Prized boneyard beach bulldozed at SC’s ‘natural’ Hunting Island State Park
December 5th, 2019
By Bo Petersen, Post & Courier
The boneyard beach is gone — a 2-mile stretch of popular Hunting Island State Park near its iconic lighthouse that was one of the sought-out natural features.
The bleached fallen trees that made the beach scenic have been bulldozed and left in piles. Officials say it had to be done.
People who frequent the beach near Beaufort are horrified at how the cleansing was accomplished.
“It was as much beach destruction as I think I’ve ever seen in the state of South Carolina,” said Rob Young, a coastal geologist at Western Carolina University who has studied the erosion of South Carolina beaches.
“Digging up trees, pushing shore sand up to where the dunes would be,” he added. “I’ve never quite seen anything like this before.”
Meanwhile, the Coastal Conservation League is concerned because the tree clearing started in October when threatened sea turtles were still nesting on the beach. That violates a settlement agreement with the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism to end an earlier lawsuit, said Rikki Parker, the league’s South Coast office director.
The league and the S.C. Environmental Law Project are evaluating further legal options, she said.
“Unfortunately, the damage has already been done,” Parker added.
Erosion is at the pitted core of this mess.
Debris clearing Boneyard beaches is the popular term for the driftwood or weathered remains of shoreline trees that have fallen from an eroding maritime forest. They are often strewn like a sculpture of limbs as they gradually wash into the ocean.
Hunting Island is maybe the most natural of the state’s beach parks and one of its busiest, a woodsy place where visitors used to be able to pitch a tent in a seaside campground or rent a cabin in the dunes.
But the cabins are gone, only a few pieces still showing in the surf at low tide. Much of the beach and the campground have been lost to storm surge from a series of recent-year tropical storms and hurricanes that also left patches of the park’s woods in splinters.
The camping sites had to be moved farther back in the woods.
The boneyard beach had gotten so eroded and thick with downfall you couldn’t walk from the campground to the lighthouse expect at low tide, said PRT Director Duane Parrish.
The trees were bulldozed in October as part of recurring debris-clearing work to keep the beach hazard free, according to PRT officials. The work also got them out of the way of an $8 million to $10 million project to renourish the storm-wracked beach with 700,000 tons of dredged sand. That’s slated to begin this month.
The wood will be left where it is, with dunes re-created between the piles and the beach.
The agreement with the league stipulated renourishment work couldn’t start until Nov. 1, Parker said.
Parks Director Paul McCormack, who works for Parrish, said the work was “not part of the permitted beach renourishment project.”
‘Reestablishing the beach’ The renourishment work involves dredging sand offshore, pumping it to the beach and then spreading with bulldozers. It couldn’t be done without moving the trees, Parrish said.
Even if some of the weathered trees and wood could be left, they would eventually be a hazard to swimmers and anglers.
“We’re reestablishing the beach the best it can possibly be,” Parrish said. “You’ll be able to walk all the way up and down,” Parrish said.
Boneyard stretches of the beach have been renourished in the past and more trees fell within a few years, he said. Another boneyard beach can be found south of the lighthouse.
A lawmaker defended the project.
“I don’t see how you could do a renourishment with deadfall trees on the beach,” said state Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, whose district includes the park. “You have to renourish the beach because you’re getting really close to losing Hunting Island after these storms.”
A spokeswoman for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control said that since the project was considered debris removal, the clearing did not require a permit.
Alerted to the clearing, the department ordered equipment to keep at least 100 feet from one remaining unhatched sea turtle nest in the vicinity, said spokeswoman Laura Renwick.
The scraped stretch of natural beach was unique, said Carolyn Jebaily, who lives on nearby St. Helena Island and is an advocate for the island’s beauty. It should have been left as is, she said.
“It would have been so simple a thing to put up a sign saying ‘no swimming from here,’ ” she said.
Young, the coastal geologist, said the loose piles of trees will create a new hazard as storm tides push them underwater.
“I think they have gone way too far,” said Young, who encountered the work underway while leading a class project on the island. “This is a state park, for goodness sake. It was like they were trying to make a Grand Strand.”
The Grand Strand is the densely crowded, hotel-lined oceanfront stretch of Myrtle Beach.
Parker said the timing of the clearing is “problematic.”
“It was clearly renourishment prep,” she said. “I wish they had done this in a more conscientious way, more transparently for the public and for us,” she added. “And done it with a lighter footprint, a lighter touch.”