JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The importance of staying off our sand dunes following Hurricane Matthew is no secret, at least to most locals. However, with our beaches being a hot spot for tourists, many visitors find themselves subject a warning or possible fine as a penalty for walking on the dunes.

According to the Army Corps of Engineers, back in the 1970s and 1980s there were different ways to keep the sand and sea at bay. It used a “sand fence” or boulders to help protect restaurants, stores and homes. Because of those man-made “walls,” the sand started to pile up, thus creating the dunes we know today, or at least knew before Hurricane Matthew.

Fletcher High School Marine Science teacher Kevin Brown said when Hurricane Matthew swept through the dunes, it did its job, but was mostly wiped out.

“If the dunes weren’t here the storm surge would’ve gone 8 feet to 10 feet high, on that deck, in these yards, it would have looked like St. Augustine,” Brown said. “These dunes held up, now we lost 82 percent of them, but they did their job.”

They held the water at bay instead of funneling it through the beach access points and then into the road.

Brown said in the future, they are discussing putting more sand at the access points or sandbags to prevent the water flow into the streets.

He has been bringing his students to the beach for years to plant sea oats to help nourish the dunes. One of his students was the driving effort to get the “stay off the dunes” signs up in Neptune Beach.

“In the early days, we would gather and plant everyone’s Christmas trees, now we use sea oats because the science behind these sea oats is that they are gathering sand and salt from the air,” Brown said.

The plants on the dunes help to continually build the dunes up and allow it work as a strong, natural wall of protection.

“By trampling on them you are killing the young vegetation and compacting the sand which is not what we need," he said.

Walking on the dunes can end up in a hefty $500 citation in some areas, but officers admit that it usually ends in a warning. Authorities say if locals don’t speak up or call police or lifeguards when they see it, then no one will learn.

Rather than doing that, many people have been taking their concerns to social media, posting pictures on Facebook of people walking over the dunes. Others commented on the posts advising that maybe the tourists didn’t know since not every access point has a sign.

The dune restoration project is almost complete. There will be one more week of planting sea oats at the end of July and then FEMA will return to do an inspection. It takes about 18 months for the sea oats to grow and close to 20 years for the dunes to get back to exactly how they were before Hurricane Matthew, according to Brown.

Under state law, public access to the beach begins below the mean high tide line. Whether or not the ropes or other markings are there, it’s crucial to environmental health that people stay off the dunes. Police departments ask that you call if you see anyone disturbing the sea oats.

According to the Atlantic Beach City Manager: “Many beachgoers at Jacksonville’s beaches don’t realize that the coastline at the Beaches is now more visually similar to the 19th century than to how it appeared 40 or so years ago. Buried under the natural dunes and sea oats are remnants of an armored concrete seawall. Today, the 10 miles of Jacksonville’s dunes are maintained by the Duval County Shore Protection Project, a partnership between the Corps of Engineers and the City of Jacksonville, managed since 2005 by Jacksonville-based Olsen Associates Coastal Engineering, for which Kevin Bodge works. Renourishment takes place every five to seven years, as part of a 50-year authorization, extending through 2028.”