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Off-roaders barred as plovers nest on beach

BARNSTABLE -- Nina Coleman has been lucky in her five years as manager of Sandy Neck Park.

The piping plovers that live on this Cape Cod beach have mostly made their nests at the far, quiet end of the sandy peninsula, minimizing the contact between the federally protected birds and beachgoers who travel down Sandy Neck in their all-terrain vehicles.

Yesterday, Coleman's luck ran out. Under laws that protect endangered species, she was forced to close the entire 6.5-mile stretch of beach to all vehicles until further notice. Four piping plover chicks had hatched in a nest parked by the park's busiest spot, near the parking lot and the access road used by recreational vehicles.

"I wouldn't have closed the beach unless I absolutely had to," said Coleman, who manages the park.

Park employees were bracing yesterday for an onslaught of complaints by some of the beach's 1,700 off-road vehicle permit holders, who each June flock to the park in trucks and campers. Sandy Neck is one of the Cape's most popular destinations for beach camping enthusiasts because they can park for up to four nights and build campfires in the sand.

The relationship between Cape residents and the piping plover has grown strained in recent years, as the popularity of off-road recreation has conflicted with beach closings to protect the rare seabird. Last summer, miles of the Cape Cod National Seashore were closed or nearly closed to vehicles for weeks because of nesting plovers.

At Sandy Neck, visitors can still park their cars in the 200-space lot on the property and walk onto the beach, but the park will remain closed to vehicles until the birds learn to fly, which can take 25 to 35 days, Coleman said.

Gate attendants Katie Heaslip and Rachael Joakim delivered the bad news about the closing to arriving beachgoers through the open gatehouse window.

"You breathe a lot and try not to take it personally," Heaslip said of handling disgruntled drivers.

Yesterday, though, most park visitors took the news calmly. "What can you do?" said Sandwich resident Sue Dropo. .

Elsewhere, Cape residents expressed frustration with the disruption caused by the birds.

"People need to make money; the Cape needs tourism," Jamie Stone, a bartender at Bud's Place, a Hyannis tavern said. "And you don't need to close the whole beach for four little birds."

Jenna Russell can be reached at