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Secret Places: The living edge

todd_ballantineIt is easy to go about business on beautiful Hilton Head Island and forget how close homes, schools, churches, offices and roads are to the Atlantic Ocean and its tidal tributaries. An average high tide is eight feet. My former home in the Sea Pines woodlands was only nine feet above sea level. Many seaside, marshfront and woodland properties are lower. What is there to protect people and property from the shock of rising water in storms? And what is there to protect the water and its wildlife from human impacts?

Beachside Buffers

best_beachThink about your recent visit to the beach on Hilton Head Island. You probably strolled from the shady maritime (near the sea) woodlands and followed a path or boardwalk across low, rolling dunes. Did you stop to notice the waving sea oats, colorful wildflowers, desert-like yucca and cacti, thorny sandspurs and sprawling vines? This wild garden is a buffer. In storms, dunes protect beachfront property by absorbing the high waves, giving up sand to the surf. But through the year, dune vegetation gathers windblown sand, building and widening the dune “field.” The rows of dunes are a home for ghost crabs, racerunner lizards, marsh rabbits, meadow voles and more than a dozen species of birds. Even white-tailed deer visit the dunes.

Dunes are the best oceanfront buffers, which is why the Town of Hilton Head has a long-standing ordinance that protects dunes from human alterations. The problem is, nature never stays put. Dunes change and mature, acclimating to environmental stressors such as wind, salt in wind, tidal flow and rainwater runoff. A healthy dune field naturally grows wider, higher and more plant-filled. Soil and water accumulates in low spots. Wind and wildlife bring seeds of trees. Shrubs, pines and the invasive Chinese tallow tree grow quickly in full sun. In short order, this new vegetation may block cherished homeowner views of the ocean. Should these trees be eliminated to improve the appeal of seaside property? Or should trees be allowed to mature, extending the buffer protection?

In 2010 the town authorized a reasonable management approach: Protect both the buffer and property values. The town authorized removal of non-native species to preserve the natural dune community; limited tree removal only to create view corridors for property owners; and more elevated access to the beach in order to save the dune structure. This strategy is a case study in sustainability. Dune buffers protect property, and science-based management enhances the buffers and nearby property values.

Buffers for a healthy watershed

Hilton Head Island is punctuated with “lagoons,” tidal creeks and wetlands from expansive salt marshes to freshwater old-growth forest (swamps). The salt marsh lies along the inshore coastline and interior tidal creeks, such as Folly Creek, Broad Creek, Jarvis Creek and Point Comfort Creek. Lagoons are manmade stormwater storage basins. True freshwater ponds are found in Whooping Crane Conservancy (Hilton Head Plantation) and Boggy Gut (Sea Pines). They are remnants of ancient shorelines formed tens of thousands of years ago. water

Many water features provide amenity “water view” appeal for property owners. A great water “hazard,” as on the 17th fairway of the Harbour Town Golf Links, also adds real estate value. Open water actually cools the air and makes life more pleasant in the warm, humid summer months. Water means fish, and fish attract bald eagles, osprey, wading birds and dolphins — favorites of wildlife watchers.

Most important, these waters are buffers. Each in its own way captures and stores runoff and all the stuff in it. Natural vegetation in water and along the shore does what dune plants do: It captures nutrients, anchors soil, creates wildlife habitat and protects nearby property.  And like dunes, water buffers need human protection.

Economic studies at the University of Wisconsin and Bemidji State University (Mississippi) documented how common-sense stewardship practices improve the health of water buffers and increase property values. At the top of the list: Preserve and protect wetlands near water features and along the shore. As described above, aquatic and shore vegetation improves water quality and appearance. Homeowners can landscape with native trees, shrubs and groundcover plants. These are sturdier and require few chemicals to survive. Reducing the size of the lawn helps minimize the flow of herbicides and pesticides into ponds and wetlands. The key is neighborhood cooperation. Neighbors’ and owners’ associations have to work together for consistent pond water quality protection. Remember: All water flows downhill and eventually merges with the ocean. And good water quality is key to Hilton Head Island’s reputation as a destination resort and community.

Slowly, quietly and simply, natural buffers improve property values. Local buffer protection is an economic stimulus for all islanders. It’s the best deal in town.

Todd Ballantine is an award-winning writer, popular public speaker, educator, environmental scientist, artist and musician. He has written and illustrated three books in addition to the best-selling Tideland Treasure, newspaper columns, and dozens of nature and history publications. Todd and Marianne Ballantine own Ballantine Environmental Resources, Inc., a national consulting firm based in Boulder, Co. He lived on Hilton Head Island for more than 30 years and frequently visits the Lowcountry for environmental consulting. Learn more at www.toddballantine.com.