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Cunningham Opposes Proposal to Clear Sullivan’s Island Maritime Forest

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Rep. Joe Cunningham (SC-01) today announced his opposition to a proposal to clear out nearly 100 or more acres of maritime forest on Sullivan’s Island. In a letter sent to the Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), Cunningham urged them to reject the proposal that would harm wildlife and coastal resiliency.

The letter comes after the Sullivan’s Island Town Council voted 4-3 on a settlement agreement from a decade-old lawsuit that would pave the way for the removal of a majority of the maritime forest on the barrier island.

Cunningham cited the environmental importance of a robust maritime forest, which provides vital benefits to barrier islands like Sullivan’s Island, including resilience from storm surge and winds, flood retention, wildlife habitat, and more. Cunningham called particular attention to sea level rise, writing that, “by cutting back the maritime forest, residents’ properties both on and off the island are left even more vulnerable to extreme weather and erosion.”

Cunningham also called attention to concern from residents on the lack of transparency and timing of the decision-making process, as well as the settlement plan’s legitimacy.  The October 2nd vote seems to contradict the 2018 Comprehensive Plan for Sullivan’s Island, which calls for the town to continue to “maintain and preserve” the “accreted lands to the benefit of all of the residents and wildlife it preserves,” as well as an objective to “complete the Sullivan’s Island Accreted Land Management Plan with the broadest possible community participation and input, as an integral part of the Town’s resiliency plan.”

A copy of the letter is below:

Dear Lieutenant Colonel Honderd, Elizabeth B. von Kolnitz, and Mark Caldwell:

I am writing to express my opposition to a proposal that would clear out nearly a hundred or more acres of maritime forest on Sullivan’s Island. At a special meeting on October 2, 2020, the Sullivan’s Island Town Council voted 4-3 on a settlement agreement on a decade-old lawsuit that would pave the way for the removal of a majority of the maritime forest on the barrier island. I have several concerns surrounding this proposal, including the environmental impacts and the overall decision-making process.

The proposal, as it stands now, could result in the clearing-out of a majority of the maritime forest on Sullivan’s Island, which would have detrimental impacts not only on wildlife habitat, but also on future resiliency measures on the southern end of the island.  Maritime forests and accreted land provide vital benefits to barrier islands, including resilience from storm surge and winds, flood retention, wildlife habitat, and more. As we face the mounting pressures of climate change and sea level rise, protecting this asset is paramount. A robust maritime forest offers protection to properties and infrastructures that are located on barrier islands. Such barrier islands, like Sullivan’s Island, are designed to do the job of protecting mainland ecosystems from hurricanes, storm surge and flooding. By cutting back the maritime forest, residents’ properties both on and off the island are left even more vulnerable to extreme weather and erosion. And finally, this protected land is a critical stopover for many species of migratory birds, providing them with both food and shelter.

In addition to the negative impacts that eliminating a majority of the maritime forest would have on Sullivan’s Island, I have heard from a number of constituents on the island who are frustrated with the transparency and timing of the decision-making process.  Specifically, concerns exist surrounding the amount of time that public comments were allowed to be submitted prior to the Town Council’s expedited vote on the matter. 

The settlement plan’s legitimacy is also called into question as it seemingly contradicts the Town’s 2018 Comprehensive Plan which calls for the Town to continue to “maintain and preserve” the “accreted lands to the benefit of all of the residents and wildlife it preserves,” as well as an objective to “complete the Sullivan’s Island Accreted Land Management Plan with the broadest possible community participation and input, as an integral part of the Town’s resiliency plan.” It is evident that the settlement decided on October 2nd may very well run counter to the intention and outlined principles in the Town’s 2018 Comprehensive Plan.

As a proud representative of the Lowcountry in Congress, I know all too well the challenges of coastal management in our state. Sullivan’s Island is truly fortunate to have accreted land and a healthy ecosystem that provides important ecology and adaptation services to the entire island.  I strongly urge you to reconsider moving forward on any further steps to eliminate a majority of the maritime forest until all community input and environmental impact reviews have been done.

Thank you for your consideration of this request.  Please don’t hesitate to contact my Mount Pleasant office at (843) 352-7572 with any further questions.

With kind regards, I remain

Very truly yours,

Joe Cunningham

Member of Congress

South Carolina’s First Congressional District

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