Protection of Marsh Hummocks
Marsh hummocks provide a high diversity of habitats and plant communities, including isolated wetlands, forests, shrub thickets and grasslands. For other bird species, hummocks are used for resting, especially during high tides, serve as roosting sites, provide desirable nesting areas, and adjacent tidal wetlands and enclosed isolated wetlands offer many food resources. The federally endangered Wood Stork has also been shown to extensively use isolated hummock islands as resting and roosting sites. During a study by SCDNR, “Resting of many species of wading birds was observed to be more prevalent on isolated hammocks in the Charleston area than on hammocks further south in the protected ACE Basin (Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto Basin), which provides evidence that habitat loss and disturbance can influence the extent to which these species use the hammock islands.” As development continues to alter the traditional habitat along the marshlands, many bird species have likely sought isolated habitat on these hammocks. The survey observations show that these sensitive and ecologically important areas are favorable habitats for a diverse range of fauna. While South Carolina has “bridges to marsh island” regulations, it is important we continue our work to protect these amazing ecosystems.
A prime example of the threat these islands face and how conservation victories occur is the recent story of Pappy’s Island:
Background of Pappy’s
The Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge is federally designated for conservation of fish, wildlife, and plants. The Refuge is home to more than 277 different bird species and boasts the largest nesting rookery for brown pelicans, terns, and gulls on the South Carolina coast, and the largest wintering population of American Oystercatchers on the east coast. Over 24 types of reptiles, 12 varieties of amphibians and over 36 species of mammals have been recorded in the Refuge. Cape Romain supports the largest nesting population of loggerhead sea turtles outside the state of Florida.
Pappy’s Island (sometimes called Papa’s Island) is an undeveloped 104-acre marsh hummock island that is surrounded by the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge near McClellanville, and is one of the last such islands within the authorized boundaries of the Refuge. It consists of 80 acres of tidal marsh and 24 acres upland, including shell middens in the salt marsh. In total, the Refuge covers 22 miles of undeveloped shoreline, part of the largest stretch of undeveloped shoreline on the entire east coast. Aside from a small cutout at McClellanville, the seaward side of the intracoastal waterway serves as the Refuge’s border for the entire 22-mile stretch. Pappy’s Island falls within this small excluded area.
As a marsh hummock, Pappy’s Island hosts migratory songbirds during the summer, including painted buntings, which use hummocks for both resting and breeding. Painted buntings are declining in number and are a high priority species within the southeast. They also happen to be one of the most colorful and sought-after birds by birdwatchers in South Carolina. South Carolina supports a third to a half of the total breeding population and is considered to serve a vital role in the species’ conservation. In the 2015 State Wildlife Action Plan recently developed by SC Department of Natural Resources, the painted bunting is listed in the category of “Highest Priority Species” for protection.
Until recently, Pappy’s Island was owned by developers and zoned to accommodate two homes. These developers obtained permits for a septic system and a private, recreational dock for the Island, despite public outcry. Allowing the dock to be constructed in this area would have set a dangerous precedent and altered the general character of one of South Carolina’s great natural resources.
Conservation organizations got to work to protect this precious hummock. The Conservation League, represented by the South Carolina Environmental Law Project, appealed the dock permit and coordinated with concerned citizens. Meanwhile, the Nature Conservancy and the Open Space Institute began determining options for purchase. As our litigation progressed, the Open Space Institute successfully negotiated a fair price, with the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) prepared to ultimately take control of the property with half of the funds already secured from the Charleston County Greenbelt Bank, and the other half from federal grants. By early 2016, Pappy’s Island was officially protected in perpetuity, thanks to a team effort.
Under FWS ownership, the tract will be managed within Cape Roman National Wildlife Refuge. The property’s frontage along the intracoastal waterway will provide new public access to water not commonly available. The protection of this property ensures continued good health for the area waters, which not only benefits countless wildlife but also works to promote and protect the culture of nearby McClellanville, whose local economy is closely tied to commercial fishing and shellfish harvesting within the refuge.