Arranging a slow farewell to a coastal wildlife refuge

A century from now, rising sea levels will have overwhelmed the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, which juts from North Carolina's mainland like a beckoning finger, shielded from the raw ocean by a sliver of barrier beaches known as the Outer Banks.

To Dennis Stewart, the increasing impact of climate change on this fragile piece of land is a fact of life. The refuge's soft-spoken biologist of nearly three decades knows it is beyond his ability to sway matters.

He has a more immediate problem, anyway. The salt washing in with the tides is disintegrating the land's spongy peat soils and leaving a trail of dead trees in its wake.

For years, he has watched it encroach from the shores that face the sound and the sea. Lately, the salt has come from all sides. What made the peninsula the ideal place for reviving the near-extinct red wolf -- there is only a narrow corridor by which to escape by land -- is now its biggest weakness. The sea will relentlessly degrade the refuge ecosystem long before the land is submerged.

"This whole refuge is now a front-line community," Stewart said. There, for him, lies an acute dilemma of purpose, one that will become increasingly common. He is tasked with a mandate to protect the "biological integrity" of his domain while its very definition is shifting beneath him.

Soon, the refuge will become a front line in a broader sense. A $3 million pilot project to both slow and control these inexorable changes will break ground here this year. The aim is to develop and execute a blueprint that turns conservation on its head.

Instead of digging in and fighting the changes, the projects' sponsors will concede to a future that will in no way look like the past. With that, they hope to steer the ecosystem off the road to collapse.

"We can see the way this is going," said Jonathan Hoekstra, climate adaptation director at the Nature Conservancy, the nonprofit group directing the project. "We can anticipate changes and facilitate, so we're not just crossing our fingers and hoping nature can pull it off."


'If you had the money, what would you do?'

On the Albemarle peninsula, 2 inches makes the difference between life and death. The region's trademark pocosin pines, whose name comes from the Algonquin word for "swamp on a hill," are rooted in the disintegrating peat muck and dying from too much salt. Today, fields of standing dead trunks called snags line shores and canal banks and dot low-elevation dips in the terrain.

Two inches is also about how fast the sea level is climbing each decade, a rate that will accelerate over the next century. In an area where Stewart qualifies a 6-inch rise in the road as a ridge, "low" elevation is a relative term.

This is where the Nature Conservancy, along with state and federal agencies, has invested to protect and manage more than half a million acres over the last 30 years. Eventually ceding wide swaths of that to the sea may be inevitable, they know. But seeing the rest degrade to mud flats, forcing birds, black bears, and wolves to find homes elsewhere, is not an attractive option.

This got some forward-looking scientists thinking practically about climate adaptation over a decade ago. "If you had the money, what would you do?" Stewart recalled being asked by Sam Pearsall, who was then with the conservancy's North Carolina chapter.

For all the recent talk about helping ecosystems adapt to a changing climate, there are surprisingly few, if any, projects on the ground today that are dedicated solely to such purposes. There are some that have focused on building healthier communities with better facility to rebound from stressors. There are others with the aim of saving a species. But Dan Ashe, science adviser to the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, could not name another project built around rethinking an entire ecosystem that is as far along.

In part, that's because the conservation community itself has been slow to revamp its own business-as-usual approach as greenhouse gas concentrations have risen in the atmosphere. "Until a couple of years ago, no one even wanted to talk about adaptation, because that would mean giving up," said Hoekstra. Recent years have brought an awakening, he said.

A $1 million donation from Duke Energy, the Charlotte, N.C.-based electric power utility, along with an official partnership between FWS and the Conservancy, has now allowed the team to start testing the answers to questions posed more than a decade ago.

One obvious strategy for adapting to climate change is working to return a degraded landscape to its natural state. It is essentially what any good manager might do, except now with a broadened sense of purpose. At the Alligator River refuge, this means restoring natural wetlands.

Plugging up dikes to slow the sea's intrusion

To do this, the team, which includes the Nature Conservancy's Brian Boutin and Aaron McCall, will plug up a few of the some 300 miles of drainage canals that lace the area. Originally dug to build roads and drain land, the dikes are remnants of a long history of logging and farming dating to colonial times. Now in heavy rains and with a strong inland wind, the dikes allow the salt poison to shoot through the refuge's veins into its interior. Installing flap gates to block this incoming flow and spread it over the natural floodplain will delay the salt's damage, according to the plan.

The floodplain itself has grown over the years. Along Point Peter Road, salt intrusion has already pushed the tree line hundreds of feet away from the water; marsh grasses, low brush and snags now dominate the open expanse. This is where the team will plant test plots of bald cypress, black gum and green ash trees -- all non-native species that can withstand saltier water. Eventually, said Boutin, these trees will die from the salt as the land is flooded, but they will have bought time. And even in death, their stumps will help stabilize the shore and will provide valuable habitat.

The whole point is to avert a rapid failure that will leave a landscape of invasive grasses. "We need to give the land time to change," Boutin said.

At its abrupt and uneven end, Point Peter Road forms a flat cliff that dumps into the Pamlico Sound. The shore retreats more every year. To slow coastal erosion, the team will build offshore oyster reefs that poke inches above the water, dissipating the waves' energy and providing natural habitat. Usually, the estuary isn't an ideal oyster environment, but as salt levels rise, that could change.

These, however, are exactly the kinds of plans that ruffle the feathers of some advocates and scientists, said Pearsall, now with the Environmental Defense Fund. Some doubt that such plans are viable.

Millions of acres of conservation land at risk

For his part, Pearsall calls for shedding a failed adaptation paradigm -- the "Let's just do what we've been doing all along, only better" approach -- in favor of a more "creative" conservation approach that global warming demands. "It's not about protecting ecosystems and organisms that we love; that won't work. Those ecosystems are going to disassemble, come apart, and they won't just pick up and move ... they will be entirely different.'

But while the conservancy and several other groups are now hustling to break ground on adaptation projects from the Everglades to Louisiana's coast, scaling up the work will require changes in thinking and funding on a far broader scale.

Hoekstra imagines the Albemarle project becoming a model for the length of the Atlantic Seaboard. Such a proposition, however, would take billions of dollars, said Ashe. And that doesn't even include new lands farther inland that conservation groups may one day need to purchase. Adaptation revenue promised by proposed cap-and-trade legislation would help, but likely couldn't pay all of the bills.

"There are millions of acres of conservation estate up and down the coast. ... What do you do about that? It took us 100 years to build that," said Ashe, of the FWS. "It's going to be expensive, and I think the Albemarle project helps bring some of this to more concrete terms."

Kelly and Blythe Davis, owners of a 1,000-acre farm in Hyde County, a coastal rural area to the south of the refuge, see climate change in the most concrete terms. Salt is killing some of their crops, and they are putting land that is no longer profitable into conservation set-aside programs.

But farmers' precarious economic circumstances make planning years in advance, let alone decades, difficult for most area residents, said Mac Gibbs, Hyde County's cooperative extension director. In a region alternately devastated by hurricanes and droughts, that has lived with sea level rise for decades, Gibbs said, many people accept changes they observe as part of a natural order.

Stewart, a 61-year-old Vietnam War veteran who has watched habitat disappear over decades, however, says that action is needed sooner rather than later. "I don't want the next generation to say, 'Boy, he should have done something.'"

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