Washington, DC — A plan to scrape sand from dunes at the Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge in order to rebuild the dune-line shielding beach homes is both illegal and ill conceived while setting a disturbing precedent for the entire refuge system, according to comments filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The controversial project would strip refuge beaches to the detriment of shorebirds, shellfish and other wildlife to shore up private property at taxpayer expense.
On July 27, 2010, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), which operates the refuge, unveiled the Draft Environmental Assessment for the project. Bulldozers would mine sand from the refuge to fill in “breaches” created by recent storms in the dunes north of Prime Hook Beach in Sussex County. The stated reason for the project, however, is to reduce the animosity between “some community members and the Service”, as local homeowners have blamed FWS for growing subsidence and flooding.
In fact, as FWS admits, the problem is sea level rise and other climate changes which will inexorably change the contours of the Atlantic Coast. At the same time, PEER argues that the project will –
- Violate a number of laws, including the Clean Water Act, Coastal Barrier Resources Act, Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, as well as laws governing management of the refuge system;
- Contradict the FWS Climate Change Strategy which prescribes adapting to sea level rise rather than resisting it through engineering efforts; and
- Be counterproductive. As the FWS assessment admits;
“A scenario of continual rebuilding of artificial dunes could have long-term and cumulative negative impacts and consequences….Geologists recommend that artificial dunes not be rebuilt after storm damage to allow tidal inlet and overwash formation that reduces the vulnerability of back-barrier marshes to sea level rise…”
“From every vantage point, legal, ecological and financial, this project should not proceed,” said PEER Staff Counsel Christine Erickson, noting that FWS has announced that it expects to begin the work in early October. “Before bulldozers start pushing sand, they have a number of legal hurdles to leap.”
Despite the announced schedule the project requires a number of state and federal permits, including wetlands permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps is still investigating an attempt this May to begin the work without any of the required permits.
In its assessment, FWS admits that the project will do harm refuge habitat and wildlife but that it feels under pressure to take some action until it develops a longer-term plan. “Wildlife refuges are supposed to be run for the benefit of wildlife, not private property owners,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing out that the FWS assessment does not name the that three adjacent landowners who will be recipients of “mined refuge sand” to improve their beach properties. Nor does FWS disclose how much these three private landowners have spent on protecting their property from storm damage and erosion. “Sandbox politics should not dictate management of our national wildlife refuges.”