By Michele S. Byers
For an area with little good news since Super Storm Sandy, it was a symbolic victory last week when the beach town of Belmar drove in the first piling to reconstruct its boardwalk. Gov. Christie was on-site, along with TV network news cameras.
It’s the start of a massive effort to get the Belmar boardwalk rebuilt in time for Memorial Day, and a clear signal that the Jersey Shore is down but not out.
Belmar should be cheered for its can-do spirit … as well as its decision to construct the boardwalk from a recycled plastic-wood composite rather than tropical hardwoods from our world’s threatened rainforests.
Prior to the groundbreaking, officials had planned to rebuild the boardwalk using Tabebuia wood from two Amazon rainforest species commonly known as ipe.
Ipe is a dense hardwood known for its toughness and durability. But it’s harvested with unsustainable, indiscriminate and irresponsible logging practices in the Amazon, doing irreparable damage to indigenous wildlife and contributing to global climate change.
Belmar wisely abandoned its plan to use ipe wood after a public outcry.
But the Belmar debate raises the question of how we rebuild boardwalks – and other storm-damaged beach buildings, schools, municipal buildings, firehouses and public infrastructure – in a way that’s forward thinking and sustainable.
It would be a sad irony if the places in New Jersey most threatened by climate change were to choose building materials whose harvest contributes to it.
“Using this (ipe) wood impacts critically and environmentally important rainforest and adds greenhouse gases, increasing climate disruption,” wrote Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, in a letter to Belmar officials arguing against ipe.
“Shipping the wood over 6,000 miles from the Amazon increases the climate change footprint of the boardwalk project,” Tittel added. “We believe using public money to pay for this unsustainable wood is wrong.”
Storms of increasing frequency and ferocity are expected to hit the Jersey Shore, along with a rising sea level.
Public facilities that are rebuilt post-Sandy should be as “green” as possible. And towns shouldn’t plunge into rebuilding before thinking it through carefully.
Boardwalks have been a New Jersey tradition for more than a century, but they’re inherently precarious due to their proximity to the churning sea. Many boardwalks that were destroyed in the storm were already too close to the mean high tide line.
In some former boardwalk locations, room no longer exists on the seaward side to build protective dunes high and wide enough to resist future storm surges and sea level rise. Given a choice between dunes that will be resilient and sustainable and a boardwalk that will likely have to be rebuilt over and over, the dunes should win.
In locations that lend themselves to rebuilding boardwalks and other beach facilities, there are many alternatives to ipe and other woods whose harvest harms the environment.
Alternatives include boards manufactured of recycled plastics. Not only do these “faux woods” keep plastics out of landfills, they are durable and don’t splinter.
Towns that want old-fashioned wooden boardwalks should look for woods certified as sustainable by the Forest Stewardship Council, which promotes the responsible management of forests worldwide. Coastal communities can also salvage wood that was impacted by the storm.
To learn more about sustainable woods, visit the Forest Stewardship Council website at us.fsc.org. To find out more about the importance of protecting rainforests, go to the Rainforest Alliance website at www.rainforest-alliance.org.
And for more information about preserving our land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at email@example.com.
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.