I know that we've put up signs and signs and signs and signs, and they've all been torn down.”
If that behavior continues, DeWitt said, it may make it harder for even rule-abiding visitors to the lighthouse site to enjoy the full scope of the site.
"They threaten the recreational access because we might need to close an area while we fix a trail – or might not be able to allow people to access the shoreline or the trails at all,” he said.