In This Climate?! Developing Dunes? Na. Erasing Culture? Na.

Joseph Guiffre

It is a rare thing when the opportunity for environmental conservation, cultural protection, and historical preservation meet in one place. On the uniquely untouched southern end of Amelia Island there exists just such a spot. Among the wind whipped sand and in the embrace of the dense trees of a maritime hammock, lies the crossroads of some of the most prominent names in American and Floridian history; American Beach.

The center of American Beach is towered over by Big NaNa dune and Little NaNa dune; a system of sand and plants that together make up the tallest sand dune in all of Florida. Sand dunes play an important and often overlooked role in our ecosystem; they protect the land behind them from being washed away in storms, they allow for the depositing of sand that renourishes the beach, and host countless plant and animal species. As strong and mighty as dunes may seem, they are actually fragile, the constant movement of the sand makes the creation of a dune system a long and slow process. Any disturbance of sand big or small can have a major impact, like by a bulldozer or barefoot. The dunes are home to species like the Gopher Tortoise, a Federally protected animal and the State Tortoise of Florida (I didn’t know that was a thing either). The burrows that our slow, shelled friends dig can provide shelter for hundreds of other critters meaning the tortoises are integral to the survival of whole ecosystems.

Dune systems like Big Nana and Little NaNa are increasingly under threat of disappearing altogether. Rising sea levels and more powerful storms are reshaping coastlines all over Florida. An increase in real estate demand is turning dunes into condos at the hands of developers more frequently. The swarms of tourists and newcomers to our state means more people who are unaware of the fragility of dunes and are climbing them or trampling them underfoot. The protection of these places that serve as barriers for our homes and aesthetic symbols of our beaches is becoming crucial. Bringing awareness to the public by nonprofit organizations is vital.

The local nonprofit charged with this mission, the North Florida Land Trust (NFLT), has made waves by bringing the little sister of Big NaNa under its protection. The NFLT announced in the Fall that it had paid back the 1.3 million dollar loan taken out to purchase Little NaNa Dune, with the help of a large anonymous donation and the Delores Barr Weaver Fund. The Big NaNa Dune was set aside for conservation by the National park Service almost 20 years ago. When it became clear that the owners of the land Little NaNa Dune sits on wanted to destroy the dune for a building, the NFLT rushed to action. Their work has ensured that Big NaNa Dune and Little NaNa Dune will live happily together, safe from developers.

Saving the dunes does so much more than protecting the natural landscape, it saves over 100 years of incredible history. The story of American Beach is nothing short of spectacular and deserves a lot of overdue attention. American Beach was established in the early 20th century by Abraham Lincoln Lewis, Florida’s first Black millionaire, as a refuge for Black Floridians during the Jim Crow Era. After the destruction of the first “Black beach” in the area, Lewis bought land just to the north and made a new resort town for people to enjoy the beach and dunes in peace. The years that followed were filled with famous names visiting American Beach, the author Zora Neale Hurston, musician Ray Charles, and athlete Hank Aaron were among the beachgoers. The town is also important to members of the Gullah-Geechee Nation, representing people from all over the southeastern coast, it is where they held their first Worship by the Sea ceremony in Florida in 2020.

The preservation of Big NaNa Dune and Little NaNa Dune is a dream come true for environmental advocates, cultural descendants, and history fans alike. It is also the realization of a life-long mission of American Beach’s most famed resident; MaVynee Betsch, better known as the Beach Lady. The great-granddaughter of Abraham Lincoln Lewis, Betsch devoted her life to rescuing the sands of American Beach from being lost to time. Notoriously giving away a fortune from her inheritance to environmental causes, Betsch didn’t just talk the talk, she ended up living on the very beach she loved as guardian and educator. Betsch was known to say that when people were looking for her that she was busy flying around the beach in the form of a butterfly.

Next time you visit American Beach to see the newly protected dunes and admire the sea oats holding them in place, look for a butterfly floating above the sands and whisper a thank you.