Shifting Sands

The federal government is placing the ecological integrity of a coastal national wildlife refuge at risk in an attempt to benefit a few politically influential private land owners residing adjacent to the preserve.

If the government initiative to remove sand from the Delaware-based refuge to rebuild the land owners' weather-decimated dunes is not stopped, it will set an alarming precedent in a number of ways.

First, it is axiomatic that where public coastal preserves are located in a zone that is battered by frequent severe oceanic storms, wisdom dictates letting nature take its course. What else makes sense in an environment where our best (and costly) efforts will invariably prove futile in shielding the landscape from constantly being reconstituted by nature's titanic forces? Allocating taxpayers' dollars to transfer sand that is likely to be washed away at the first direct hit from a major Atlantic storm is simply tossing good money after bad.

Hence, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's (FWS) plan to remove wash over sand from the Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge to protect neighboring private landowners defies natural law and fiscal common sense. It also would disrupt the Refuge's habitat which shelters numerous species of migratory birds and is home to the endangered Piping Plover.

The FWS's ill-advised move has prompted the Delaware Audubon Society and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility to sue to block the project before the August 15th target date for the sand removal to get underway.

In its defense, the FWS claims that its action would have no significant environmental impact on the Refuge. That doesn't impress the environmentalist plaintiffs, who anticipate the FWS will also cite the safety of private land owners as a justification for relocating the sand. But the land owners knowingly accepted the risk of living in a spot extremely vulnerable to the elements, a risk that the general public should not be obligated to share.

Indeed, rare is the occasion when sacrificing the public interest can be justified solely for the sake of personal private gain. A dangerous precedent would be set if a privileged few benefitted from an ecologically disruptive diversion of Refuge natural resources owned by all Americans. Were the FWS allowed to carry out its plan at Prime Hook, why shouldn't a community with a severe mosquito problem be permitted to eliminate a wetland breeding ground within a nearby national wilderness area? Should a local lumber company that is an economic regional bulwark but on the verge of bankruptcy be entitled to harvest timber from a neighboring national park to save the day? Could a town built on a flood plain being inundated by a river that runs through an adjacent national park force construction of a dam within that unspoiled wilderness area?

In our democracy, the answers to these questions are clear. For Americans living in the shadow of our national parks and wildlife refuges, proximity provides advantageous access of entry, not privileged access to public resources.

Edward Flattau's fourth book, Green Morality, is now available.