New Plan Would Save Future of 1 Million Acres of Salt Marshes Along Southeast U.S. Coast

U.S. military, conservationists, and community leaders embrace natural solutions to help stave off flooding and erosion

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New Plan Would Save Future of 1 Million Acres of Salt Marshes Along Southeast U.S. Coast
A man standing on an elevated platform on the back of a small, open-deck fishing boat uses a very long pole to push the boat through shallow waters in an area fringed by marsh grasses.
A fisherman uses a long pole to push a flats boat—designed for navigating shallow waters—through the salt marshes of the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge near Charleston, South Carolina. A new plan would protect 1 million acres of salt marshes, including this refuge, from sea level rise, erosion, and other threats.
Richard Ellis Alamy Stock Photo

Protecting and restoring coastal salt marshes can help fight the flooding and erosion that threatens communities and military installations, according to a new plan released today by the South Atlantic Salt Marsh Initiative (SASMI).

The initiative, composed of more than 300 representatives from the Department of Defense (DOD) and other federal, state, and local agencies, community members, scientists, and conservation leaders spent two years investigating the best ways to preserve 1 million acres of salt marshes—an area nearly the size of Grand Canyon National Park—stretching from North Carolina to east central Florida.

The new plan outlines threats to salt marshes—from rising seas, polluted runoff, and unsustainable development—and it examines dozens of solutions ranging from securing adjacent lands where salt marshes can move as seas rise to elevating new roads above the important wildlife habitat. The voluntary plan calls for local communities and governments to implement the tactics best suited to each location. And the framework includes suggestions for securing funding, improving development planning processes, and educating and engaging communities in the co-creation of salt marsh conservation projects.

As our colleague Holly Binns, who directs coastal conservation work at Pew, said, “The initiative marks one of the Southeast’s most significant multistate coastal conservation efforts, and the plan puts pragmatic solutions on the table for communities and the military.” Pew helped organize the salt marsh conservation effort.  

Military officials joined the endeavor because more than a dozen installations are located on or near the Southeast coast and because some, such as Parris Island Marine Corps Recruit Depot in South Carolina, already are experiencing flooding and other effects of rising seas. Also joining the effort is Queen Quet, Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, which is comprised of descendants of enslaved Africans and indigenous Americans. Queen Quet, who works to protect the sacred lands and waterways of her people, recognizes salt marshes’ value to her homeland’s sustainability as well as for food security and Gullah/Geechee spiritual practices.

The South Atlantic initiative focuses on salt marshes—grassy channels that fill and drain with the tides—because they have the power to reduce erosion, stabilize shorelines, and protect communities from storm surge by absorbing the power of waves. The marshes provide an estimated protective value of $7,284 per acre, annually, from storm surge and flooding alone.  

The habitat also provides food, refuge, and nursery grounds for commercial and recreational fish species, marine animals such as dolphins, and threatened species, including the Eastern black rail, green sea turtle, and manatee. These ecosystems also face threats: 14% to 34% of existing salt marshes along the South Atlantic could be lost by 2060 if seas continue to rise as expected, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The plan focuses on two methods for saving marshes:

  • Protecting and restoring existing salt marshes. One way to protect marshes is through living shorelines—such as reefs constructed of recycled oyster shells or other materials. If placed in strategic locations, these reefs can help buffer the power of destructive waves and filter pollutants from the water. Furthermore, keeping salt marshes connected to neighboring ecosystems can improve the marshes’ health and stability. Restoring free-flowing rivers and streams can increase the nutrients and sediment deposits marshes need to survive. Reconfiguring culverts or filling in old ditches that divert water away from marshes and reconnecting the habitat to historic creeks and channels are tactics that can restore marshes and improve entire ecosystems’ resilience to climate change and other threats.
  • Conserving migration corridors. Marshes naturally retreat landward as seas advance, but that movement can be blocked by natural barriers or man-made structures, such as roads and buildings. Marshes that cannot move drown. Protecting adjacent lands provides marshes with a buffer from the impacts of development, and by safeguarding land—through acquisition or easements—governments, conservation groups, and private landowners can help ensure that marshes have suitable areas to migrate to in response to sea-level rise. Removing or retrofitting barriers that block marsh migration, such as bulkheads and seawalls, can also help salt marshes shift as needed.

The salt marsh initiative is organized under the leadership of the Southeast Regional Partnership for Planning and Sustainability, whose members include the DOD and other federal agencies along with state environmental and natural resource officials from throughout the Southeast. The plan reflects input from an array of salt marsh stakeholders, including scientists, educators, private landowners, natural resource managers, fishermen, boaters, hunters, birders, and conservation groups.

This 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.

The plan also lays out ways to identify and 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.

It is now up to SASMI to work closely with its partners throughout the region to implement the plan and promote a more resilient and prosperous Southeast coast—now and for future generations.

Lora Clarke is an officer and Cameron Jaggard is a principal associate with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ conserving marine life in the U.S. project.

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