Coastal ecosystems in the eastern U.S. have been severely altered by processes associated with human development, including drainage of coastal wetlands, changes in hydrology that alter sediment and freshwater delivery to the coast, land clearing, agricultural and forestry activity, and the construction of seawalls and other structures that “harden” the coast. Sea-level rise and the changing frequency of extreme events associated with climate change are now further degrading the capacity of those ecological and social systems to remain resilient in the face of disturbance, largely through the degradation and loss of land and habitat. Coastal National Wildlife Refuges (NWRs) have an especially important role to play in sustaining valued natural resources and ecosystem services and in helping socio-ecological systems respond and adapt to the global-change processes of sea-level rise, climate change, and changing land use.
From June 2nd to 6th, 2014, managers and Project Leaders from four Atlantic coast Refuges (SC Lowcountry Complex, NC Coastal Plain Complex, Chesapeake Marshlands Complex and Parker River NWR) met at the USFWS National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, WV, to work with ecologists, decision scientists, geographers, natural resource economists and social scientists to address decisions about long- and short-term coastal adaptation strategies. The team focused on developing a prototype framework for Cape Romain NWR in South Carolina as a case study to highlight the components of a complex decision-making process that includes both spatial and temporal considerations, large uncertainties regarding changes in species and habitat dynamics and numerous cross-scale interactions. The workshop produced two decision analytic approaches employing methodologies of resource allocation and spatial reserve design. These frameworks will serve as the basis for proceeding with adaptation strategies for the other refuges, increasing the realism and complexity of the analysis as the teams become more comfortable with the process, additional stakeholders are integrated and greater clarity is achieved with each new prototype.