From the beach on this seven-mile-long natural landmark, U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell stared carefully at the eerie landscape of fallen and broken trees.
Once majestic hardwoods and sturdy palms, the trees Wednesday were the dead victims of an encroaching sea. Fallen trees were so thick on the beach that they forced Jewell to step carefully as she toured remote Bulls Island with her staff.
On her first trip to a South Carolina wildlife refuge since becoming interior secretary earlier this year, Jewell said the scene at Bulls Island is a stark example of how rising sea levels and changing climate are affecting the planet.
“I’ve not seen a forest growing out of the beach like this, a boneyard beach as they call it,” Jewell said, comparing Bulls Island to other eroded beaches she has visited. “We do have erosion in a number of places, and you do have trees fall over – but not like this.”
“We should be paying attention to what we’re seeing on the ground, we should be learning from that, we should be listening to the science.”
Jewell’s trip to the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge was part of a campaign by her department to raise awareness about the importance of funding for scenic and important natural areas across the country. The interior department has suffered so many budget cuts in recent years that wildlife refuges, parks and other areas are having a hard time providing basic services, she said.
But Jewell’s trip also gave her a chance to tour the 66,000-acre refuge, talk with the public at a community meeting and meet local staff members with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Throughout the time she spent Wednesday at the refuge, she continued to point out that climate change is a reality that the country must deal with. Nowhere is that more noticeable than South Carolina, a coastal state that has experienced a one-foot rise in sea level during the past century, she said.
After an aerial tour of the area that she said provided stark examples of intense coastal development, Jewell urged the state to be ready to adapt to rising sea levels.
“I would not want to be in some of the houses that I saw if we had a Hurricane Sandy hit here,” Jewell said during a public meeting at the Sewee Visitor Center on U.S. 17 in Awendaw.
Later, as her boat sped between Bulls Island and the mainland, Jewell pointed out a row of houses that had been built close to the marsh as an example of her concerns.
In the Southeast, climate change is expected to cause a further rise in sea level of up to five feet by the end of this century, a recent report on global warming said. That in turn will imperil more oceanfront property and increase flooding, according to the study compiled by more than 100 scientists.
Global warming is a hot political topic because industries worry about pending regulations to curb greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. But while some question the reality of global warming and its long-term impacts, Jewell said she sees the effect of changing climate all across the country, from the Colorado River to the Atlantic Coast.
“We are actually seeing this in our lifetime,” she said.
Bulls Island and other islands in the Cape Romain refuge are being eaten away every year by the ocean.
Bulls, the largest island in the wildlife complex at about 5,000 acres, has lost about 425 acres since 1949, according to maps provided Wednesday by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Other parts of the South Carolina coast have lower erosion rates, but unlike Bulls Island, they are heavily developed.
Jewell said federal flood insurance has had an impact on coastal development, but she stopped short of advising South Carolina how to specifically address sea level rise. She did, however, say an initiative to restore longleaf pine forests on the mainland is a way to help offset what federal officials said would be the eventual march of rising seas.
The only problem is that the protection effort needs money, Cape Romain officials said. If Congress approves funding, South Carolina would receive $12.9 million in the 2014 federal budget for long-leaf pine restoration and conservation projects, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Longleaf pine restoration in and around the Cape Romain refuge and the Francis Marion National Forest means less development would occur in the path of rising sea levels, officials said.
Longleaf pine trees once covered 90 million acres from Virginia to Texas, but today are found on less than 5 percent of their former range. Cut for timber and to make room for farms during Colonial times, longleaf forests later were chopped down and the land converted to faster-growing loblolly pine plantations for use in the lumber business.
But as the longleafs dwindled, so did scores of animal species that depended on the habitat the towering trees provided, including the endangered red cockaded woodpecker.
Not only does the Fish and Wildlife Service need money for projects to help longleafs, but it needs funds to provide basic services, Jewell said.
The effects of sequestration, or mandated budget cuts for federal agencies, “are very difficult,” Jewell said, noting that the cuts would not be made across the board in private business. “It makes no sense,” she said.
Reduced budgets have left the Cape Romain refuge with just five employees to manage the 66,000-acre preserve between Charleston and Georgetown. The preserve once had 13 workers but now depends on volunteers to offset some of the losses.
“We are relying on friends groups to do basic work,” Jewell said.
Jewell, a longtime resident of the Pacific Northwest, spent 19 years in commercial banking and later became chief executive officer of REI, a national outdoor recreation company. She became interior secretary this past April, replacing Ken Salazar.
Jewell’s remarks on the need for more funding follow comments she made in late October, when she urged Congress to fully fund conservation programs, such as the popular Land and Water Conservation Fund.
The land and water fund has only once been fully paid for by Congress since it began in the mid-1960s, but it nonetheless has helped save vast stretches of the American landscape, including thousands of acres in South Carolina.