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From the Pen of Carter P. Smith

November officially marks the end of hurricane season. Thank goodness.

As I pen this column, the passage of Hurricane Ike is less than a week old. No doubt, much has been, and will be, written about the impact of the storm on the people, communities and economies of the upper Texas coast. Ike's point of landfall, inland course and wake of destruction were particularly unsettling given that it emerged a mere three years after residents were finishing up the last touches of clean-up after Hurricane Rita.

As outdoor enthusiasts, you may be curious about the effects of Hurricane Ike on the upper coast's natural areas. Suffice to say, they were sobering. For all practical purposes, the infrastructure at Galveston Island and Sea Rim state parks were lost to the winds and tides. The same fate befell the McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge and other coastal refuges and preserves. The J.D. Murphree Wildlife Management Area near Port Arthur was almost unrecognizable, its expansive marshes coated with a bright sheen of spilled oil and littered by a barrage of washed-up boats, barges, oil and gas equipment, and other miscellaneous piles of coastal debris. Levees and water control structures, the tools of wetland managers along the coast used to regulate water levels and tidal exchange in area marshes, were compromised by the protracted storm surge.

Beyond the infrastructure damages, however, were the natural impacts one would expect to see from a major storm event in this area – severe erosion and dune deterioration on the beaches of Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula, major saltwater intrusion into fresh and brackish water marshes, significant vegetation die-back from prolonged floodwater inundation, as well as localized areas of substantial tree fall in the Pineywoods.

All in all, however, the coastal marshes and barrier islands and peninsulas did what they were supposed to do in a storm such as Ike. They buffered the mainland from the high tides and heavy winds, thereby taking the brunt of the hurricane's force as it came to shore. These areas are our front lines of defense against storms that most assuredly will rise again from the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

So, as we recover, reevaluate and rebuild from the aftermath of Ike and storms after it, we must not lose sight of the fact that healthy marshes and undeveloped barrier islands play a critically important role in protecting our coastal and inland communities, properties and livelihoods. Climate scientists predict a greater frequency and intensity of hurricanes in the coming years. One of the most responsible things we can do to prepare for them is to invest in enhancing our coastal marshes, protecting our dunes and keeping substantial open space undeveloped along our coastline. The return on those investments will reap benefits for people and nature for a long time to come.

Thanks for caring about Texas' wild things and wild places. We need them more than ever.

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