One of the Lowcountry's defining characteristics is its network of marshes, rising and falling in synchrony with the tides. In an encouraging example of cooperative governance, three disparate entities have come together to protect these critical environmental buffer zones from encroaching development.
Forming the South Atlantic Salt Marsh Initiative (SASMI) are South Carolina's Department of Natural Resources, the non-profit Coastal Conservation League and the U.S. Defense Department, along with a host of local land trusts and 75 concerned individual citizen supporters. Funding for the initiative comes from a network of local, state and federal sources along with additional support from the already-existing Lowcountry Sentinel Landscape program. SASMI is modeled on the Longleaf Restoration Initiative, a public/private partnership established in 2005 to protect longleaf pine forests in the Southeast.
Three years in the making, SASMI is intended to protect and restore tidal marshes while conserving the naturally formed and shifting channels that allow marshes to adapt to rising sea levels. Other threats to healthy marshes are polluted runoff from ill-conceived waste treatment systems and ecologically unsustainable developments located too close to marshes. SASMI's partners plan on using strategies ranging from elevated roadways, retrofitting barriers to allow marshes to shift with sea levels and acquiring land along marshes for conservation. An important first step is already underway, mapping marsh migration patterns to provide accurate data to local marsh conservation efforts.
SASMI draws on the expertise of a diverse coalition of partners from North Carolina to the east-central Florida coast. More than 300 military and governmental authorities, conservation groups like the CCL, scientists, community leaders and fishermen are involved in the initiative. The Conservation League, for example, is partnering with the state's DNR to create a "Living Shorelines" training course for contractors, providing guidance in designing and building properties that preserve the ability of marshes to absorb rising tidal flows and provide critical habitat for fish, birds and other wildlife. "Our marshes are the lifeblood of our ecosystem," says the Conservation League's executive director Faith Rivers James, "and we must protect it so those who come after us can experience it in the way we have been blessed."