The barrier islands off the Mississippi
coast offer pristine beaches to sun-loving tourists, a unique
ecosystem to sea life and protection to the mainland from deadly
storm surges during hurricanes.
That's why experts say the debate centered on what - if anything
- should be done to combat the decline of the islands is so
"Mississippi Sound is a sensitive ecosystem," said Mississippi
Department of Marine Resources' Director Dr. Bill Walker. "If
those islands go away, all the things that rely on the mid-salinity
ecosystem they help create will go away - the shrimp, the
Gov. Haley Barbour made the rebuilding of the islands a priority
after Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 washed away more than 2,000
acres on Petit Bois, Ship, Horn and Cat islands.
The 2005 Governor's Commission report says a series of storms
beginning with 1969's Camille have decimated the islands.
The report also says the state Department of Marine Resources
and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should rebuild Deer Island to
its 1900 footprint, which would almost double the island's current
Barbour's island strategy has been incorporated into the U.S.
Army Corps of Engineers' 10- to 15-year Mississippi Coastal
However, most of the islands are part of Gulf Island National
Seashore, which is federal land owned and administered by the U.S.
Department of the Interior's National Park Service. It's not
subject to decisions made at the state level.
A report prepared by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said the
barrier islands serve to absorb wave energy coming from the Gulf of
Mexico that would otherwise strike the coast.
"The unprecedented storm surge from Hurricane Katrina caused
substantial losses to the barrier islands due to erosion," the
report said. "The dune systems have been severely damaged or in
some cases flattened. Interior forests have been stripped of much
of the undergrowth which consists of shrub and herbaceous layers."
The problem is a rift between those who want to rebuild the
islands to a historical footprint and the principles governing the
Park Service. The question people are asking is if the barrier
islands should be rebuilt using modern engineering techniques or if
nature should be allowed to change them as it has always done.
The National Park Service holds a working philosophy of letting
dynamic processes play out on the lands it administers.
"It's not in keeping with the Park Service policy of letting
nature take its course if the damage has not been caused directly
by human action," said Gulf Islands National Seashore
Superintendent Jerry Eubanks. "If, scientifically, it can be shown
that man has deprived an island of sand through his actions, then
it would be a completely different story from the Park Service
But people Louis Skrmetta, with ferry service Ship Island
Excursions, say something has to be done quickly. Skrmetta said he
watches East Ship Island disappear a little more each day and hopes
the current barrier islands will not wind up like the now fully
submerged Dog Island that lies between Horn and East Ship islands.
"Letting nature take its course in this case is a bad idea,"
Skrmetta said. "These islands need sand replenishment."
The debate, though, which has the state and Corps on one side of
the issue and the National Park Service on the other, goes beyond
simple politics into a deeper philosophical discussion over
humanity's place in nature. Do we intervene in the process of
degradation to the islands, a natural effect of storms and erosion
sped up by human-induced change, or should those processes be
allowed to swallow the islands and avert any unintended
consequences of large-scale engineering?