The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) is proposing to acquire, protect, and manage 6,712 acres of land and remove 6,878 acres from the current acquisition boundary. The proposed additions include critical habitat, such as mature longleaf pine forests, riparian corridors, blackwater and tidal forested wetlands, managed wetlands, and the largest Carolina Bay in Georgetown County. The proposed subtractions include former upland buffers that have been developed into golf courses and residential communities, the Woodbury Wildlife Management Area (owned by South Carolina Department [SCDNR] of Natural Resources and unavailable for refuge acquisition), and a parcel that is currently being developed into an industrial marine complex (owned by Grand Strand Water and Sewer Authority)(Figure 1). The purpose of this project is to mitigate future flood events, expand recreation areas, and preserve habitat that is suitable for threatened and endangered species by protecting land that is at risk of development.
The scope of this Decision Report is limited to the proposed modification of the acquisition boundary of Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge. This report is not intended to cover the specific method(s) of land acquisition that may be used, nor the development and/or implementation of specific programs for the administration and management of said lands. The refuge will update its existing management plans to incorporate new properties as they are acquired. The updated management plans will subsequently be reviewed by X in accordance with the requirements set forth in the Departmental and National Environmental Policy Act.
Waccamaw NWR was established on December 1st, 1997, to protect habitat for the wetland-dependent wildlife associated with the floodplain basins of the Waccamaw and Great and Little Pee Dee Rivers. The refuge acquisition boundary encompasses 54,767 acres located in Georgetown, Horry, and Marion counties (Figure 2). The diversity of the wetlands within the refuge distinguishes it from similarly protected areas along the coast. Habitats include historic tidal rice fields and the blackwater and alluvial forested wetlands of the Waccamaw and Great Pee Dee Rivers. These tidal freshwater wetlands are among the most biologically diverse ecosystems in North America, and they provide important habitat for a variety of migratory birds and several threatened and endangered species.
The refuge’s Approved Acquisition Boundary (AAB) is divided into three management units. Each unit is defined by habitat type and requires unit-specific management strategies and objectives. Unit One is approximately 39,819 acres and consists of blackwater and alluvial forested wetlands. Unit Two totals 12,046 acres and encompasses the tidal forested and emergent wetlands and longleaf pine forest on Sandy Island. Unit Three is 2,902 acres and includes several historic tidal rice fields, many of which remain intact and are managed for wintering waterfowl. The refuge currently owns or leases approximately 35,000 acres within the boundary.
The properties within the proposed Minor Boundary Modification (MBM) include mature longleaf pine forests, riparian corridors, blackwater and tidal forested wetlands, managed wetlands, and the largest Carolina Bay in Georgetown County. The wetlands within the proposed MBM meet the assessment threshold criteria of the National Wetlands Priority Conservation Plan. Accordingly, they are listed as part of the Winyah Bay Wetland System in the Service’s Regional Wetlands Concept Plan for the Southeast Region (USFWS, 1997). Furthermore, riparian and bottomland hardwood forested wetlands were recently identified as a nationally threatened ecosystem, having experienced a 70-84% decline.
The historical range of longleaf pine forests spanned over 90 million acres; however, as a result of development and logging, it is estimated that less than 3 million acres remain (North Carolina Forest Service [NCFS], 2012). Surpassed only by tropical rainforests, longleaf pine forests are considered the second-most species-rich ecosystem in North America (USFWS, n.d.a). Approximately half of the 1,630 plant species found in the Southeastern U.S. are only found within longleaf pine ecosystems (NCFS, 2012). In addition, longleaf pine is the preferred cavity site of the federally endangered Red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW). Area Two includes 432 acres of newly restored longleaf pine. Additional opportunities to restore longleaf pine exist along the upland rims of the Carolina Bays in Area Three, and in Area Four, which contains unmanaged longleaf pine.
A riparian zone is the area along a river or water body that functions as an interface between terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Riparian corridors serve as connectors between habitats and as migration routes for a variety of species, including American black bears and waterfowl. In addition, this type of habitat reduces downstream flooding and decreases nonpoint source pollution by storing and recycling nutrients (Natural Resources Conservation Service, 1996). There are approximately XX miles of riparian corridor in Areas One and Two.
Forested tidal wetlands serve as an interface between coastal marshes and fluvial bottomland forested wetlands (United States Geological Survey [USGS], n.d.). In addition to supporting a wide range of biodiversity, these wetlands also provide several important ecosystem functions, including flood mitigation, sediment trapping, and carbon sequestration (USGS, n.d). Common trees include swamp tupelo (black gum), bald cypress, swamp chestnut oak, cherry bark oak, sweet gum, river birch, and red maple. There are 63 acres of forested tidal wetlands in Area Two. These forested wetlands constitute a large portion of the Sandy Island/Great Pee Dee floodplain.
Blackwater forested wetlands are located along the Waccamaw and Little Pee Dee Rivers. This habitat contains slow-moving water that is acidic and tea colored as a result of tannins leaching into the water from decaying vegetation. Because of the acidity of the water, these habitats often support organisms that are not found in nearby, less acidic wetlands. There are approximately 1,690 acres of blackwater forested wetlands in Area One.
The proposed MBM includes former rice fields that have been impounded by levees. The hydrology of the impoundments is manipulated to encourage the growth of emergent vegetation, such as smartweed, panic grass, wild millet, red root, water shield, spikerush, arrow-arum, white water lily, southern naiad, Asiatic dayflower, soft-stem bulrush, wild rice, and water grass. This type of vegetation provides food for a variety of waterfowl species. Area Two contains 58 acres of managed wetlands. These wetlands are controlled by the refuge and will provide opportunities to conduct wetland research and administer educational programs.
Carolina Bays are isolated, elliptical depressions that provide upland wetland habitat for a variety of species, including American black bears. In 2001, the Supreme Court issued a decision to reduce protections for isolated wetlands under the Clean Water Act (Sharitz, 2003), thus leaving Carolina Bays vulnerable to development. Carvers Bay, located in Addition Area Three, is the largest Carolina Bay in Georgetown County and is considered one of the most important black bear conservation areas in South Carolina. In addition to Carvers Bay, Area Three also includes Vandross Bay. These two bays total XX acres. The remaining acreage is upland buffer that serves as a wildlife corridor between the bays.
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