The beloved, threatened loggerhead turtle has won sweeping new federal protections for the beaches and ocean where it lives.
Time will tell if it helps the turtles or hurts coastal communities' economies.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Wednesday made final a rule proposed in March to designate critical habitat for the turtle out of some 700 miles of beaches and nearly 300,000 miles of ocean along the Southeast and Gulf of Mexico, including more than 79 miles of shoreline in South Carolina.
The designation left some wishing it had gone further, while others uneasy that it might have gone too far. One environmental advocate called the critical habitat designation incremental. An advocacy group for beach renourishment projects said it remains to be seen what the cost would be to beach communities.
But for members of the volunteer army that watches over the turtle nests on South Carolina beaches, it was welcome news.
"It makes the public more aware of the importance of these critical areas" and the economic value to the community of protecting them, said Shannon Teders, Folly Beach Turtle Watch Program co-leader.
The beaches designated are the beaches that hold the most turtle nests year to year. They run from North Carolina to Mississippi. In South Carolina they include all of Folly Beach and Kiawah Island among 22 beaches or parts of beaches south of Winyah Bay near Georgetown.
About 40 percent of the overall total is state or federally owned land. The designation also extends to Sargassum Sea waters offshore, essentially as far out as the Gulf Stream off South Carolina.
The ruling means that proposed projects in the areas that require a federal permit - anything from beach renourishment to oil and natural gas drilling - now must be shown not to "adversely modify the habitat," said Chuck Underwood, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In other words, federal regulators must determine what long-term impacts a project might have on turtle nesting, breeding and migrating grounds before approving a permit.
Sea turtle themselves and their nests already are protected under the Endangered Species Act and other federal rules. If nothing else, the designation puts more pressure on regulators to get it right when it comes to modifying projects or requiring mitigation - or it gives environmental opponents more ammunition in lawsuits to stop a project.
The ponderous loggerhead is a beleaguered totem of the South Carolina coast, where thousands of nests are laid each summer and watched largely by the volunteer groups. Half the loggerhead nests laid outside of Florida are laid in South Carolina, and the state led the nation in efforts such as turtle-excluder devices on shrimping nets. The devices let the larger turtles escape the shrimp boat nets.
For years the species was thought to be in gradual decline due to threats such as development, fishing nets, boat strikes, beach erosion and predation. More recently, wildlife biologists said they are "cautiously optimistic" the turtles are recovering at least in the state. But the erosion of vital nesting barrier islands and relentless coastal development, among other factors, continues to threaten the turtles.
"The ruling will help improve the viability of the species. It's a very incremental effect, that really doesn't affect private property owners. (But) anything that protects sea turtles even the slightest bit more is a good thing," said Katie Zimmerman, of the Coastal Conservation League in South Carolina.
Underwood said the final ruling was rewritten after public input to give more leeway for beach renourishment projects, acknowledging that "in many cases, if not for (beach renourishment) we might lose habitat," and that the service didn't foresee any changes in how those permits are handled.
But Nicole Elko, secretary for the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association, an advocacy group for beach renourishment projects, said the ruling could mean more regulation for the already tightly regulated and increasingly expensive projects, including a shorter "window" of winter months in which renourishment dredging could be done.
"Time will tell," she said. "We just want to be able to balance recreational use (of the beach) with loggerhead turtle protection. Promises were made (about the rewrite.) We really haven't seen any changes. The coastal communities are very nervous."
The critical habitat designation was forced by a group of environmental advocates in a multi-year campaign of regulatory and legal challenges.
It could potentially affect projects such as re-dredging the Charleston Harbor shipping channel.
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