Guest Opinion: Innovative solutions are needed to preserve North Carolina’s wildlife and wild lands

Published 8:53 am Saturday, August 10, 2019

By Mike Bryant

North Carolina is home to some of the most beautiful and wild lands in the country. I was fortunate enough during my career with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to manage six of our state’s national wildlife refuges on the coast and over time my passion for protecting these precious natural resources has only deepened. I observed first-hand in my 21-year tenure how the impacts from climate change are rapidly taking a toll. That experience has compelled me, even in retirement, to continue my work on behalf of the lands and wildlife we all enjoy.

The climate is changing. While some still debate the causes, very few deny that change is indeed occurring, and there’s plenty of science to back it up. For example, NOAA recently released data showing that June 2019 was the hottest on record around the globe in the entire 140 years the agency has been tracking temperatures. Anyone can look at the historical charting and see a pattern and probability of increased storm and hurricane activity, which translates to increased incidents of heavy rainfall, destructive wind events, and storm surge. A Google map time-lapse will show erosion of shoreline due to sea level rise. There’s nothing we can do about what has happened in the past, but there are things we can do to mitigate the impacts and plan for the future.

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Since we cannot halt climate change altogether, our overarching focus must be to slow the rate of change and lessen the impacts on people and property.

Managing the saltwater intrusion into freshwater areas due to rising sea levels is one such focus. As ocean levels rise, saltwater pushes inland, changing landscapes and habitat. For people, rising sea water overtakes homes, farms, and private forests. It can damage and destroy wildlife habitat, as well. Along our coast pocosin, swamp, and maritime forests have historically covered much of the wildlife refuges, serving as home to black bears, reintroduced endangered red wolves, and a host of forest-dependent migratory birds – many of which are species-at-risk such as pine warblers, yellow-throated warblers, hooded warblers, and black-and-white warblers; all are beautiful perching birds. Increased and more frequent salt water flooding cause forests to die off, and the wildlife dependent on these habitats disappear from these areas, as well.

How do we manage this and slow the rate of change? We need to think differently about the way we address water runoff. The tendency is to build ditches as a water management solution, but ditches serve as conduits for the saltwater to get further inland. Instead we need to focus on water management capabilities with specific types of water control structures in large ditches and ditch plugs in existing small, abandoned ditches to help slow the rate at which the saltwater moves inland as sea levels rise, while naturalizing the rate of run off during dry times. For those of us who spend time in North Carolina’s wildlife refuges, hunting and fishing or enjoying other recreational activities, we’ve seen that the steady increase in sea level is making our lands wetter. It’s impacting the landscape and flooding roads more frequently. It’s clear we need to talk about innovative preventive measures.

The best preventive measure is to get right to the source of where the saltwater impacts eroding shorelines. Managing shoreline erosion is a critical element of helping buffer our wildlife refuges further inland, slowing the rate of saltwater flow. As our coastline is more frequently battered by intense storms and hurricanes, as we all witnessed just last year with Hurricane Florence, this becomes more and more difficult. Often times, the solution identified as easiest is to build seawalls. But seawalls are not sustainable solutions, nor are they the best option for marine life.

I’ve been part of several coastal projects to build oyster reefs instead of walls, piling natural rock off the bottom and growing oysters along the rock face of these artificial reefs built just offshore and parallel to it. An entire estuarine ecosystem then forms around the reef, improving water quality and becoming a welcome habitat for fish and crabs. The reefs are hospitable environments for estuarine communities to flourish while reducing wave action which further aids in slowing shoreline erosion. Reefs I’ve helped establish at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge are working to buffer wave energy, making reefs a much more positive solution than seawalls.

We all want to enjoy North Carolina’s beautiful wildlife and wild lands, and we’ll have to remain committed to working together with conservation groups, scientists, engineers, neighbors, and community leaders to help our coastal communities implement the kind of sustainable, long term solutions that provide the best protection.

Mike Bryant worked with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for 21 years, managing six of North Carolina’s national wildlife refuges along the coast. In his retirement, Mike continues to advocate for the protection of wildlife and wild lands through volunteer work and ongoing project consultation with The Nature Conservancy.