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Summarizing the Fire Island National Seashore 'Superintendent's Determination'

Fire Island situation suggests the need for a new strategy.
Fire Island situation suggests the need for a new strategy.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

If you aren't familiar with what the Fire Island National Seashore Superintendent's Determination is, you probably aren't alone. The document, published September 17, 2013, is a wordy, 61-page document that contains the justifications for why National Parks Service officials that oversee Fire Island National Seashore decided to eliminate the clothing optional beach areas at the Seashore.

Since the document is lengthy and dry reading for the most part, many naturists likely won't find the time to read it in its entirety. However it is something that directly affects naturists who previously visited the Seashore regularly for nude recreation and actually affects all naturists in the sense that the justifications contained in this document may very well be used by other National Park Service officials in the future to defend similar decisions at recreational areas they oversee. For that reason it seems useful to summarize the contents of the document since this is important information that as many naturists as possible should be aware of.

[Want more clothing optional access instead of less? Sign the clothing optional petition]

Here are three principal justifications on which the National Park Service officials at the Seashore support their decision to eliminate clothing optional access to the beach areas with commentary.

Increase in criminal activity

Park service officials cited an increase in lewd, lascivious and voyeuristic behaviors on and around the clothing optional beach areas. In addition they also claimed that there was an increase in suspected prostitution, drug use and assaults. Officials inferred that the existence of the clothing optional beach areas was at the root of the increase in observed and suspected criminal activity. Here the park service simply reinterpreted the evidence to fit a conclusion rather than forming a conclusion on the basis of the evidence.

It has been recognized for years that national parks and other wilderness areas throughout the nation are experiencing heavier recreational use and with more visitors has come an increase in criminal activity. National parks are notoriously understaffed when it comes to law enforcement officers, mostly because until recent times crime hasn't been a significant problem. As a result individuals intent on committing criminal acts naturally assume that there is less chance they will be caught and prosecuted than if they engaged in similar behavior in a city setting where more law enforcement officers are present.

In the greater scheme of things, the criminal activity the park service points to is minor in comparison to what municipal law enforcement officials deal with on a daily basis. They are also the types of offenses that law enforcement rangers should be able to effectively address. The same New York state laws like the one that will now be enforced to prohibit nudity, have always been available to parks service personnel to suppress the activity they find problematic. For example, there are New York state laws that prohibit public lewdness, prostitution, assault and battery and drug use. The Assimilative Crimes Act, 18 U.S.C. § 13, which is being relied on to enforce the New York state nudity law, makes state law applicable to conduct occurring on federally-owned lands and has always given the parks service law enforcement rangers authority to arrest and prosecute those who engage in any of the enumerated offenses.

The only activity which can be directly attributable to a clothing optional beach setting is voyeurism. That activity could easily be addressed by the federal 36 CFR 2.34 - Disorderly conduct law since voyeurism is an activity that would "knowingly or recklessly create a risk of causing a public nuisance" and falls under the statute. In fact if voyeurism was aggressively addressed that alone would likely suppress the problems with public lewdness. It's just as likely that voyeurism was an issue park authorities didn't address at all.

To close out the discussion of this topic, consider this incident included in the document as evidence that having clothing optional beaches at Fire Island invite an increase in public lewdness.

"On July 25, 2010, a law enforcement ranger was patrolling the clothing optional area of Lighthouse beach when he observed a naked adult man masturbating. When the ranger contacted the suspect, the suspect replied, 'I thought it was OK on a nude beach.' The suspect was issued a citation."

Clearly this individual was not a naturist because no naturist would consider that appropriate public behavior. Perhaps arresting such individuals and subjecting them to the available penalty of a $5,000 fine and six months confinement might have been more effective in suppressing such behavior than issuing a citation.

The increased incidence of criminal activity was most likely not due to "the substantial increase" in clothing-optional recreational use that the park service points to but simply the overall "dynamic increase" in "density of all types of visitation in the area" mentioned time and again in the document. Banning nudity reduces one thing, nudity. The decision made is unlikely to result in any significant reduction in the increased criminal activity that the officials ostensibly claim they are seeking to remedy.

Disturbance of threatened and endangered species of plants and wildlife

According to the NPS document, the former clothing optional beach areas provides high-quality habitat for several threatened and endangered species of plants and wildlife that have been disturbed by the density of human activity in the area.

The nation's first national park, Yellowstone, was created by an act of Congress in 1872 as a “pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." Due to the influence of environmentalists, the National Park Service has since re-stated congressional intent as, "The fundamental purpose of the parks is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

The original intent of providing recreational areas to be enjoyed by humans has largely been forgotten as park lands have been transformed into wildlife and horticultural preserves. Certainly the preservation of endangered wildlife and plant habitats should be important, but this aspect of the National Park Service mission has become so preeminent that in some national parks individuals are subjected to not only access restrictions but multiple-year waiting lists or overly stingy lottery schemes that severely and unnecessarily restrict access to lands that were established and are maintained with tax dollars.

Again and again NPS cites substantial increase in general public use so it's merely a sham to suggest that the fact of whether people are clothed or unclothed has any impact on the disturbance of threatened and endangered species of plants and wildlife. If park officials insist that the beach areas are too important as high-quality habitat for several threatened and endangered species of plants and wildlife to allow human activity on them, then why were only naked users excluded and not all users banned from using the beaches?

Visitor conflicts have grown in recent years

Here we finally get to the real reason that Fire Island officials decided to eliminate clothing optional use of the beach areas, complaints from visitors "not attuned to nude recreation." Here is one example in the form of a letter referenced in the document from such a visitor who visited the Lighthouse at Fire Island National Seashore with her nine-year-old son.

"...Had a wonderful time and enjoyed learning about the Lighthouse. We started walking toward the beach...Next thing you know we were right in the middle of the naked beach. This was very devastating to my son...And it is right next to the Lighthouse where there are many young children and tourists!!"

First one might be curious about the "devastating" impact wrought on her nine-year-old son as the consequence of seeing naked people. Perhaps he fell to the ground, curled into a fetal ball and wailed uncontrollable? Maybe he went into an irreversible catatonic state, spittle drooling from his lips? More likely, his mother was simply indulging in the logical fallacy of making an appeal to pity to help buttress her own complaint that she personally found the nudity offensive so of course NPS needed to put a stop to it.

If she had successfully indoctrinated her son into the culture of shame as we have every reason to expect she was based on her comments, then perhaps the child did feel some measure of shock and embarrassment. Or perhaps the circumstances provoked him to ask his mother questions that she was uncomfortable with having to answer due to her own unhealthy, prudish attitudes towards nudity. At any rate, it is a safe assumption that the lad was not in any way "devastated" from viewing nudity.

Maybe had the writer not been so engrossed in something like perhaps texting on her cell phone she might have noticed the 8 foot x 8 foot sign stating "Attention this beach is a traditionally clothing optional area. Beyond this point you may be exposed to nude sunbathers." Had she bothered to take note of it, she might not have had reason to write, "Next thing you know we were right in the middle of the naked beach" and could have spared her poor child the "devastating" consequences she dramatically described.

Likely the little field trip that prompted the ridiculous letter was a one-time occurrence and nudity or no, the woman and her son visited Fire Island for the first and last time. Yet that of course didn't stop her from selfishly doing what she could to inconvenience a large group of other people who appreciated the clothing optional beach access and likely visited Fire Island on a regular basis all because she had personal issues with nudity. Notice there was no mention of observing any lewd behavior. She simply focused like a laser on "naked" in communicating her complaint.

The park service bears much of the responsibility for complaints like that. On no official National Parks Service site or in any official publication will you ever find reference to clothing optional recreational access to any land managed by the agency. As an organization, the service does not support but only in rare instances tolerates clothing optional recreation on areas that have a long-standing tradition of being used for such, as was the case with Fire Island. Why wouldn't people be shocked when arriving at Fire Island and without warning observing naked people on the beach?

Perhaps if NPS included that useful bit of information in its publications and on its official websites, people who have issues with nudity could make an informed decision to avoid visiting a particular area where they would likely encounter something they would find offensive. Keeping it on the down low as it were also likely contributes measurably to why so many people come to a clothing optional area under the misapprehension that it is a wild west, anything goes kind of place where they are free to indulge in lewd behavior.

Finally, whenever the National Parks Service designates recreational areas for a particular use such as hunting, snowmobiling, skiing, etc., user conflicts are generally settled in favor of those using the area for the purposes for which it was designated, not in favor of those who would rather use the area for some completely different purpose. Here with Fire Island we see them doing just the opposite because it's easy to discriminate against naturists since the majority of the public applaud it.

The take away from Fire Island is this. Traditional clothing optional use areas can disappear at the stroke of a bureaucratic pen. A careful reading of the justifications provided for the elimination of clothing optional access illustrates that there were dozens of other measures the parks service could have tried before settling on the measure chosen. The agency simply doesn't want clothing optional areas on park lands. Fire Island is just the most recent example of a lost clothing optional beach area. It won't be the last unless naturists develop new, fresh strategies to prevent it from happening.

It can be argued that the existing reactive strategy of trying to cling to the few areas left should be expanded to a more proactive one like aggressively pushing for more clothing optional recreational spaces on public lands. With all due respect to the naturist organizations attempting to get clothing optional access to Fire Island beaches restored, the 2013 Superintendent's Compendium was the death knell for the decade's long tradition there that is now gone, and likely gone for good.


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