SEABROOK ISLAND--That nondescript little bird is poking its head up in the middle of a plan to re-cut Capt. Sam's Inlet. And the piping plover is no stranger to controversy.
The Seabrook Island Property Owners Association has applied for state and federal permits to cut a new channel for the inlet between the tony beach resort and the tonier Kiawah Island resort across the inlet. The work isn't unprecedented -- the association did it in 1983 and again in 1996. It's part of a state- approved beach management plan.
But the beach spit that would be excavated and sand-bermed to move the inlet includes critical habitat for the piping plover.
The scooting shorebird already has flitted across beach renourishment plans to protect the vaunted 18th golf hole of the Kiawah Island Ocean Course on the other end of the island. It was raised as an objection to allowing dogs off-leash on Seabrook beaches. And it might yet get in the way of a proposal for a Kiawah beachfront development in the same sand spit where the channel cut is proposed.
The far-flying plover, which summers in the Arctic, is an endangered species in some states and a threatened species in South Carolina. The re-channeling work might also impact endangered sea turtle's nesting and fish species like the red drum. Plans for the golf hole and dog walk were adjusted to mitigate impacts on the birds and turtles.
Birders say enough is enough.
"Examining each 'beachfront alteration project' in a vacuum paints a false picture. In fact, piping plovers' critical habitat on east Kiawah was recently degraded and has not yet fully recovered. Two detrimental projects are being proposed for critical habitat at Captain Sam's Inlet, and degradation also is being proposed for critical habitat at Hilton Head," said Nathan Dias of the Cape Romain Bird Observatory.
"Such simultaneous degradation of multiple critical S.C. sites is unacceptable -- especially with problems like increasing disturbance by humans and dogs at most South Carolina wintering sites, which is much worse than in 1996," he said. The birds need more time to adjust to critical habitat changes.
"We must ensure the threatened and endangered species that use this area are not disturbed with this project," said Nancy Vinson of the Coastal Conservation League.
The work proposed in the application includes moving the inlet east about a fifth of mile to its location in 1963; the inlet has a natural tendency to migrate west toward Seabrook Island. A sand berm, or wall, would be pushed up to stop its current flow. The work would prevent the loss of critical habitat along the now eroding west bank of the inlet and will not include post-project sand scraping as a concession to environmental interests, according to the application.
"Periodic relocation has less environmental impact than what happens if we don't relocate -- we lose all the beach. The whole beach erodes and all you have is sea wall," said John Thompson, executive director of the property owners association.
The application is being reviewed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the S.C. Ocean and Coastal Resource Management office and U.S. Fish and Wildlife.