Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

One of the Nation’s “Ecological Gems” – the Georgia Coastline

By Terri L Turner, AICP, CFM

This is an abridged version of an article published in the August edition of Wetland News, the Association of State Wetland Managers membership newsletter.

One of the last relatively unspoiled areas along the eastern seaboard of the United States is the 100 mile stretch of Georgia coastline that runs from the St. Mary’s River in the south to the Savannah River in the north.  Protecting the coast are “a series of relatively short, wide barrier islands separated by relatively deep tidal inlets, or sounds. Extensive sand shoal systems are present seaward of the inlets and central portions of the island.  Eight major islands and island groups line the Georgia coastline. Tybee, St. Simons/Sea Island, and Jekyll are accessible by roadway and are the only developed barrier islands” of the group.

The remainder of the barrier islands, often referred to as the “crown jewels of the Georgia coast”, protect the mainland, surrounding estuaries, abundant wildlife, and vast tidal marshes from the wind and wave action caused by major storms and hurricane events.   These barrier islands have long been protected by “a fascinating history of land ownership and farsighted conservation laws (The Coastal Marshlands Protection Act) culminating in Georgia having the least disturbed coastline on the eastern seaboard.

The Coastal Marshlands Protection Act (CMPA), established by the State of Georgia in 1970, aimed to protect the marsh and estuarine areas, and to regulate the activities within these public trust lands that are held for the citizens of Georgia. Through the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Coastal Resources Division (GADNR-CRD), the CMPA was enacted to protect estuarine areas and to regulate activities and structures in the coastal marshlands to ensure that the values and functions of the coastal marshlands are not impaired in perpetuity.  As public trustees of the coastal marshlands for succeeding generations, GADNR-CRD allows for the sustainable use of the estuarine area through permits and other methods of authorization that will preserve the condition of the marsh while still allowing for its enjoyment.

“Georgia tidal marshes are predominant in the two-to five-mile wide areas between the barrier islands and the mainland and then brackish to freshwater wetlands can extend inland for an additional ten miles or so.”

“Scattered throughout the tidal marshlands along the six coastal counties are approximately 1,200 vegetated “marsh hammocks”, totaling over 17,000 acres and ranging in size from less than one acre to more than a 1,000 acres” providing a secluded sanctuary for wildlife, some of which are endangered or threatened, and also providing an integral part of the coastal view shed – the relatively undisturbed scenic vista of Georgia’s famous coastal landscape. Nearly 85% of these marsh hammocks are less than 10 acres, while 64% of the total acreage is embodied in only 41 hammocks.   In 2001, Scenic America, a national organization dedicated to preserving natural beauty and distinctive community character, selected Georgia’s marsh islands as one of the ten most endangered places of beauty in the nation.

Georgia’s deeply inset curved coastline promotes tidal currents that generally run perpendicular to the coastline replenishing Georgia’s stable barrier islands, which have relatively been in the same position for 4-5,000 years, with sand and silt and further protecting the coastline from major storms and hurricane activity. The area is further protected by relatively low wave energy along the Georgia coast due to the long distance waves must travel over the Continental Shelf, some 60 to 70 miles away, before reaching the shoreline.

Inland wetlands along the coast are an important resource for people and wildlife alike: they improve water quality through filtering water pollutants, reduce flooding through controlling floodwaters, reduce erosion and sedimentation, support water-related recreation, and provide critical habitat for an array of wild creatures.  These inland wetlands, serve as the vital link between land and water, and play a dynamic role in “feeding” the coast and Georgia’s estuaries where the right mix of salt water and freshwater plays a critical role in the productivity of valuable marine species.

“This special region is termed by some as “one of the nation’s ecological gems”, with its lacework of barrier islands, mud flats, tidal creeks, blackwater rivers, freshwater wetlands, and some 378,000 acres of salt marsh, comprising one-third of the remaining salt marsh on the East Coast.  Most of these salt marshes are held by the state – not as the state’s own property, but “in trust for the public”.  Thus, the marshes are a public resource, and one of incredible value.

Yet, many in the development community are not willing to keep this mixture of wind-swept sand and solitude “unspoiled” for eternity.   Outside pressures are posing threats to the biological and ecological diversity, environmental quality, and quiet natural beauty of the maritime forests, meadows adorned with colorful wildflowers, wide expansive ocean beaches, and vast sea-oat covered, wave-action dune systems of some of the world’s most beautiful barrier islands.  This unique native wilderness is being endangered by the threat of development of its pristine shores (even in today’s weak economy), overdevelopment of areas like Jekyll Island’s unprotected shorelines, lax enforcement of environmental laws, the sell-off of timberlands to developers, and oil companies that want to expand drilling for oil to more than half of Georgia’s waters.  This “living shoreline” faces a perfect storm of threats and these pressures have brought the Georgia coast to a critical tipping point. If we fail to counter these environmentally debilitating threats, some of America’s most cherished natural resources will be lost forever.   Therefore, saving the Georgia coast is one of the biggest and toughest conservation challenges we currently face in the nation and especially in the Southeast today.”

“Hopefully, humankind will develop more earth-centered attitudes to conserve the quality and diversity of life in the world’s oceans and protect our beautiful barrier islands.”

Obviously, the voice of the people can be the single most powerful entity in protection of the Georgia coastline’s mostly pristine, highly productive, and exquisitely beautiful natural resources.

If coastal stewardship is lost In Georgia and preservation strategies blow out to sea with the next big wind, one of the last great national refuges will be lost and we, as a nation, will not be better for it.

About the Author: Terri L Turner, AICP, CFM, is the Development Administrator/Floodplain Manager/Hazard Mitigation Specialist for the City of Augusta (GA) Planning and Development Department. Terri is currently also the Region 4 Director and the No Adverse Impact (NAI) Committee Co-Chair of the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM).  Terri spends much of her free time writing for national publications and touring the nation speaking on sound floodplain management, hazard mitigation, climate change adaptation, and sustainability and resiliency initiatives for local governments.

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