The long delayed management plan for Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge now awaits final approval before being implemented.

The final Comprehensive Conservation Plan and Environmental Impact Statement outlines how the 10,000 acre refuge in Sussex County will be run over the next 15 years; it's also an update of the draft plan released earlier this year.  

"Based on all the comments that came in from the public, and federal and state agencies, we made some modifications to the plan," said Tom Bonetti, refuge planner for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. "Probably most of the comments that came in from the draft had to do with the breaches in the dune line and the flooding that occurs there.  So in our final plan, we clarify that the dune restoration is a likely first step towards the marsh restoration."  

Breach fix first

Bonetti says that it was always their intention to restore the dunes first, but the draft plan didn't really make that clear. "Ideally we would secure enough material and funding to repair the breach and complete the marsh restoration at the same time, but we recognize that we might not be able to secure all the resources needed for both of those steps to happen simultaneously."  

The dune breach at Fowler Beach along the northeast section of the refuge has allowed salt water to mix into the marsh and drastically change the makeup of the freshwater system in the refuge.  That salt water is converting the marsh into open water, which reduces the area's ability to deal with flood waters compared to the protection provided by marsh land. 

Even though there is a 30-day review period before the final plan gets a final decision from the regional director, preliminary work is underway to start the dune repair work.  "We’ve already, we’re finalizing some of the negotiations with an engineering firm now to get some estimates on the cubic yards of material that would be needed to close the breach and then in addition to doing some engineering studies and hydrological models on how to proceed with the restoration of the marsh, too. "  

Bonetti says Congress could soon approve $20 million in funding to help repair damage done at the refuge by Hurricane Sandy.  "That was included in the administration’s request to Congress for emergency supplemental funding related to Hurricane Sandy.  That’s just our estimate for the cost of repairing the beach that was widened during the hurricane."

Other changes in the management plan include bringing the refuge's hunting guidelines more in line with state regulations.  The final plan also elminates a proposed expansion of hunting along the Prime Hook Creek area.  That area will now be available for use by hikers, wildlife photographers and others year-round.

A detailed plan of the exact timing of the restoration work should be completed in 2013.  

Long time coming

A draft of the Comprehensive Conservation Plan was originally due in 2007, but was delayed by litigation filed by local land owners near the refuge.  The delays only allowed the problems to grow, so instead of just developing an environmental assessment as part of the plan, refuge leaders put together a more comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement to go along with the CCP.  

Earlier this year, Delaware's Congressional Delegation wrote a letter to U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar pushing for the plan to protect the refuge to be completed.  Now, about five years after it was originally due, the plan is finally nearing reality.  Delaware Senator Tom Carper calls the final plan welcome progress.  "This plan represents a deliberative and thoughtful management strategy for Prime Hook, one that incorporates the best available science, community participation and a long term vision that will sustain this national treasure for the good of both Prime Hook and the adjacent communities for generations to come."  Carper says he will work with state officials and others to make sure the plan is implemented to protect the refuge for years to come.

You can read the plan in its entirety on the Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge website.