New RAE Report Highlights Roles Individuals, Local Groups Play in Habitat Restoration

Sometimes big results come from small beginnings.

For Harry Lester it was the sweet-salty taste of Lynnhaven oysters he grew fond of as a naval officer stationed near Virginia Beach, Virginia, in the early '70s. Liking the area, Lester retired there after his naval career only to find that the succulent oysters he had loved were essentially commercially extinct, victims of pollution, storm sewage discharges, bacterial contamination, over-harvesting, and development along the Lynnhaven River.

I realized that I was part of the problem," says Lester, a prominent commercial real estate developer in Virginia Beach. He, along with Andy Fine, a friend and area lawyer, founded a small group in 2003, raised a little money, and lobbied the city council on behalf of the beleaguered Lynnhavens and a cleaner river.

The result? Against all odds, Lynnhavens--once the preferred oysters of British royalty, American presidents, and New York tycoons like Diamond Jim Brady (who reportedly downed two to three dozen at a time)--are making a comeback from the brink of oblivion.

For Phil Sander and Al Krampert, two idealistic young Midwesterners in the '60s, it was a sunset over the last bit of pristine coastal prairie on Lake Michigan between Chicago and Milwaukee--a little stretch of grassland called the Chiwaukee slated for development and the construction of a marina.

"Phil," Krampert asked his friend, "is there anything we can do to save it?"

The two raised funds to buy up a key 15-acre strip of land in the Chiwaukee, effectively killing the marina project. By 1966, partnering with the Wisconsin Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, they saved 74 additional acres. Then came the hard part: tracking down the owners of some 1,200 privately owned lots on the prairie and convincing them to sell. It took 40 years.

More than 500 acres are now preserved and owned by the state of Wisconsin, The Nature Conservancy, and the University of Wisconsin. All in all, a pretty good investment as the Chiwaukee is home to more than 475 species of native plants, 76 species of birds, 10 species of snakes, five species of bats, and numerous state-endangered species.

For the Chums of Barker Creek, a small group of concerned locals in Bremerton, Washington, it was watching frustrated salmon bump up against an antiquated highway culvert in their Tracyton Boulevard neighborhood that blocked access to their spawning grounds--a situation emblematic of the plight of salmon and sea-run trout throughout the Pacific Northwest.

In February 2009, after 15 years of effort and partnerships with a local groups including People for Puget Sound, Kitsap County, the Suquamish Native American tribe, Silverdale, as well as RAE and NOAA, a new salmon-friendly culvert was installed. In March of that year, the final touches to the Barker Creek Restoration Project, including shrub and tree plantings, were put in place.

These and other projects and people are part of a new report from Restore America's Estuaries, "Hope for Coastal Habitats: People, Partnerships & Projects Making a Difference."

"Hope for Coastal Habitats" is a different kind of report, says Jeff Benoit, president and CEO of Restore America's Estuaries (RAE): "We made a conscious decision to present coastal habitat restoration in the best possible light, to emphasize the idea that individuals and small groups can make a big difference; in fact, are absolutely essential to saving our coasts and estuaries."

It is a hard truth that faced with the choice of providing good news or bad news, too often the choice for environmental organizations like RAE is obvious: Like it or not, go with the bad news. "Bad news draws needed attention to a problem. And, unfortunately, there's a lot of it," says Benoit. He points out that as we enter the second decade of the 21st century, America's coasts and estuaries are in trouble. Big trouble. Climate change, rising seas, human development, pollution, over-fishing, and other ills are at or near crisis point. In the final analysis, Benoit notes: "It is an environmental organization's responsibility to present the facts, provide perspective, and help bring about change."

It was in that frame of mind and with NOAA funding that RAE began work on a report that would provide an overview of the state of our coasts, show likely trends, and present "snapshot" portraits of key coastal and estuarine ecosysystems. The North Carolina Coastal Federation (NCCF), one of RAE's 11 member groups, agreed to do the research, writing, and production. Frank Tursi, NCCF Cape Lookout Coastkeeper and a former journalist, took on the research and writing duties, NCCF Communications Director Christine Miller edited and oversaw design and production work. The report's working title was "Habitats in Crisis."

But as work on the report got underway, things changed.

"We realized there were two storylines," Tursi says. "One was the original theme, the continuing and emerging threats to our coasts and wetlands. The other was how individuals and small groups had made, and were continuing to make, a real difference. We decided that these were stories we wanted and needed to tell." "Habitats in Crisis" transformed into "Hope for Coastal Habitats: People, Partnerships & Projects Making a Difference."

"Hope for Coastal Habitats" tackles the national coastal conditions thematically, looking at wetlands, shellfish, aquatic vegetation, fish passage, and beach dunes and coastal barrier islands. Each section gives a short overview of the current situation, presents historic trends, and describes promising restoration projects.

Among the projects: wetland restoration at North River Farms in North Carolina and salt ponds in San Francisco Bay; oyster farming in the unpromising waters around New York City and northern New Jersey; replanting eel grass meadows in Rhode Island Narragansett Bay; dam removals in Maine's Kennebec River and along Connecticut's Queach Creek; rebuilding the Chaland Headland barrier islands off Louisiana's Gulf Coast; and protecting a scenic highway on one of the most picturesque coasts in the country, Michigan's Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on the southern shore of Lake Superior.

Unsurprisingly, Restore America's Estuaries and its member organizations, related groups, and government agencies like NOAA have been major players in many of these projects. But at the heart of these projects are local volunteers--hundreds of thousands of people who donate their time and labor every year to plant seagrasses, construct oyster reefs, remove dams and weirs, raise money for restoration, and lobby for new programs, funds, and laws to protect their local watersheds. Along the way hundreds of public and private partnerships have been created to foster change and promote restoration. All are great examples of of why individual initiative and small-scale restoration make a big difference, says Benoit.

But "Hope for Habitats" also contains some grim statistics.

It projects at current levels of development, more than a quarter of the nation's coasts will be altered by 2025. Sea-level rise of just one foot, it warns, could eliminate between 17 and 43 percent of existing coastal wetlands--a good bet as many climatologists conservatively estimate an average rise of about one-eighth inch a year along much of the coastline of the United States. Of course, this is on top of what we've already done.

In the Pacific Northwest, Washington has seen between 50 and 90 percent of all riparian habitat extensively modified since the early 1800s. Oregon has lost nearly half of its tidal wetlands. In Alaska, over half of all coastal culverts choke off salmon runs and, more than 20 years after the fact, over 1,500 miles of Alaskan coastline are still feeling the effects of the disastrous 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Ninety-five percent of the wetland and riparian habitat in California's San Francisco Bay has been damaged or destroyed. Only 10 to 25 percent of Southern California's once extensive estuarine wetlands survive today.

Gulf Coast estuaries have lost between 20 and 100 percent of their seagrasses, essential habitat and food sources for hundreds of species of fish and other animals. Ominously, more than half of the Gulf's oyster fisheries, an economic mainstay of the region, are permanently gone or have been temporarily closed at some point in recent years. Louisiana's coastline is receding faster than anywhere else in the country. Since 1930, it has been losing coastal marshland the size of a football field every 30 minutes.

The Southeast, including the Atlantic coasts of Florida, Georgia, and North and South Carolina, has seen 78 percent of its wetlands vanish between the time of European settlement and 1980.

Major estuaries in the Mid-Atlantic, particularly Chesapeake Bay and the Delaware Estuary, are hard-hit. The Chesapeake, the U.S.s biggest estuary, has lost 60 percent of its wetlands, 88 percent of its submerged grass beds, and 98 percent of its oyster reefs. A quarter of the Delaware's wetlands are gone and a third of its tidal wetlands have been colonized by phragmites, a non-native reed that displaces indigenous plant species.

In the Northeast, most of the historic spawning and nursery grounds for Atlantic salmon and other migratory fishes have been dammed off. Only Maine, with just over half of its coastal rivers still open, sustain significant, if much reduced, runs. A third of Narragansett Bay's shellfish beds are closed because of pathogen contamination.

In short, the problems facing our coasts and estuaries can seem overwhelming, says Benoit. But, he adds, "Hope for Habitats" argues otherwise. Some of the report's best advice, he says, comes from Christy Everett of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation: "Things aren't perfect and we will all have to do more. But you have to show people that you can slow the pace of deterioration, that they can make a difference. You have to give them hope."

Find out more about the challenges facing our coasts and estuaries. Download "Hope for Coastal Habitats: People, Partnerships & Projects Making a Difference."