N.C. Coastal Reserve celebrates Discover the NC Coastal Reserves tour with stop at Bird Island Reserve

The N.C. Coastal Reserve and National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR), a program of the Division of Coastal Management in the Department of Environmental Quality, hosted a stop on the “Discover the N.C. Coastal Reserve” Tour in early December. A guided walking tour of the Sunset Beach boardwalk and nature trail of the Reserve’s southernmost site, Bird Island Reserve, followed remarks by DEQ leadership, local, state and community leaders.

“The work and impact of Bird Island Reserve is accomplished through partnerships across all levels of government, academia, the private sector, nonprofit organizations and volunteers,” said Bill Lane, DEQ Deputy Secretary for Policy & Legal Affairs/General Counsel. “Starting as a grassroots effort about 30 years ago, establishing Bird Island Reserve took passion and dedication from the local community. Today, Bird Island Reserve leaves a lasting impact on visitors, community members, and researchers alike.”

“Discover the N.C. Coastal Reserve” is a multi-year campaign to raise awareness of the NC Coastal Reserve and the role the 10 reserves play in protecting the state’s coastal resources now and into the future. The campaign, which runs through 2026, will involve invited guests visiting sites throughout the coast to learn more about the ecosystems they protect and the critical work happening at the sites.

“The Coastal Reserve program staff are doing so many great things through their stewardship of the 10 sites, meaningful research and monitoring of coastal ecosystems, education and training programs, and enhancing public access and enjoyment of these special places” said Division Director Braxton Davis during opening remarks. “We appreciate the strong partnerships with local governments across the coast, and here in Sunset Beach, who support our management of the Reserves on a range of issues from enforcement to education to clean-up events.”

The reserve program in North Carolina started nearly 40 years ago with the designation of the NC NERR in 1985 via a federal-state partnership between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Estuarine Research Reserve System and the Division of Coastal Management.   

The NC NERR designation provided an inspirational model for the state to protect additional habitat areas. In 1989, the General Assembly amended the Coastal Area Management Act to formally establish the NC Coastal Reserve which includes the NC National Estuarine Research Reserve. The program has added six additional sites since then, including the Bird Island Coastal Reserve.  

Bird Island Reserve represents eight habitat types and excellent examples of natural barrier island communities with several occurrences of rare and threatened species including Seabeach Amaranth, wood storks and loggerhead sea turtles.  

Coastal Reserve Southern Sites manager, Elizabeth Pinnix has worked with the Town of Sunset Beach to make improvements to Bird Island and surrounding areas, including benches along the 40th Street access, that provide a resting place to take in the sights of Bird Island. 

“Access to the beach and Bird Island Reserve was improved with the completion of the 40th street walkway that is now ADA accessible,” said Richard Childres, Town of Sunset Beach Fire Chief.

Bill Ducker, founder of the Bird Island Preservation Society, recalled how in 1992, Mad Inlet separated Sunset Beach from what is now Bird Island Reserve.

“The owner at the time proposed a bridge to access the undeveloped portion west of the inlet,” Ducker said. Development proposals sparked the creation of the Bird Island Preservation Society, he said.
In 2001 to 2002, Bird Island was purchased by the state with funds from the NC Clean Water Management Trust Fund, Natural Heritage Trust Fund and the NC DOT.  

In 2019, the 35 acres near the boardwalk was acquired with appropriations from the General Assembly. This acreage is now a part of the Bird Island Reserve and adds habitat and resources that will be permanently conserved for research, education, public enjoyment and compatible traditional uses.  

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