Walking the trails around the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse area, it’s easy to see why the site’s manager describes the role as his dream job.
He's been working there for six years, and remembers its individual plants in precise detail.
"I remember when this mangrove used to sit on the fringe, and now it's 10, 11 feet out there on its own little clump," he says, gesturing. Further down the trail, he points out sand pine scrub and hardwood hammock ecosystems that he's seen flourish over the years.
The land overlooks the crystal-blue waters of the Indian and Loxahatchee rivers and, after years of careful plant removal and reintroduction, is lush with native flora – various species of wild pine, cabbage palms and milkweed, among others.
It’s 120 acres of protected land that’s designated for public use, on a shoreline that’s dominated by private, multimillion dollar homes.
It’s also under threat.
Since 1953, the area around the lighthouse has lost five acres of land – estimated to be worth between $4.8 and $24.4 million – to erosion.
Much of the erosion is natural, a consequence of being cornered by those two beautiful rivers. But over the holiday season, people climbing on the dunes, wedging their boats into the sand and pulling down fences and signs erected to keep people out of fragile areas may have accelerated the loss of land.
That’s put 6,000 years of artifacts, native plants and, in the long term, iconic historic structures like the lighthouse at risk.
The run of holidays starting with Thanksgiving, then Christmas and into the Martin Luther King Jr. and Presidents’ Day weekends, brought droves of people to the shoreline surrounding the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse.
Many enjoyed the area responsibly, exploring the trails and climbing the lighthouse. Some were blasting loud music and drinking on their boats as they floated down the river which, though irksome to the homeowners along the shoreline, didn’t damage the sandy cliffs along the lighthouse area.
Others wreaked havoc along the shoreline. Peter DeWitt, the site manager and lone full-time representative of the federal government stationed at the site, brought his parents who were visiting from England to the site on Boxing Day for their traditional hike. He found fences pulled up, interpretive signs ripped out and vegetation uprooted by dune climbers.
“You turn up with your parents, and it’s that same feeling that you forgot to dust the top of the doors,” he said ruefully. “You’re like, ‘Here, come visit where I work – Oh, my gosh, somebody tore up something while I was gone.’”
Over Presidents’ Day weekend, DeWitt patrolled the areas of shoreline that are most vulnerable to erosion and damage, spotting some 200 people and 45 boats in just a few hours on Sunday afternoon. He stopped a group of kids, who he estimated were between 9 and 13 years old, who were climbing to the top of the dune and jumping or rolling back down, loosening sand and vegetation that then blew into the water. He explained the issues with erosion and asked them to stop, which they did.
“Unfortunately, about, oh, 20 or so minutes later, I received a video from one of our neighbors over in the Jupiter Inlet Colony that showed them continuing to do that,” he said.
DeWitt’s schedule was adjusted so he could work the busier evenings and weekends – to try to talk people out of damaging behavior.
A past attempt to monitor the site with security cameras in 2017 ended in abject failure.
"Unfortunately, someone came along with a saw and chopped the limbs off the trees and then sawed off the cameras," he said.
Other law enforcement agencies have had some hand in trying to tamp down on damage and disruption around the site. The Jupiter Police Department has jurisdiction around the lighthouse itself, while Tequesta Police oversee the area to the north of Beach Road. The Jupiter Inlet Colony Police handle the east side, and the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s office blankets the whole area, along with the rest of the county. Jupiter Inlet Colony Police Captain Jim Matthews said Florida Fish and Wildlife and the Coast Guard have also come through the area to handle various issues.
The different agencies are limited – by jurisdiction, by staff availability, by lack of equipment (Matthews’ department doesn’t have a boat, for example) – but Matthews said they’re all invested in protecting the lighthouse area.
“You do have agencies that I believe really want to have a hand in helping preserve the location,” he said. “What we have here is gold.”
On his patrols, DeWitt doesn’t have the authority to do much more than explain the problem and ask people nicely to knock it off. If they ignore him, shrug him off or get combative – all of which he says are fairly common responses – he can’t step up his response.
DeWitt and his supervisor have been asking for years for additional federal funding to support more robust enforcement. That could be a Bureau of Land Management ranger assigned to the site either part- or full-time, or it could be federal dollars directed to the local law enforcement agencies to support a dedicated patrol during the hours that people are most likely to be doing things they shouldn’t.
They finally had a breakthrough in time for Spring Break – the land management bureau temporarily reassigned a ranger from its conservation lands in Wyoming to the Jupiter Inlet site for the busy tourist season beginning Feb. 26. Unlike DeWitt, she’s authorized to write tickets.
“I like to think that a nice accent and being very polite to people is enough of an oomph to get compliance,” said DeWitt, whose voice reflects his British upbringing, “but certainly holding a ticket clipboard, that might be more effective.”
6,000 years of history
Though the most iconic symbol of the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse area is the red lighthouse, its history stretches back thousands of years before the beacon was constructed.
Sara Ayers-Rigsby, director of the southeast and southwest regions for the Florida Public Archaeology Network, says that’s one of the things that makes the area special. It’s been continually occupied for 6,000 years, with each new chapter in its history adding another layer to the historical record.
Its early inhabitants were Native groups referred to as the Jaega and Jobe. Their years on the site led to the development of a midden, which Ayers-Rigsby described as an “ancient trash pile” made up of shells, bones and, later, fragments of ceramics.
“The ancient people were just like us – just like you might break a plate and throw it out or break a glass, that happened to them, as well,” she said. “As archaeologists, we’re not looking for gold or treasure or anything like that, we’re looking for that information about the past.”
After them came pioneer settlers and, later, various branches of the U.S. Armed Forces.
Erosion at the lighthouse area has put some of that history in jeopardy. On a recent trip to the natural area, Peter DeWitt pointed out shell fragments mixed in to some of the newly exposed soil that was on its way downhill after part of the dune protecting it had been eaten away. After erosion events both natural and manmade, the site has had to be re-stabilized to prevent that history from sliding into the rivers.
Tracking the slide
DeWitt, with the help of Florida Atlantic University, has worked to document the site’s treasures, as well as track the severity of the erosion.
Every year, before and after hurricane season and around actual hurricanes that impact the lighthouse area, a team of researchers led by professor Sudhagar Nagarajan scan the shoreline to see how it’s changed.
They began by scanning the entire site with terrestrial laser scanners, collecting 700 million measurements – about 100 per square foot – to set a very precise baseline for how eroded the shoreline was. Now, they use drones carrying cameras to capture highly detailed photos of the shoreline, and use a technique called “structure from motion” to spin them into three-dimensional models that can be compared with the baseline, and with previous years’ pictures.
More recently, they’ve been scanning the vegetation along the site to map it and track its changes over time – and after erosion exposed a chunk of the shells and other ancient detritus, they came in to quickly scan those deposits before the area was shored up again.
Their results help DeWitt and the Bureau of Land Management make a stronger, data-backed case for funding to help slow the erosion.
“It’s not ‘Hey, I saw it there, I measured it with a tape in one location and it was three feet,’” Nagarajan said. “We have hard evidence where exactly, and how much, the erosion is taking place every year.”
Historically, the site would lose about two feet of land around the edges each year, on average. Over the past 10 years, that’s gone up to seven feet per year. DeWitt’s concern, from the damage he saw over the holidays, is that the average may go up again, to eight or nine feet per year. At that rate, the historical structures on the site start to look more vulnerable – it would only take about 50 or 60 years at that pace to jeopardize the land holding up the lighthouse.
Learning to protect the site
Tracy Siani owns a home on the shores of the Loxahatchee River, but had been coming to visit the area decades before she owned property there. When her kids were younger, she would bring them to see their grandparents in Jupiter.
She recalled snorkeling around the shorelines and paddling down the river in inflatable rubber rafts.
At the time, there were also rope swings strung up in trees near the edge of the shoreline that abuts the lighthouse area.
“It was sort of a rite of passage for every new young person that came along,” she remembered. “It was a wonderful, exciting thing to climb up the bank, grab the rope, swing out over the Intracoastal and drop.”
One year, the rope had moved to a different tree – the one it had been tied to the preceding year was lying sideways in the water below, roots exposed.
Siani said that’s when she started to realize how precarious the area was. She began advocating for the lighthouse area’s preservation, and was among a group of locals who helped secure the area’s federal protection status as an Outstanding Natural Area under the Bureau of Land Management in 2008.
The digging, climbing and other damaging things people do along the lighthouse’s shoreline are similarly damaging to the rope swings from Siani’s memory, but more frequent and spread out along different parts of the shoreline. She hopes that others will learn about the damage, like she did, and stop putting their desire to climb above the site’s longevity.
“At a certain point, you have to recognize that if your fun is being destructive, you have to stop,” she said. “Without a big fuss or fanfare, just recognize that it’s not a good thing.”
If not, the people who come to visit the lighthouse area risk losing feet and feet of public land – the artifacts, the native plants and animals, the trails, the historical buildings.
“In general, I am an optimistic person, so I feel that once everybody is on board with the fact that preservation is such an important part of where we’re living, we won’t want to degrade our surroundings,” Siani said. “I feel wounded by the fact that this lovely place is wounded.”
Sara Ayers-Rigsby, the archaeologist, worries about losing the site’s historical artifacts to erosion. But she’s also a runner, and frequently takes the trails around the lighthouse area – trails that have already had to be moved inland this year, after erosion disrupted them.
The lighthouse area is a natural stretch of land that belongs to everyone in a region where less and less land is being left undeveloped. The people sounding the alarm about erosion say they just want to make sure this land isn’t lost to erosion, so future generations can also admire its history, run its trails and marvel at its native flora and fauna.
This story was produced by the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Tampa Bay Times, the Miami Herald, the Sun-Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media.