Debate on Fate of Barrier Islands off Miss. Coast Continues

July 17, 2007

The barrier islands off the Mississippi coast offer pristine beaches to sun-loving tourists, a unique ecosystem to sea life and protection to the mainland from deadly storm surges during hurricanes.

That’s why experts say the debate centered on what – if anything – should be done to combat the decline of the islands is so important.

“Mississippi Sound is a sensitive ecosystem,” said Mississippi Department of Marine Resources’ Director Dr. Bill Walker. “If those islands go away, all the things that rely on the mid-salinity ecosystem they help create will go away – the shrimp, the oysters.”

Gov. Haley Barbour made the rebuilding of the islands a priority after Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 washed away more than 2,000 acres on Petit Bois, Ship, Horn and Cat islands.

The 2005 Governor’s Commission report says a series of storms beginning with 1969’s Camille have decimated the islands.

The report also says the state Department of Marine Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should rebuild Deer Island to its 1900 footprint, which would almost double the island’s current size.

Barbour’s island strategy has been incorporated into the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ 10- to 15-year Mississippi Coastal Improvement Program.

However, most of the islands are part of Gulf Island National Seashore, which is federal land owned and administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Park Service. It’s not subject to decisions made at the state level.

A report prepared by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said the barrier islands serve to absorb wave energy coming from the Gulf of Mexico that would otherwise strike the coast.

“The unprecedented storm surge from Hurricane Katrina caused substantial losses to the barrier islands due to erosion,” the report said. “The dune systems have been severely damaged or in some cases flattened. Interior forests have been stripped of much of the undergrowth which consists of shrub and herbaceous layers.”

The problem is a rift between those who want to rebuild the islands to a historical footprint and the principles governing the Park Service. The question people are asking is if the barrier islands should be rebuilt using modern engineering techniques or if nature should be allowed to change them as it has always done.

The National Park Service holds a working philosophy of letting dynamic processes play out on the lands it administers.

“It’s not in keeping with the Park Service policy of letting nature take its course if the damage has not been caused directly by human action,” said Gulf Islands National Seashore Superintendent Jerry Eubanks. “If, scientifically, it can be shown that man has deprived an island of sand through his actions, then it would be a completely different story from the Park Service perspective.”

But people Louis Skrmetta, with ferry service Ship Island Excursions, say something has to be done quickly. Skrmetta said he watches East Ship Island disappear a little more each day and hopes the current barrier islands will not wind up like the now fully submerged Dog Island that lies between Horn and East Ship islands.

“Letting nature take its course in this case is a bad idea,” Skrmetta said. “These islands need sand replenishment.”

The debate, though, which has the state and Corps on one side of the issue and the National Park Service on the other, goes beyond simple politics into a deeper philosophical discussion over humanity’s place in nature. Do we intervene in the process of degradation to the islands, a natural effect of storms and erosion sped up by human-induced change, or should those processes be allowed to swallow the islands and avert any unintended consequences of large-scale engineering?

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