1 Million Acres of Southeast Salt Marsh Move Closer to Protection

Plan involving military, governments, and communities would benefit nature, economies, and diverse range of residents


1 Million Acres of Southeast Salt Marsh Move Closer to Protection
Girl Exploring the Outer Banks
A woman takes in a salt marsh view near the Bodie Island Lighthouse in North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
Ferrantraite Getty Images

A plan to conserve 1 million acres of Southeast salt marsh is starting to take shape after federal, state, and military leaders, conservation groups, scientists, the Gullah/Geechee Nation, and others have worked together for a year to assess options for protecting the valuable coastal habitat.

The project, known as the South Atlantic Salt Marsh Initiative, launched in May 2021 to conserve a coastal area nearly the size of Grand Canyon National Park that stretches from North Carolina to northeast Florida. Salt marshes, which are channels of coastal grasslands, protect coastlines from flooding, erosion, and storm surge, filter upland runoff, and serve as vital habitat for fish, birds, and other animals. Salt marshes also house many sites of cultural and spiritual significance. These tidal wetlands face a number of threats, including rising seas, polluted runoff, and encroaching development. Further, the Southeast coast is home to about a dozen military installations, and Defense Department officials have voiced support for nature-based solutions to fortify their bases from sea level rise and other environmental risks.

Pew helped launch the initiative, which is organized under the leadership of the Southeast Regional Partnership for Planning and Sustainability (SERPPAS). SERPPAS includes members of the Defense Department and other federal agencies along with state environmental and natural resource officials from across the Southeast. About 270 stakeholders have joined the effort, including fishermen, conservation groups, and Queen Quet of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, which is made up of descendants of enslaved Africans who own some of the coastal lands and depend on salt marsh for their livelihoods.

Recently, project participants gathered for a virtual workshop to kick off the process of writing the conservation plan. A draft is expected this summer, with a final plan slated for release next year. Here are summaries of the eight topic areas participants discussed and some ideas that emerged, although the group hasn’t made any commitments yet:

  • What are the best ways to conserve and restore salt marsh? One idea is to enhance water flowing into degraded marshes, possibly through projects such as modifying culverts. Increased flow can flush out pollutants, improving water quality, and it can add sediment, which stabilizes marshes.
  • How can marshes be saved as sea levels rise? Conserving undeveloped land near salt marshes could give the grasslands somewhere to move as sea levels rise. Local stakeholders could identify land parcels that can serve as “marsh migration corridors” and analyze which ones would provide the greatest benefit to surrounding communities, cultural resources, and military installations.
  • How can infrastructure and development be sustainable for marshes? Stakeholders could consider nature-based solutions, such as living shorelines—using recycled oyster shells or other materials, for example, to build reefs that can protect coastlines. In some cases, these natural barriers can fortify marsh-front properties better than hardened structures, such as seawalls, which can interfere with healthy salt marsh function. Another possible solution is to elevate portions of coastal roads to make them—and adjacent marshes—more resilient to changing conditions.
  • How can conservation efforts help people and respect different cultures? Successful programs would promote understanding and collaboration across cultural groups, governments, coastal businesses, and communities. Protecting sites of cultural and spiritual significance is important. And successful conservation will help communities benefit from salt marshes’ ecosystem services: storm surge protection, flood mitigation, water quality benefits, carbon storage and sequestration, and supporting rich biodiversity.
  • What role can mapping play? Mapping can identify salt marsh areas most in need of protection or restoration, as well as those where projects could provide the biggest benefits. Maps also can show where salt marsh has the potential to migrate landward and identify barriers such as steep elevation gradients, sea walls, and low-lying roadways. Maps could help identify the best areas for land acquisition.
  • What policies can help? Governments could build upon the existing framework of policies, laws, and regulations to successfully manage impacts of sea level rise and flooding.
  • How will projects be funded? Money may be available from the Defense Department, state and federal programs, grants, private donations, and other sources.
  • How can the public learn more?Information can be shared by involving stakeholders in the process, including homeowners’ associations, businesses, community leaders, landowners, and others. Successful communications about conservation efforts must reach affected audiences and consider diverse cultures and interests.

Once a plan is drafted, the coalition of stakeholders leading the salt marsh initiative will review and provide further input before the document is finalized.

A comprehensive salt marsh plan will help communities, governments, and the military better prepare for the future through coordinated, forward-thinking transportation and development plans, strategic restoration projects, and conservation of large areas of adjacent open lands. Such a plan also will help protect marsh species and areas that are crucial to recreational and commercial fishing, hunting, birding, eco-tourism, and other activities that support coastal businesses and economies. Working together, stakeholders can develop a guide that promotes a more resilient and prosperous Southeast coast.

Joseph Gordon is a project director and Lora Clarke is an officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ conserving marine life in the United States project.