Debate continues on what to do with barrier islands off Miss. Coast

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

Improvement Program.

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?