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First Coast

New Initiative Aims To Conserve 1 Million Acres Of Salt Marsh Along Southeast Coast

Marshes on Amelia Island.
Razvan Orendovici
/
Wikimedia Commons
Marshes on Amelia Island.

A group of military and government officials has agreed to move forward with a plan to conserve 1 million acres of salt marsh stretching from North Carolina to Northeast Florida.

Leaders of the Southeast Regional Partnership for Planning and Sustainability (SERPPAS) on Tuesday voted to endorse a South Atlantic salt marsh initiative and work with public and private partners to develop a conservation plan.

SERPPAS is a six-state partnership made up of state and federal agencies, including the military, as well as non-governmental organizations that collaborate on resource-use decisions that support national defense and the conservation of natural resources, sustainable working lands and communities in the Southeast.

The South Atlantic coast from North Carolina to North Florida is home to over 1 million acres of salt marsh and tidal creeks. The Sunshine State alone is home to more than 500,000 acres of salt marsh, much of that along the state’s northeast coast, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Coastal wetlands like salt marshes provide a host of benefits to the environment and nearby communities. They are vital habitats for fish, birds and other animals, they improve water quality, they protect coastlines from flooding and erosion, they trap and store carbon (the primary greenhouse gas contributing to climate change) and they are the first line of defense for many coastal communities and military installations when extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, strike. 

Salt marshes are also critical to the fishing and tourism industries as well as other businesses that are vital to coastal economies. They provide coastal communities with millions of dollars worth of protection and resilience benefits every year, with one study finding that every square kilometer of wetland provides an average of $1.8 million worth of protection each year.

However, salt marshes are being lost at an alarming rate, largely due to coastal development and sea level rise. Recent wetland losses are estimated to have increased property damage during Hurricane Irma by $430 million.

“Salt marshes are essential to our quality of life and prosperity as Floridians,” said Julie Wraithmell, executive director of Audubon Florida, one of two dozen organizations that urged SERPPAS to move forward with the conservation initiative ahead of Tuesday’s vote.

“The marshes fuel fisheries and real estate values alike. They attenuate storm surge, protecting human communities from hurricanes and sea level rise. Salt marshes help cleanse our runoff of harmful nutrients that can cause algal blooms. And the marshes lock away carbon that would otherwise drive climate change. Our best technology can’t achieve any one of these functions as efficiently, let alone all of them. Protecting and restoring salt marsh makes ecological and economic sense,” she went on to say.

The North Florida Land Trust (NFLT) was another organization that supported the project.

“Partnerships like this have been proven effective when it comes to conservation and we look forward to working with SERPPAS on a plan to protect these important ecosystems. We have seen firsthand how the military involvement in the conservation of lands can help protect the military mission while advancing shared protection goals,” said Jim McCarthy, president of NFLT.

The Pew Charitable Trusts, which is working to help facilitate the initiative, plans to get other organizations from around the First Coast, such as the Northeast Florida Regional Council and the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve, involved in the project as well.

“The work now is to pull together all of those folks into regional working groups and steering committees, organize ourselves and then set to work developing a draft plan, which we expect to have done by sometime around the summer of 2022,” said Cameron Jaggard, principal associate with the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Conserving Marine Life in the U.S. program.

Brendan Rivers can be reached at brivers@wjct.org, 904-358-6396 or on Twitter at @BrendanRivers.