Volunteers build back South Florida’s coast by hand

Adopt a Dune teams with the Youth Environmental Alliance to do this critical work

Partnering with the Youth Environmental Alliance has brought younger, environmentally conscious people to the forefront to replant the sea oats that once upon a time grew wild and free here.

POMPANO BEACH, Fla. – It’s bright and early on a Saturday morning in Pompano Beach, and way before the beachgoers arrive, the shore is already a beehive of activity.

Dozens of volunteers are hard at work, building back the coastal barrier — by hand.

This is Adopt a Dune in action. The program brings together the community to restore the beach by replanting the sea oats that once upon a time grew wild and free here.

Hollywood resident Lee Gottlieb spearheaded this dune restoration initiative 16 years ago and has since joined forces with the Youth Environmental Alliance.

“At the time I actually lived in a condo on the beach in Hollywood and watched my beach completely disappear,” Gottlieb said. “The county and the state and the federal government actually came in and did a huge renourishment project, and we had a 200-foot beach. Within six months it was all gone.”

According to a 2019 report from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, 21.3 miles of the Broward County coastline are now critically eroded.

Essential to building back those beaches is growing back the sea oats, the keystone plant of the sand dune with roots that firmly anchor into the ground — some even growing as far as 30 feet below the top of the dune.

“The fronds of the grasses themselves, and the native plants that belong here catch the sand as it blows so it doesn’t sandblast their buildings during storms, and the dunes actually act as a sponge for floodwaters so they don’t flood either,” said Kristen Hoss, a wildlife biologist and executive director of the Youth Environmental Alliance. “A lot of people just see, ‘Oh, there’s all these grasses on the beach, they’re blocking our view.’ But the reality is for people, they’re actually helping to save money and save their properties.”

The dunes also provide shelter to several important species like the glass lizard, beach mice, and sea turtles.

“So for habitat, it’s also important. One of the major losses of wildlife on the planet is habitat loss and fragmentation,” Hoss said.

Gottlieb’s goal is to create a continuous dune from Miami-Dade County to Palm Beach County by 2026, the 100-year anniversary of the deadly 1926 hurricane.

“We actually missed a lesson by taking down the dunes or building on the dunes,” he said. “We actually allowed the storm surge to come all the way in.

“We want to restore what was here 100 years ago before we came and built on the beaches. It’s been a long journey. Literally one plant at a time. But to date, we’ve probably done 6 miles of beaches. we still have a long way to go.”

And it’s not just a grassroots effort. Local governments are also growing the mission. Cities including Hollywood, Hallandale Beach, Pompano Beach and Lauderdale-by-the-Sea have adopted official “dune master plans” for their areas.

Still, the dunes themselves remain as fragile as our coastlines.

“The greatest threat is actually people walking through them, taking them out, tearing them out,” Gottlieb said.

So the future of the dunes, and the beaches they protect, rests with us.

“It’s felt really good being involved like this, because this is our future that we’re protecting,” said 15-year-old volunteer Alessandra Roberts. “My generation needs to have a good environment to live in, so it feels like I’m protecting my future.”

Said Gottlieb: “My message is [to] find a cause that helps, that gives back to the community. So you can come back years later and actually see what you did and be proud that you were part of the solution.”

For more information on Adopt a Dune, click here.

For more info on the Youth Environmental Alliance, click here.

About the Authors:

Louis Aguirre is an Emmy-award winning journalist who anchors weekday newscasts and serves as WPLG Local 10’s Environmental Advocate.