Before a packed township council meeting Tuesday night, the manager of the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge told boaters from across the Jersey Shore that one of their favorite destinations would be off-limits this summer.
Virginia Rettig told dozens of angry boaters that any recreation in the areas known as F-Cove and T-Cove must be tied to wildlife, and "boating, for boating's sake ... is what we call, 'not an appropriate use of a wildlife refuge.'"
Technically, Rettig said, public access was never allowed at the 12-acre cove off Barnegat Bay, which got its name because its lagoons – once slated to be a residential housing development – are in the shape of the letter 'F.'
But since 1991, when the federal government took over the site and included it as part of the refuge, the access ban was never enforced, partly because there was a question as to who owned the actual waterways in between the federally owned land. Last year, Rettig said, a determination was made after consultations with the state and government lawyers that the waterways were under federal jurisdiction, mainly because they were manmade, and thus not a naturally-occurring tidal flow area.
That explanation did not sit well with members of the boating community, nor township council members.
"It just hurts," said Brick resident Kevin Kohler. "People spent their entire lives there, they have memories there."
"One could kind of compare this to what's going on with the Port Authority and the toll hikes — ram it through, and then ask questions later," he added.
"What wildlife is being harmed?" asked Point Pleasant Beach resident Chris Cavaiola.
"We have not done specific studies that have addressed that," Rettig replied, to a round of grumbles from the audience.
"Honestly, I think this is a little too much government," said Councilman Domenick Brando, who pledged to contact federal and state officials in hopes of working out a solution.
While Rettig said the cove will definitely remain closed for the 2012 summer season, a formal review will begin next fall which will eventually determine the scope of public access — if any — that will be allowed in the area.
Under federal law, any public access to a designated wildlife refuge must be specifically tied to wildlife. Six activities are allowed: hunting, fishing, wildlife observation and photography, and environmental education and interpretation.
Some parts of the Forsythe refuge are open to the public, including the Holgate portion, where four-wheel drive vehicles can access the beach so people can fish.
Several members of the audience called on Rettig to reopen the coves while the review process is taking place, a suggestion that she said will not come to fruition.
"If we're allowing the public in there, engaging in activities which we haven't authorized, I'm responsible, and we really don't want anybody getting hurt," she said.
Many members of the public who spoke blasted the agency for disallowing access to 12 acres of the 47,000 acre refuge, which stretches from Brick Township to Galloway Township.
Hypothetical scenarios were discussed that would see the federal government relinquishing the land back to the township in the event that Brick exchanged F-Cove for more environmentally valuable pieces of wetland. Though a long shot, Rettig acknowledged such deals have been made before.
But such a scenario aside, the formal process for gaining back access to the site will include an environmental review and public comment period which will begin in September. Eventually, a determination will be made whether the coves can be reopened to some type of public access, which may or may not include powerboats.
"I actually sympathize," Rettig told boaters. "However I have a management responsibility as the manager of a national wildlife refuge, and this is the point where we are with these two sites."