Hurricanes happen. Along the Gulf Coast, they happen a lot.
In September 2004, Hurricane Ivan took dead aim on Gulf Islands National Seashore and washed out the Fort Pickens Road on Santa Rosa Island. In 2005, it was Tropical Storm Arlene and Hurricane Dennis that repeated the devastation.
With hopes of preventing similar washouts in the years ahead, park officials are contemplating a plan to "armor" 2.2 miles of the road. This work would entail a mix of sand berms, hardened structures utilizing sheet pile and concrete bulkheads, and asphalt aprons intended to move storm waters away from the road.
Not everyone is jumping on this potentially soggy bandwagon. Not only is Public Employees For Environmental Responsibility opposed, but so, too, is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Pensacola newspaper.
Which raises one more interesting question for Mary, who gets the final say, kind of: What does she think of the plan?
The issue for Mary, believes PEER, is either stand by the Park Service's resource protection policies, which call for parks to permit natural geological disturbances to "proceed unimpeded," or, basically, flaunt the policies and dare future hurricanes to take their best shot at this armored road.
"This costly and destructive project flies in the face of the dynamics of coastal barrier islands," says Frank Buono, a PEER board member whose background includes a fairly lengthy stint with the NPS. "The Park Service is proposing to build a heavily armored, Maginot Line-type road across what are essentially tidal inlets."
According to PEER, while the Park Service's own Development Advisory Board has opposed the plan, as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, regional NPS officials are recommending the work be done.
However -- and this is a big however -- the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must sign-off on the project because it could impact species protected by the Endangered Species Act. And so far that agency is not willing to do that.
In fact, in a letter sent late last month to Gulf Islands' superintendent, USFWS officials said the park's Environmental Assessments on the project not only fell short of the required Biological Assessments but added that, "The preferred alternative is not expected to protect the road during severe storm events such as Hurricanes Ivan and Dennis that have recently destroyed the road."
Furthermore, the USFWS disagrees with Gulf Islands' assessment that the road work "is not likely to adversely affect federally protected species and their habitat."
You can read the agency's entire letter here.
In his letter to Mary, Jeff Ruch, PEER's executive director, told her that, "The NPS plans ignore decades of scientific study and consensus. Sound science concludes that road armoring will interfere with natural barrier island processes, resulting in accelerated erosion, narrowing of the island, and increased susceptibility to breaching during storm overwash."
For the rest of Mr. Ruch's thoughts, click here.
Finally, the folks at the Pensacola News Journal think the NPS plan is a bad idea.
"Barring a hurricane next year that further lowers the already low part of the island where the road is now interrupted, the Park Service will rebuild the road. But officials had better think about what they will do if that road, too, is washed away in the near future," the paper editorialized on Monday.