Did clearing Hunting Island’s picturesque boneyard violate rules? SC officials say no
December 8th, 2019
By Stephen Fastenau and Lana Ferguson, The Island Packet
As state park officials prepare for a major project to restore beaches at Hunting Island State Park, environmental groups are exploring whether the state violated an agreement that the work would avoid turtle nesting season.
In October, the Marine Corps, with the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, used heavy equipment to clear fallen trees that formed a picturesque stretch of “boneyard” beach on the island’s north end. The trees had been pulled from the maritime forest of spindly palmettos and pines by ongoing erosion and fierce storms in recent years.
Locals who frequent the beach have noted the absence of some of the character that makes the island unique. And environmentally conscious observers have questioned whether the best practices were followed in clearing the trees.
State park officials have said the work was primarily done for safety to remove hazards to those walking and swimming in the area. But it also clears the way for 1.2 million cubic yards of sand to be pumped onto the beach as part of a beach renourishment project that starts this month.
Environmental groups say the park’s work in October might have violated a May 2018 settlement agreement after the groups protested the permit in S.C. Administrative Court. Under the settlement, the state agreed to wait until November to begin renourishment preparations to avoid disrupting turtle nesting activity.
State Parks Director Paul McCormack said this week he doesn’t believe the work violated the agreement. Clearing the trees wasn’t part of the renourishment permit, and the project’s contractor wasn’t hired until November, he said.
Park officials worked with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources to ensure the work didn’t disrupt nesting, he said.
“The main reason we did it was to keep the beach safe,” McCormack said.
Representatives from the S.C. Environmental Law Project and the Coastal Conservation League, which worked to negotiate the permit agreement, said they met with state park officials after the tree clearing and were initially satisfied with the explanation that the work was for visitors’ safety. But Coastal Conservation League’s Rikki Parker said she heard this week that the work was at least in part to prepare for the upcoming beach project.
“If it was done in preparation for renourishment, it seems to violate the terms of our settlement,” said Parker, head of the organization’s Beaufort office. “Regardless of whether it was for safety, I think they could have benefited by being more transparent with the public and with us and sharing with the community what the need was.”
The discarded trees are piled at the edge of the forest.
Carolyn Jebaily, a St. Helena Island resident who frequents the park and raised alarms about the cleared trees with local media and environmentalists, said she was concerned about whether high tides will pull the piles of trees back out to become hazards again.
McCormack said the new sand would form a dune barrier in front of the forest that will prevent that from happening.
The park is still working its way back after being decimated by Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Tropical Storm Irma a year later.
Millions of dollars in projects will include repaving roads with the help of federal disaster assistance and restoring the historic lighthouse overlooking North Beach.
Hunting Island park manager J.W. Weatherford said recently that the park will offer new ranger-led tours of 2 miles of driftwood boneyard still accessible on the island’s South Beach. The program, “No Bones About It,” is free with admission and will describe how the boneyard is formed and what makes it unique.
Jebaily said she vacationed at Hunting Island for 30 years, renting a cabin with her sisters and enjoying the charm of the boneyard. She said some of the removed trees were much older than storm debris from the past few years.
“I’m just sick about it all,” she said. “I get it — they can put more bodies on the beach this way.”