Obscure Pappy’s Island the future of Cape Romain refuge

More than a mile of Cape Island beach was lost to damage from Hurricane Irene in 2011. The Cape Romain barrier island is the most important sea turtle nesting ground in three states.

MCCLELLANVILLE — The modest hammock island would barely be noticed in the misted seascape of Bulls Bay. It sits just offshore along the Intracoastal Waterway, glanced at and passed by boaters headed farther out to sea.

But Pappy’s Island — 140 acres of marsh and high ground — could become one of the most important barrier islands in the vast Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. The more remote barrier islands, the heart of the place, are washing away one by one.

The Open Space Institute just bought and conserved Pappy’s Island, ending a years-long legal battle to protect it when the private owners began looking at developing it. The island, also called Pappa’s or Papa’s Island, was one of the last two or three privately held properties in the refuge before the sale. It is planned to be re-sold to the refuge.

The barrier islands are the nesting and feeding grounds for countless critters, such as threatened sea turtles and shorebirds species. There just aren’t that many other near-shore islands. Before too long, Pappy’s Island could become the heart of the refuge.

“Other than manmade spoil islands, that’s going to be the last barrier island between the refuge and the community (of McClellanville),” said Sarah Dawsey, of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Cape Romain refuge manager.

The institute is a nonprofit, landscape-scale conservation group. Also taking part in the effort was the Coastal Conservation League, the S.C. Environmental Law Project, the Nature Conservancy and the Fish and Wildlife service.

Cape Romain might be the most vital trove of undeveloped coast in the Southeast, 64,000 acres of ocean interspersed with about 10,000 acres of islands. The beauty is matchless, the value enormous. The seascape is elemental to the Lowcountry environs, wildlife and quality of life.

As just one example, more than 800,000 pounds of shrimp and 24,000 bushels of oysters come out of Cape Romain each year.

But higher seas have begun to wash away Cape Island in the outer refuge, where more than 1,300 loggerhead sea turtle nests were laid in 2015 and where about one-third of the nests laid from North Carolina to Georgia are found year to year.

Seas are lapping up against the impoundment levee on Bulls Island, a freshwater pond that draws more than 50 species of waterfowl, wading birds, shorebirds, rails, raptors, songbirds and sparrows. Long distance migrators such as plovers stop there. Spectacular birds turn up, such as the white pelican and roseate spoonbill.

For more than a century, at least, Cape Romain has lost “fast land,” or ground above the water, in the dynamics of coastal wash. A geo-spatial study completed for the refuge indicated the loss of nearly 20 percent of its fast land acres since 1875 — much of it at the most valuable wildlife sites.

As part of an overall strategy to buy properties closer to shore and just inland to try to replace the critical barrier island habitats, Fish and Wildlife staffers were negotiating with the owners to buy Pappy’s Island, Dawsey said. Funding for the buys fell through. The conservation groups stepped in.

“Papa’s is one of the few undeveloped high ground areas in the refuge where birds, diamondback terrapins and other wildlife can go to nest and find cover during high tides,” said Amy Armstrong, of the environmental project.

“If you look at that area at high tide, almost everything is underwater. Because of sea level rise, places like Papa’s become even more critical to survival of these animals.”

Reach Bo Petersen at (843) 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.