What does the industrial city of Gary, Indiana share in common with the rural lowland communities of coastal North Carolina and South Carolina? The answer: flooding, degraded wetlands, and a history of underfunding and other inequitable policies. And, as it turns out, secretive marsh birds like Least Bittern.
The coastal regions in these three states suffer from degraded wetlands and beaches that no longer adequately protect nearby communities from storms and rising sea and lake levels. Birds like the Least Bittern and American Oystercatcher suffer as well, since they rely on these same coastal habitats for nesting, foraging for food, or stopping to rest during their long migration routes.
That’s why Audubon is proud to launch a new suite of climate resilience planning projects in partnership with coastal communities in Indiana, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Supported by grants from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Audubon and our community partners will work together to envision what’s needed to reduce flooding and improve quality of life, while also restoring and protecting the places birds need.
Healthy coastal habitats serve as sponges that soak up flood waters, or speed bumps that slow down the wind and waves that storms and hurricanes bring. Coastal communities rely on these habitats to lessen the devastating impacts of storms, buffer them against sea-level rise, and support the local economy through industries like fishing and ecotourism.
With support from NOAA’s Coastal Habitat Restoration and Resilience Grants for Underserved Communities, Audubon will be able to help co-create a plan for the future with our community partners who have been historically underserved and under-resourced. The Biden-Harris Administration recently announced these grants as part of a broader $562 million investment funded by both the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act, which Congress passed last year.
The neighboring offices of Audubon South Carolina and Audubon North Carolina recently collaborated on the Coastal Carolinas Blueprint, which maps out the most important places to protect and/or restore for both people and birds in both states. By combining data on the important habitats for priority bird species with projected sea-level rise and socio-economic data all into one map, Audubon identified the places where the greatest need for people and for birds intersect.
The Blueprint shows that by 2055, many vulnerable bird species that rely on the Carolinas to nest, winter, forage, or stop during migration will lose most of their habitat without some sort of intervention. Similarly, people in these communities will likely be displaced without significant action, as climate change increases flooding, land loss and other threats on the coast over the next three decades.
In South Carolina, Audubon will partner with the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge and the adjacent towns of Awendaw, McClellanville, and other nearby unincorporated communities. All sit within the Santee Watershed, which the South Carolina Office of Resilience has identified as one of two watersheds in the state most impacted by damaging flooding from recent storms. Despite its small size, McClellanville is more reliant on commercial fishing than any other southeast coastal town from Wilmington, North Carolina down to Key West, Florida.
In North Carolina, Audubon will partner with stakeholders in northern Tyrrell County, including the Town of Columbia and the Alligator community. With less than 3,300 residents, Tyrrell is the least populous county in North Carolina. Residents have long suffered impacts from flooding, sea-level rise, and several recent hurricanes like Floyd, Isabel, and Irene. Despite deep ties to the region’s abundant natural resources, there has historically been limited funding available for communities in Tyrrell County to explore nature-based solutions to these challenges.
Partners in both states have self-identified as not having the resources necessary to adequately plan for much-needed climate resilience projects. NOAA grant funding will enable Audubon and community partners in these areas to work together to co-design a suite of projects that will make each community more resilient to flooding, storms, and sea-level rise. Each state will also develop an overview of community challenges and a more detailed vulnerability assessment if needed, as well as guidance on next steps like design and permitting.
One model for this work is the recently restored Crab Bank Seabird Sanctuary, an island in Charleston Harbor that was repeatedly washed over during coastal storms. This natural infrastructure project not only provides habitat for over a thousand nesting birds, but also shelters homes and businesses nearby from storms—a cost savings of about $1.6 million. The island also contributes $5.18 million a year to the local economy for industries like ecotourism, recreational fishing, and shrimping. By elevating nature-based project ideas that also alleviate issues identified by the communities, the NOAA-funded project can realize similar benefits for additional Carolina communities.
Similar to the Carolinas’ plan, Audubon Great Lakes’s restoration plan maps out the needs of birds and people in a future with climate change and other threats. It identifies the Calumet region on the southern shore of Lake Michigan as a high priority for restoration.
NOAA funding will enable Audubon Great Lakes and our partners Brown Faces Green Spaces and the Urban League of Northwest Indiana to conduct a community-driven planning effort and restore degraded wetland habitat along the West Branch of the Little Calumet River in Gary, Indiana.
Once the center of the U.S. steel industry before World War II, Gary is home to many degraded wetlands and now faces climate hazards like the flood of September 2008, when more than 11 inches of rain fell on parts of northwestern Indiana. Hundreds were evacuated and millions of dollars of damage were caused by the flood, which led to six counties in northwestern Indiana declared Federal Disaster Areas. Gary recently ranked fourth in the nation for the worst air quality.
Hatcher Park and Marshalltown Marsh, together comprising 300 acres of degraded wetlands and park space, present a significant opportunity to restore habitat, absorb and filter floodwaters, provide recreation areas for residents, and make Gary more resilient in the face of pollution and climate change. Once a point of civic pride, Hatcher Park (named for one of the nation’s first Black mayors) has become a symbol for disinvestment in Gary, with overgrown football and baseball fields, a poorly maintained walking path, and a swimming pool in disrepair. The site also serves as stopover habitat for birds that migrate through Gary every spring and fall.
Marshalltown Marsh is 280 acres of degraded floodplain that also contains some marginal agricultural fields. As one of the largest wetland/marsh complexes in the entire Calumet region, it could be one of the anchors in a chain of healthy marsh habitat stretching across the coastal zone of Indiana. Currently the highly channelized Little Calumet River runs in an unnatural straight line through the site, which prevents high-quality wetland and marsh habitat from establishing itself.
Audubon Great Lakes and our partners will engage community members in Gary to actively craft a long-term vision for the two sites. This can include exploring ideas for re-meandering of the Little Calumet River at Marshalltown Marsh, and at Hatcher Park, increasing public access and recreation opportunities, initiating on-the-ground restoration like invasive plant removal and maintenance mowing, and providing habitat for declining plant and animal species. As part of this project, Audubon’s Wild Indigo Nature Explorations program, an urban outreach program for communities of color that began over 10 years ago, will host public events at Hatcher Park like bird outings and volunteer plantings of native plants.
Over time, we envision Hatcher Park and Marshalltown Marsh as a gateway to the myriad habitats and levee trail connecting over five miles of prairies, woodlands, and wetlands along the Little Calumet River.