In Florida, a fight with nature over oft-destroyed road

December 25, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Santa Rosa Island, in the Gulf Islands National Seashore off the Florida Panhandle, does not look like much of a battleground, even though the 170-year-old Fort Pickens guards its western end. But this tiny stretch of sand has become a new focus in a long-running and intense debate about how people can coexist with nature on the coast.

The island is a flat sandy barrier whose dunes have been virtually destroyed in recent storms. Its lone road, County Road 399, had to be moved after Hurricane Opal in 1995, and it was damaged by subsequent storms.

It was washed out by Hurricane Ivan last year and rebuilt, only to wash out again in Tropical Storm Arlene in June. Rebuilt again, it washed out again in Hurricane Dennis the next month. After that damage was repaired, Hurricane Katrina struck.

It was then that some park officials began to wonder whether it was time to do something more than rebuild. Maybe, they said, it was time to bolster the road with metal or rocks or other armor. That would maintain access to island beaches, the fort and a nearby campground, attractions that until Katrina had made the seashore a major attraction of the National Park Service.

"There's been a road there for over 50 years, and my personal feeling is we have an obligation to do our best to provide that," said Jerry Eubanks, superintendent of the seashore.

But not everyone agrees. The park service policy calls for letting nature take its course on the seashore. One reason is the damage that results when eroding beaches like Santa Rosa Island are armored with rock or metal walls. Eventually, encroaching water will reach the armor, leaving the beach itself under water, a drama that has often played out on U.S. coasts, most of which are eroding.

Many coastal scientists say people have to learn to live with nature rather than trying to hold off the ocean with walls and other structures. One advocate of this view, Robert J. Young, a coastal geologist at Western Carolina University, said he was particularly disappointed to learn that the park officials were contemplating armoring Santa Rosa Island.

"It's heartbreaking," Young said. "How can you expect the developed shoreline to take this issue seriously if the parks agency, on a pristine shoreline, are using brute-force management? It's really discouraging."

So the people considering the fate of County Road 399 find themselves in the middle of an intense environmental debate that has been raging with growing intensity since the late 1960s, when an explosion of development began transforming the nation's ocean coasts. Today, the argument is further fueled by changes in the weather. In a decades-long cycle, experts say, a period of relative hurricane calm has given way to a period of more and stronger storms. Global warming will only make things worse.

Eubanks, the seashore superintendent, said the roadway on Santa Rosa Island typically failed when strong storms sent water rushing across it in sheets. The water scours out the base of the road, and pretty soon it is reduced to slabs of asphalt half buried in sand.

Park officials are considering a number of repairs, he said, including the possibility of lowering the road so storm waters would wash over it. After that, it would be reinforced.

In a report on the situation, Volkert & Associates, an engineering concern in Mobile, Ala., said there were a number of ways the repairs could be done, but it recommended building a kind of seawall made of sheets of corrugated metal called sheet piling that would be driven deep into the sand along the seaward edge of the road. If this construction proceeded, it would also be possible to run a sewer line to Fort Pickens to replace the septic system there.

Eubanks, who trained as an engineer though he has not recently worked in the field, said he believed that this kind of design would be "very little impediment" to the island and would enable workers to clear the road of sand after storms.

But David B. Shaver, chief of the geologic resources division of the park service, said that when he learned of these plans he feared "that things were moving a little too fast."

The seashore was developing a general management plan, he said, but the storms this year, and the emergency repair funds that followed, arrived before the process was complete and "before we had a handle on long-term impacts."

Rebecca Beavers, a coastal geologist for the park service, said officials were considering ways to maintain road access between Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach, island towns separated by a stretch of park.

"To maintain this road with a seawall is madness," said Dr. Orrin H. Pilkey Jr., director of the Duke University Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines and a fervent opponent of development on vulnerable barrier islands.

"They say, `Well, it's only there for storms,'" said Pilkey, an author of Living on the Edge of the Gulf (Duke University Press, 2001), which characterizes most of the western end of Santa Rosa Island as an area of "extreme" erosion risk. "That's not the way it's going to work. It will be a seawall before long - in the water. In itself, it will enhance the erosion of the beach."

Pilkey said he wished the park service would consider other ways of maintaining access to seashore attractions like ferries from the mainland.

And he said he hoped that once people understood the underlying geological processes shaping the island in an era of rising seas, they would recognize the problems of the armor approach.

"People say, `What are you going to do, let the road fall in?'" he continued. "The correct answer, of course, is yes."

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