Case Studies

Watch Hill Conservancy – Building Knowledge to Respond to Change

Napatree Point is a 1.5 mile long, 86 acre peninsula in Block Island Sound in Westerly, Rhode Island.  Bordered by Little Narragansett Bay, a small estuary of the Pawcatuck River, to the north, and the Atlantic Ocean to the south, this sandy spit is home to a variety of habitats and species, and is a popular recreation destination.  Formerly developed beachfront areas of Napatree Point were totally destroyed by the Hurricane of 1938.  In 1945 Napatree Point was sold to the Watch Hill Fire District (WHFD) to preserve and protect the ecosystem for all citizens to enjoy.  Napatree Point is the southernmost and westernmost point of mainland Rhode Island.

Value of the land and habitat

The long sandy spit known as Napatree Point was formed by longshore drift as well as geological changes caused by periodic hurricanes and coastal erosion processes.  Once heavily wooded, the name “Napatree” reportedly referred to the “Nap” (or Neck) of Trees before it was deforested by the “Great September Gale of 1815.”  Today, Napatree Point is a wildlife preserve and a popular public beach protected by the Watch Hill Conservancy and the Watch Hill Fire District.  This area is home to osprey and American oystercatchers, and is one of the most important migratory bird stopover points on the East Coast and provides a year-round habitat for a variety of species.  The Napatree Point Conservation Area provides a large area of nesting habitat for piping plovers, making it an important site for the recovery of the Atlantic coast population. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has monitored Piping Plovers on Napatree since 2001. A partnership was formed between the Watch Hill Conservancy and the FWS to implement the actions outlined in the Piping Plover Recovery Plan.  The Watch Hill Conservancy has partnered with local institutions and individuals to develop baseline monitoring data as well as deploy an educational program to raise awareness about and support preservation efforts in the area.

Conservation concerns

A number of issues are of significant conservation concern on Napatree.  The Napatree lagoon, shoreline and barrier dune are forever changing, especially after large storms.  The NPCA and geologists at Eastern Connecticut State University are carefully monitoring the shoreline and dunes of Napatree.  Invasive species are an ongoing issue at Napatree.  NPCA scientists are monitoring the composition and extent of woody vegetation to ensure that invasive plants such as beach rose (Rosa rugosa) do not outcompete native bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica), a beneficial species for birds and wildlife. Disturbance to shorebirds and plovers by beach walkers is an ongoing challenge.  The NPCA is working to manage human traffic on Napatree to allow the public to enjoy the site, but in a way that does not disturb wildlife or erode dunes. A 200 acre patch of eelgrass (submerged aquatic vegetation that is important habitat for fish and shellfish), the largest in Rhode Island, lies just offshore Napatree Point in Little Narragansett Bay.  Eelgrass can be damaged by boaters anchoring in the area; thus, educating the public of this important (but invisible) submerged habitat is an ongoing challenge.

Current protection status and management plan

Almost all of Napatree Point is owned by the Watch Hill Fire District with a conservation easement (the Chaplin B. Barnes Conservation Easement) held by the Watch Hill Conservancy.  Baseline documentation of the site has been developed in partnership with the Rhode Island Natural History Survey. Management planning is done by NPCA scientists, managers, and the Science Advisors to the Watch Hill Conservancy. Monitoring results and management plans are reviewed annually and published in the annual State of Napatree report.

Process of achieving protection and resilience to climate change

The single-most important management activity that the Watch Hill Conservancy is doing to promote climate change resilience is to ensure that normal ecosystem processes be allowed to occur at Napatree Point.  For example, the dunes running the length of Napatree have migrated north approximately one-half the width of the barrier (200 feet) since 1939. The habitats of Napatree are incredibly resilient if allowed to respond naturally to climate and storms.  Ongoing monitoring of shoreline, dune elevation, water quality, and biodiversity on the site allows WHC to develop a baseline ecological condition for Napatree that encompasses annual variation and seasonal changes.

Plans for the future

Future stewardship plans for Napatree include a number of exciting projects.  The Conservancy is seeking grant funds to restore tree and shrub habitat (the “Nap of Trees”) on the west end of Napatree.  The vertical structure that trees and shrubs provide is important habitat for birds and insects. Vigilance for invasive species is an ongoing activity as is monitoring the breeding success of piping plovers, a federally listed species.   The shoreline and dune monitoring by Dr. Bryan Oakley at Eastern Connecticut State University promises to yield exciting data on the dynamic nature of the barrier system.  Almost nothing is known about the 14 acre lagoon on the west end of Napatree. The lagoon is habitat for scores of species of shorebirds and is critical habitat for breeding horseshoe crabs.  The WHC has just initiated a baseline study of this important habitat on Napatree. The University of Rhode Island Coastal Institute has designated the Napatree Point Conservation Area one of a number of demonstration sites in the state to showcase climate change adaptation in coastal systems.

Engaging Stakeholders

The Watch Hill Conservancy and Watch Hill Fire District work hard to inform and engage stakeholders. The Napatree Investigators program, a children’s education series offered during the summer months, educates youth on coastal ecology and conservation. Volunteer monitoring of breeding horseshoe crabs and assisting in beach cleanups are popular activities with families in the community.  In the summer, guided natural history walks given by Conservancy staff educate the public on the ecology of the site.  The Conservancy publishes a regular newsletter that features natural history news and exciting observations of wildlife at Napatree. The public is encouraged to visit the Napatree Point Conservation Area. Access to Napatree is free, trails across the dunes are well-marked, and signage educates the public about the ecology and natural history of the site. The management goal is to make Napatree an enjoyable and informative destination for visitors.

Key Partners

Partners include:

    • Watch Hill Fire District
    • University of Rhode Island
    • The URI Watershed Watch Program
    • The URI Coastal Institute
    • Eastern Connecticut State University
    • Sacred Heart University
    • The Rhode Island Natural History Survey
    • Save the Bay
    • United States Fish and Wildlife Service
    • United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service
    • Town of Westerly, RI

Lessons learned

  • Resource management on Napatree must be based on scientific data obtained through ongoing monitoring programs. The WHC is committed to adopting data-driven policies and best management practices.
  • Visitors to Napatree typically want to do “the right thing” to protect the environment.  Therefore, it is important to educate the public on appropriate recreational uses of the area but in a way that does not jeopardize the ecological integrity of Napatree.
  • It is never too early to instill an appreciation of the environment in our youth.  Today’s students in the Napatree Investigators education program are tomorrow’s custodians of the Napatree Conservation Area.