An eerie sight greeted Scott Kahan recently when he toured the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge near Atlantic City, New Jersey, by helicopter: a giant bird sanctuary with almost no birds.
"Typically I would have seen tens of thousands of waterfowl," but there were only a few dozen, said Kahan, the Northeast regional chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The wreckage at Forsythe and other Northeast coastal refuges was yet another testament to the destructive power of Sandy, the superstorm that ripped up the New Jersey shore and flooded Manhattan. And it drew attention to the costly plans being considered by the federal agency to protect wildlife refuges from the impact of climate change and sea-level rise.
Sandy's winds rammed a dirt and gravel dike at Forsythe with seawater, causing it to burst. Bay salt water rushed into a shallow freshwater pond created for birds such as the American black duck and Atlantic brant. The usual foot of water in which the birds dip their heads got saltier, rose to five feet and washed out vegetation, so the birds could no longer reach underwater seeds or pick bugs from leaves.
Dozens of refuges between Maine and Virginia were pummeled. Four were damaged severely, including Forsythe, where about 130 boats in the Atlantic City area were blown into marshes, Kahan said.
At Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia, part of the public beach and two parking lots were washed away on Assateague Island. At Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware, a 1,500-foot breach in a dune sent salt water from the Delaware Bay into a freshwater pond where waterfowl eat, nest and give birth, and flooded homes on an island near the refuge. And at the Long Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex in New York, fallen trees blocked the entrance.
Sandy created sea surge powerful enough to reshape portions of the coasts of North Carolina, Delaware and Maryland, and Virginia's portion of the Delmarva Peninsula, which includes Chincoteague, said the U.S. Geological Survey.
Thirty-five of the region's 72 refuges were closed after the storm. Six million people per year visit the refuges, which cover 535,000 acres, and managers acted to protect visitors from "widow-makers," damaged trees that crash down after storms, a Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman said.
Forsythe still has not reopened. In addition to the busted dike and ruined pond, the wrecked boats appear to be leaking fuel, Kahan said.
"What is there in addition to debris that wash up? Has there been contamination of the refuge with fuel in the boats?" Kahan said. "We see propane tanks and barrels with unknown substances. Everything that washed out of those communities [on the Jersey shore] found their way onto the refuge."
Forsythe manager Virginia Rettig said dozens of workers fanned out after the storm and found salt water pouring into freshwater ponds; sheds and other structures needing repairs; and boats piled on the marsh — but few dead animals. The birds are starting to return, but assessing the damage will take weeks, she said.
Sandy struck as the Obama administration and Congress prepared to lock horns over the year-end "fiscal cliff," which includes plans to cut the Interior Department's budget for refuges by 10 percent, according to a report being released Monday by the Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement (CARE), a coalition of groups from the National Rifle Association to Defenders of Wildlife.
In the report, CARE argues that the 150 million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System cannot absorb another cut. Its more than 550 refuges, with 700 species of birds, 200 species of fish and 200 species of mammals, get by on about $3.24 per acre.
The cuts would hurt the ability of refuges to respond to hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes and fires, which cost nearly $700 million between 2005 and last year, the report said. Refuges would be forced to divert funding from programs that reduce trees, brush and assorted debris that help fires burn out of control.
Refuges also pay to control invasive species, such as pythons that are squeezing native animals out of the Everglades. Some of the refuges, which lure 45 million visitors and bring $4.2 billion to local economies, would probably close.
Fish and Wildlife is not just trying to adapt its refuges to budgets; it's reviewing a number of plans to adapt them to the changing climate and rising seas.
The agency is torn between spending millions of dollars to keep refuges as they are or retreating from target areas and letting rising waters take over. Letting nature take its course does not appeal to residents who live near the Chincoteague and Prime Hook refuges.
Chincoteague residents implored the refuge to keep rebuilding the beach on Assateague Island, an economic engine that draws thousands of tourists each summer.
Last year, tension between the town and the refuge spiked after Hurricane Irene destroyed part of the beach and a parking lot used by tourists. The refuge manager said officials would have to rethink making taxpayers foot the nearly $1 million cost to restore the area after every storm and recommended a second public beach that is more difficult to reach.
Residents believe that change would halt tourism and destroy the town. Congress created the beach in the 1960s, drawing beachgoers and businesspeople who built homes, hotels and shops to accommodate them.
Every year the sea creeps up, and refuge officials fret over restoring the beach. Last month, Sandy caused even more damage than Irene, eroding the beach and washing away two parking lots and an access road.
At Prime Hook, Fish and Wildlife is under pressure to repair breaks in a dune that protects both the refuge and the nearby Primehook community. Storm surge in the Delaware Bay during Sandy busted the dune, widening a 300-foot opening to 1,500 feet.
Water and mud from marshes in the refuge caused 18 inches to three feet of flooding in some of the community's 200 homes. Residents say conservation efforts at the refuge have altered the marsh and caused flooding. But the homes are in a plain that floods even at high tide.
"They have storm surge coming from the ocean side and flooding from the back side of their homes. I feel really bad for the situation that they're in," Kahan said. "The answer is not very clear moving forward what can be done."
Repairing the dune and protecting the homes will cost taxpayers at least $2 million, and officials worry that, after numerous breaks in the dune, they have exhausted the supply of sand needed to repair it.
"I think these refuge managers have a real challenge in front of them," said Brian van Eerden, director of the Nature Conservancy's Southern Rivers Program in Virginia. Those challenges include studying climate science and shaping adaptation plans, which are blueprints designed to defend the refuges from devastating blows, he said.