Letter to the Editor
On Sunday, September 18 a boat ran aground and capsized while operating in Fire Island National Seashore’s wilderness breach, a channel closed to boating. Eight passengers, rescued by National Park Service (NPS) Rangers and Town of Brookhaven lifeguards, were transported off of Fire Island by the Village of Bellport to the South Country Ambulance Company.
“Since the breach opened in 2012 there have been 17 calls for assistance and two rescues,” said NPS Supervisory Park Ranger Jon Swindle, who was first on the scene. “This is a dangerous area that is difficult to navigate,” said Swindle, “which is the primary reason swimming and boating are not permitted in the breach.”
The breach, a channel connecting ocean to bay, formed in the Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness during Hurricane Sandy in October, 2012. Waves and tides influence the shape and position of the flood shoals north of the breach in the Great South Bay, the main channel of the breach, and the ebb shoals south of the breach. These dynamic features are constantly changing and present a significant safety risk.
Access to the eastern shoreline of the breach is available from the Wilderness Visitor Center on foot or with a recreational driving permit, and the western shoreline may be reached from Davis Park and points west. However, wading, swimming, paddling, and boating in the breach have been prohibited since it opened to ensure visitor safety and to preserve the primitive character of the federally designated wilderness. Signage is not used in this area due to the dynamic nature of the shoreline.
The Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness is the only federally designated wilderness in New York State. Federal wilderness areas are wild, undeveloped, federal lands that have been designated and protected by Congress. Federal wilderness areas are to be managed “to preserve natural conditions” and to be “untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Management of the Fire Island Wilderness must comply with the Wilderness Act (Public Law 88-577), the 1980 legislation that established the Fire Island Wilderness (Public Law 96-585), the 1983 Wilderness Management Plan, and the anticipated 2016 Fire Island National Seashore Wilderness Stewardship Plan and Backcountry Camping Policy.
The NPS is in the process of making a decision to determine whether or not to close the breach and will release a Draft Fire Island Wilderness Breach Management Plan/Environmental Impact Statement (Draft Breach Plan/EIS) for public review and comment this fall. The Draft Breach Plan/EIS will evaluate alternatives for managing the wilderness breach. The desired outcome of the plan is to ensure the continued integrity of the natural and cultural features at Fire Island National Seashore and the Great South Bay, while protecting human life and managing the risk of economic and physical damage to the surrounding ecosystems. Visit the NPS Planning, Environment and Public Comment website for more information on the Draft Breach Plan/EIS: https://www.nps.gov/fiis/planyourvisit/fireislandwilderness.htm.
Public Affairs Specialist
Fire Island National Seashore