1 million acres of southeastern salt marshes move closer to protection

Plan to Conserve 1 Million Acres of Southeast Salt Marsh Begins to Take Shape After Federal, State and Military Leaders, Conservation Groups, Scientists, Gullah/Geechee Nation and Others Work together for a year to assess options for protecting the valuable coastal habitat.

The project, known as the South Atlantic Salt Marsh Initiative, was launched in May 2021 to conserve a coastal area nearly the size of Grand Canyon National Park that stretches from North Carolina to northeast Florida. Salt marshes, which are channels of coastal grasslands, protect coasts from flooding, erosion and storm surges, filter upland runoff and serve as vital habitat for fish, birds and other animals. The salt marshes are also home to many sites of cultural and spiritual significance. These tidal wetlands face a number of threats including rising seas, polluted runoff and encroaching development. In addition, the southeast coast is home to a dozen military installations and Department of Defense officials have expressed support for nature-based solutions to fortify their bases against rising sea levels and other environmental risks.

Pew helped launch the initiative, which is organized under the leadership of the Southeast Regional Partnership for Planning and Sustainability (SERPAS). SERPPAS includes members from the Department of Defense and other federal agencies as well as environmental and natural resources officials from throughout the Southeast. About 270 stakeholders have joined the effort, including fishermen, conservation groups and Queen Quet of the Gullah/Geechee nation, which is made up of descendants of enslaved Africans who own some of the coastal land and depend on the salt marshes for their subsistence.

Recently, project participants came together for a virtual workshop to kick off the process of writing the conservation plan. A draft is expected this summer, with a final plan due for release next year. Here are the summaries of the eight topics discussed by the participants and some ideas that emerged, although the group has not yet made a commitment:

  • What are the best ways to conserve and restore salt marshes? One idea is to improve the water flowing through degraded marshes, possibly through projects such as culvert modifications. The increased flow can remove pollutants, improve water quality and add sediment, which stabilizes marshes.
  • How to save the marshes as the sea level rises? Conserving undeveloped land near salt marshes could give grasslands a place to move as sea levels rise. Local stakeholders could identify plots of land that could serve as “swamp migration corridors” and analyze which would provide the most benefit to surrounding communities, cultural resources, and military installations.
  • How can infrastructure and development be sustainable for marshes? Stakeholders could consider nature-based solutions, such as living shorelines, using recycled oyster shells or other materials, for example, to build reefs that can protect coastlines. In some cases, these natural barriers can fortify the properties of the marsh front better than hardened structures, such as levees, which can interfere with the proper functioning of salt marshes. Another possible solution is to raise portions of coastal roads to make them and adjacent marshes more resilient to changing conditions.
  • How can conservation efforts help people and respect different cultures? Successful programs would foster understanding and collaboration between cultural groups, governments, coastal businesses and communities. The protection of sites of cultural and spiritual significance is important. And successful conservation will help communities benefit from the ecosystem services of salt marshes: storm surge protection, flood mitigation, water quality benefits, carbon storage and sequestration, and support for rich biodiversity.
  • What role can mapping play? Mapping can identify salt marsh areas that are most in need of protection or restoration, as well as those where projects could bring the greatest benefits. Maps can also show where salt marshes have the potential to migrate landward and identify obstacles such as steep elevation gradients, levees and low roads. Maps could help identify the best areas for land acquisition.
  • What policies can help? Governments could build on the existing framework of policies, laws and regulations to successfully manage the impacts of sea level rise and flooding.
  • How will the projects be funded? Money may be available from the Department of Defense, state and federal programs, grants, private donations, and other sources.
  • How can the public find out more?Information can be shared by involving stakeholders in the process, including homeowner associations, businesses, community leaders, landowners and others. Successful communications about conservation efforts must reach relevant audiences and take into account diverse cultures and interests.

Once a plan is drafted, the coalition of stakeholders leading the saltmarsh initiative will review it and provide further feedback before the document is finalized.

A comprehensive salt marsh plan will help communities, governments, and the military better prepare for the future through coordinated, forward-thinking transportation and development plans, strategic restoration projects, and conservation of large areas of adjacent open land. Such a plan will also help protect wetland species and areas that are essential for recreational and commercial fishing, hunting, bird watching, ecotourism and other activities that support businesses and coastal economies. By working together, stakeholders can develop a guide that promotes a more resilient and prosperous southeast coast.

Joseph Gordon is Project Director and Lora Clarke is Marine Life Conservation Project Officer for the Pew Charitable Trusts in the United States.

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