BULLS ISLAND — U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell hiked Boneyard Beach —the eroded northern end of this island where dead trees poke out of the sand — and called it a great example of climate change and erosion at work.
“It changes your perspective on man’s relationship with nature,” she said Wednesday. “We should be paying attention to what we’re seeing on the ground. We should be listening to the science. ... We need to adapt to the changes and understand what we can do to mitigate them.”
Jewell said she would like every school child to see this picturesque spot in the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge because it illustrates how nature changes and how futile it is to try to fight that. “It’s clear that Mother Nature wins every time,” she said.
The hike capped a full day for Jewell, who paid her first visit to South Carolina since becoming the nation’s 51st Secretary of the Interior in April.
She began with an early morning flight over the refuge’s 22 miles of coastline, then met with about 50 representatives of businesses, nonprofits and government agencies to talk about conservation, and ended with a tour of this pristine barrier island reachable only by boat.
And she carried many messages, from the reality of climate change to importance of public-private collaboration to promote conservation, particularly of longleaf pine, to the urgency that Congress end the sequester and support the nation’s Land and Water Conservation Fund.
A bird’s eye view
Jewell did not need to step foot on an eroded beach to understand how rising sea levels and erosion have affected the state. As she inspected the coastline from the air, she said she saw a lot of beach homes and other buildings vulnerable in the next storm.
“You’ve already seen a one-foot increase in sea level rise in this community over the last 100 years,” she said. “A lot of development is vulnerable. I did encourage the community to think about that and to make sure you’re working alongside developers to develop in a smart way that takes into account the risks of sea level rise.”
She noted swamps and wetlands are very useful in protecting communities from storms and talked briefly about how federally underwritten flood insurance has made coastal development more economically viable.
“It’s not my area of expertise but there is work going on right now with FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) to look at flood insurance,” she said, adding one bill would require the agency to look at the risk and price policies accordingly.
“What was a 100-year flood is now a more frequent occurrence, and that has to be taken into account by communities as they develop.”
Seeking public, private help
After her airplane tour, Jewell spent more than an hour at the Sewee Visitors Center listening to a variety of people involved in government and conservation, from Conway to Darien, Ga.
She said she came to this part of the state because of its track record of collaboration — between government and business on all levels — to promote conservation.
With gridlock in Washington and future federal funding of conservation in doubt, Jewell said such collaboration will continue to be important — and that the federal government must do its share, specifically by funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
That fund is seen as key to helping the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service purchase or get easements on 4,000 acres of longleaf pine habitat in four national wildlife refuges from Waccamaw River to Cape Romain to St. Marks, Fla.
The longleaf pine ecosystem once covered more than 90 million acres in the South but has shrunk to only 4.4 million acres today. A new public-private initiative aims to increase that figure to 8 million by 2022.
While Jewell and others voiced support for the fund, she also emphasized the damage done to her agency through this year’s sequestration legislation.
She noted Cape Romain has lost eight of the 13 employees it once had, and it’s just a microcosm of what she has seen elsewhere. Some refuges have lost all their maintenance staff but none of their biologists, while others have lost their biologists but not their maintenance staff.
“We’re in the forever business. We’re in the business of protecting these assets forever and taking care of what makes this America beautiful,” she said. “And yet we’re trying to fund that on a very short-term continuing resolution basis on the budget and with sequestration on top, it’s just really untenable. As a business person, you would never run a business this way.”
“There are some in Congress who would like us not to be good at anything we do,” she added, “who would like to see us go away.”
Getting an earful
About 50 conservationists, from business executives to members of the Gullah Geechie Heritage Corridor Commission, had a chance to express their concerns to Jewell during an hour-long meeting.
Grace Gasper, director of the Sewee Association, a nonprofit that provides environmental education, said her organization began in 1997 working with fewer than 100 students a year. It currently reaches about 13,000 students a year, but the refuge’s budget cuts have hurt her nonprofit’s work.
“They need more help from us,” she said of Cape Romain’s employees. “We have a tough task ahead.”
Jewell said nonprofit friends of the park should provide “the margin of excellence, not the margin of survival.”
Some concerns were much more specific, such as sweetgrass basketmaker Vera Manigault’s concern that basketmakers don’t have access to pine needles. Jewell said her staff would forward the concern to the U.S. Forest Service, which is under a different department.
Sarah Dawsey, manager of the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, talked with Jewell about how the project to deepen Charleston Harbor could benefit Bulls Island, if the State Ports Authority provides money to build dikes there as part of its mitigation plan.
While Jewell did not discuss in detail the state’s heavily Republican congressional contingent, some staff members from U.S. Sen. Tim Scott and U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford stopped by briefly. And she encouraged those who care about conservation to speak up.
“We do live in a democracy. It responds to local input,” she said. “Make sure your voices are heard.”
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.