There are quite a few ocean beaches in South Jersey where motor vehicles are allowed limited access without unduly damaging habitat and threatening distinctive local wildlife. Wide sands hardened by the tide provide firm footing for four-wheel-drive SUVs and trucks.

Bay beaches are narrow and softer, lacking the ocean’s wave action and littoral drift. They are easily damaged by vehicles and, since it’s easier to walk to bay beach locations, there’s really no need for the public to drive.

Cape May County’s bay beaches have something not found on ocean beaches, or beaches anywhere else in the world for that matter — the globally significant phenomenon of hundreds of thousands of shorebirds crowding onto them in the spring during their migration north.

Middle Township’s plan to bar vehicles from its bay beaches serves many worthy goals.

Beach erosion is a big problem along Delaware Bay, not just the Atlantic, and it is worsened by the gouging of tires in the soft sand and on protective dunes. Mayor Tim Donohue said, when the vehicle ban was introduced last month, that the township’s bayside beaches “have been used and abused. There’s been a lot of damage to the dunes and dune grass.” He said vehicles often dig down and get stuck in the soft sand, putting township personnel who must go out and extract them at risk.

A long-term project by federal and state scientists is restoring the spring shorebird migration to its former glory, before the slaughter of horseshoe crabs severely depleted the crab eggs on which the birds refuel each spring.

New Jersey imposed a moratorium on taking horseshoe crabs (mainly to use as eel and conch bait) in 2008. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Council says their population must be protected until “the abundance of red knots reaches 81,900 birds.” That threatened species which annually migrates from the top of North America to the bottom of South America and back again has dropped to 30,000 birds the past couple of decades.

Middle Township Committee should give final approval to its bay beach protection ordinance today. The beaches help protect residents from storms and rising seas, provide natural beauty to them and visitors, and host a world-famous annual wildlife event. That would be a lot to lose for the sake of a little joyriding on the beach.

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