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Encore: Beach grass could be key to protecting the Aquinnah Wampanoag homeland

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

On a Massachusetts island, members of a Native American tribe are determined to protect their homelands from the impacts of climate change. Their solution - planting 20,000 stems of beach grass by hand. From member station WCAI, Eve Zuckoff reports from Martha's Vineyard.

JAMES MOREIS: We're going to go further down.

EVE ZUCKOFF, BYLINE: On a sunny spring morning, James Moreis and his 6-year-old daughter Akinah are poking holes in a sand dune on a remote, picturesque beach. They're among the many volunteers and members of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head Aquinnah who showed up to plant beach grass along an 800-foot stretch.

AKINAH: This is how you make holes.

MOREIS: Yeah? Then what?

AKINAH: Then you make more holes.

ZUCKOFF: The holes are spaced about a foot apart at the base of the dune. And into each, they place two stiff spears of tan grass that resembles hay.

MOREIS: You want me to help you?

AKINAH: OK. Let's do it together, Daddy.

MOREIS: All right.

ZUCKOFF: With sun and time, the spears will become the green blades common on postcard-worthy island vistas.

MOREIS: When you do it now, this time of the year - it's the wet season - gives it time for the roots to build up and everything.

ZUCKOFF: Over the last few years, volunteers have planted about 100,000 blades of beach grass to create a mile-long dune in this area that was restored to the tribe during its federal recognition process in 1987. Now the land is threatened by erosion, sea level rise and more frequent and intense storms - all impacts of climate change jeopardizing many coastal communities. But beach grass planting could save the area before it's too late.

ANDREW JACOBS: It takes, you know, one huge storm to come in and take that all away.

ZUCKOFF: That's Andrew Jacobs, laboratory manager for the Aquinnah tribe. He says Hurricane Sandy in 2012 washed away much of the dune and the adjacent road. In 2016, his team trucked in around 116 million pounds of sand to replenish the beach. But that still wasn't enough. Without the unsung hero that is beach grass, there'd likely be no dune left today. Jacobs says that's because of how this little plant grows.

JACOBS: The roots - they overlap. They intertwine. They create this beautiful lattice that really just holds in the sand.

ZUCKOFF: Dunes with beach grass are more stable when storms strike. They're the first crucial line of defense against powerful waves, protecting homes, businesses and everything that lies behind them. Plus, beach grass is native to the East Coast, so planting it won't cause ecological, economic or cultural harm. That's according to Alyson Eberhardt, a coastal ecologist with the University of New Hampshire.

ALYSON EBERHARDT: If you're working in dune restoration in our part of the country, then you are immediately going to beach grass because it's a critical tool in restoring sand dunes.

ZUCKOFF: With climate change, the work keeps getting harder and more essential for people like Bret Stearns, who's helped manage the tribe's natural resources department for nearly three decades.

BRET STEARNS: When I started this career, we were planners. And now I think we're emergency responders. We have to be looking five, 10, 20 years out all the time. But the 20 come sooner than we think all the time.

ZUCKOFF: And for the Aquinnah Wampanoag people, making the island more resilient is necessary to maintain their homes and their heritage.

For NPR News in Woods Hole, Mass., I'm Eve Zuckoff.

(SOUNDBITE OF NUJABES' "SPIRAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eve Zuckoff is WCAI's Report for America reporter, covering the human impacts of climate change.