ISLAND BEACH STATE PARK — One of New Jersey’s favorite swimming, fishing and bird-watching spots is back in business.
Island Beach State Park occupies the southernmost end of a barrier island that was pummeled by Hurricane Sandy in October.
Like many of the island’s communities, including Seaside Heights, Ortley Beach and Mantoloking, the park sustained major damage from the storm.
But unlike those heavily populated, almost fully built-out communities, the park remains close to its original wild state, with rolling sand dunes and coastal forests on a half-mile-wide spit of sand between the Atlantic Ocean and Barnegat Bay. Because there are no homes or businesses and only a handful of park-related structures on the island, much of the damage to sand dunes and the beach itself will be left to nature to repair.
During the Oct. 29 storm, the ocean cut through the island and met the bay in seven places. Those spots will be repaired using heavy equipment to push sand into the breaches to protect the park and its road from future storms.
But for other damaged areas, such as the primary dune system closest to the water that stretches for the length of the 10-mile park, the plan is to let them naturally regenerate though blowing sand and tides that constantly re-shape and sculpt the contours of the island, said Mark Texel, state parks director for the state Department of Environmental Protection.
“It’s one of the pristine undeveloped barrier islands in New Jersey, and Island Beach State Park did its job very well in the storm, protecting residents on the other side of the bay,” he said.
The park had remained closed until last weekend, when volunteer groups were allowed in to help arrange discarded Christmas trees along the shoreline in an effort to trap blowing sand and form new dunes. The northern half of the park is now open after workers dug 5 feet of sand off the road in the immediate aftermath of the storm.
It could not be reopened until nearby communities, including Seaside Park and Berkeley Township, relaxed states of emergency that includes checkpoints and a ban on most vehicle traffic as they recovered from the storm.
About half the 12 buildings in the park sustained some damage, but the bathing pavilions and showers remain intact, as does the road that runs the length of the park. Wooden walkways were smashed and splintered, and lifeguard stands washed away, but officials promise those things will be replaced before Memorial Day.
Sand from the ocean beach washed through the dune breaches, across the road and into the bay in numerous spots. Many pine trees on the island now bear an orange hue, a sign of stress from the saltwater under which they were submerged during and after the storm.
The two houses reserved for use by the governor of New Jersey — one on the ocean side of the island and one on the bay side — sustained little damage, due in large part to the robust dune system protecting them.
The storm brought benefits, too: The park now boasts new habitat for the endangered piping plover shorebird, said Ray Bukowski, the park’s manager.
And much of the island’s famous beach plum bushes survived intact. A beach plum festival, in which patrons pick the small, tart fruit for use in jelly, ice cream and even alcoholic beverages, traditionally ends the summer season at the park each September.
Additional areas of the park will be reopened as they can be cleaned of debris on the beach. That is a major priority for surf anglers who fish for striped bass, bluefish and other species throughout the year.
“This park is one of the most productive surf fishing areas in the state of New Jersey,” said Paul Harris, president of the New Jersey Beach Buggy Association. “As it gradually reopens, people will start coming back, particularly as we’re coming up on spring and striped bass season.”