Hunting Island State Park is one of the gems of South Carolina. The 5,000-acre park is the most visited in the state park system. It is also a revenue generator. As officials prepare to reopen the park following the cleanup from Hurricane Matthew, I believe that it is time to rethink our relationship with this unique natural heritage area.
I have been visiting Hunting Island since the late 1960s, when I was a boy. There have been dramatic changes since then. According to the United States Geological Survey, Hunting Island has one of the highest erosion rates on the East Coast. It has been this way for a while.
The historic Hunting Island Lighthouse was constructed in a manner to allow it be moved. In 1889, the lighthouse was moved 1.3 miles inland. It now stands, once again, a few hundred feet away from the beach. The view from the top is fabulous, but the builders never intended to protect it in place.
Please understand that this high rate of erosion is not necessarily a problem for the island’s ecosystems. It is a natural process. There are many barrier islands in the Lowcountry with rapid rates of shoreline change. On an undeveloped barrier island, shoreline change doesn’t mean the beach will disappear. The beach simply moves.
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Eroding beaches can be very beautiful. Consider those South Carolina “boneyard” beaches with the sculpted remains of trees from the maritime forest scattered along the shore. This natural erosion also adds sand to the coastal system and feeds beaches in other locations. Movement is the key to survival for dynamic coastal systems.
Unfortunately, we are not so easy to accept the inevitability of coastal erosion as our ancestors were (those who actually moved the lighthouse). Today’s vision of preserving Hunting Island is to try to hold it in place, first by pumping sand, and more recently, by building rock and steel structures, called groins, that are fighting a losing battle trying to hold that sand in place.
These efforts are folly. It is an expensive, temporary, never-ending fight against nature in a place that should be allowed to move and breathe. The coastal engineering has changed the character of Hunting Island. The goal seems to be to maintain a wide central beach that looks more like a Grand Strand beach then a small, Lowcountry barrier island.
Sure, there are some visitors who come to Hunting simply for that “towel on the sand” beach experience. But, I think that there are far more people who are drawn to Hunting Island for those portions of shoreline that remain natural, eschewing the beach trapped between the groins for the ends of the island where you can weave a path amongst the trees.
There are plans for more sand and possibly more groins to slice the beach into additional sections. The projected cost of the next project is around $6.8 million.
Hunting Island would still be a gem without a giant artificial beach.
It is time for a new vision for the management of Hunting Island that is more like the historical approach. Adapting in a more flexible way is not only historically accurate, it is fiscally responsible.
Rather than spending millions to try vainly to hold the shoreline in place, we should be shifting visitor access to the areas of the island that are sustainable over the longer term, or converting facilities to those that are movable and flexible as has been done successfully at Assateague Island National Seashore by the National Park Service. The recent decision to move to more off-site parking is an important step in the right direction.
Trying to hold the shoreline in place with rocks, steel and sand will require an increasing infusion of cash and will, ultimately, fail. Pardon the cliché, but sometimes, in order to save something, you need to set it free.
Young is director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C. He served on the 2013 South Carolina Blue Ribbon Committee on Shoreline Management. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.