Turtles may get more help locally Beaches proposed as critical habitat

***Lady Lisa, a loggerhead turtle, makes its way to the ocean. The South Carolina Aquarium released three rescued sea turtles, two loggerhead turtles and one Kemp's ridley turtle after their recovery at the Sea Turtle Hspital back into the ocean at Beachwalker County Park on Kiawah Island Tuesday July 12, 2011. (Grace Beahm/postandcourier.com)

All of Folly Beach and Kiawah Island — among 41 miles of beaches in Charleston County — would be made critical habitat for the threatened loggerhead sea turtle under a proposal made Friday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

What difference that would make is anybody’s guess.

New homes, businesses or other structures to be built at the beaches would be scrutinized closer by federal regulators before permits could be issued, said a news release by Oceana, an environmental advocate.

Fish and Wildlife staff members said the designation was required by law and shouldn’t greatly affect how permits are handled now.

It might be that both are true. The designation is being proposed for beaches that hold the most turtle nests year to year. Those beaches already are protected somewhat under the Endangered Species Act and other federal rules.

But if nothing else, the designation would put more pressure on regulators to get it right when it comes to modifying projects or requiring mitigation — or it would give environmental opponents more ammunition in lawsuits to stop a project.

More than 700 miles of beaches from North Carolina to Mississippi would be made critical habitats if the proposal is approved.

Not so incongruously, the proposal follows a November lawsuit by Oceana and other groups to force the service to establish the critical areas.

“It’s very helpful ensuring that protection is in place” and human impacts are accounted for, said Amanda Keledjian, Oceana marine scientist.

“One would hope” the designation would hold federal regulators to a stricter standard, said Katie Zimmerman, project manager for the Coastal Conservation League. But “the rule does not do a lot of anything (about) the cumulative impact of development adjacent to these critical areas, and it definitely does not put a lot of impact on private landowners.”

As far as projects already in the permitting process, such as re-dredging the Charleston Harbor shipping channel, it’s too early to say whether the proposed designation would apply if it is approved, said Glenn Jeffries, of the Army Corps of Engineers, Charleston district.

A critical area is an Endangered Species Act designation that requires modification of projects in those areas if they are found to harm the species’ ability to make use of the area. Along beachfronts, that would include building projects, sand renourishments and artificial lighting, among other activities.

The proposal is now open for public comment and requests for public hearings until late May. It will be months before the service makes a final decision. That decision must be approved by the federal Department of the Interior and Office of Management and Budget for its cost-benefit balance.

The ponderous loggerhead is a beloved, beleaguered totem of the South Carolina coast, where thousands of nests are laid each summer and watched by a virtual army of volunteer groups. Half the loggerhead nests laid outside of Florida are laid in South Carolina.

For years the species was thought to be in gradual decline to threats such as development, fishing nets, beach erosion and predation.

More recently, wildlife biologists said they are “cautiously optimistic” the turtles are recovering here. Loggerheads are relatively strictly protected in South Carolina. The state led the nation in efforts such as turtle excluder devices on shrimping nets.

But the erosion of vital nesting barrier islands and relentless coastal development, among other factors, continues to threaten the species.

“Obviously, what humans are doing to impact the turtle is harming the turtle whether or not this rule goes through,” Zimmerman said.

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