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Some of the nation's richest and most important ecosystems lie where the ocean meets the land. Those same coastal areas will disappear if the sea level continues rising as a result of climate change. Now scientists and managers at a wildlife refuge in North Carolina are attempting to fight back the sea.

NPR's Richard Harris reports.

RICHARD HARRIS: The Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge encompasses 154,000 acres of marshland and a rare type of lowland forest called pocosin. It's just about the only place on Earth where the endangered red wolf still roams. And a lot of it is at or near sea level, which means it's in big trouble as the sea rises.

But with the unbounded optimism of youth, a dozen or so college students arrived one spring day to see what they could do. Jamie Rowen from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro is raking oyster shells into mesh bags which will be used to build a reef off a nearby coastline. This music major - studying classical guitar - likes the change of pace.

Mr. JAMIE ROWEN (Student, University of North Carolina Greensboro): My teacher told me to rest my hands this week. That's definitely not happening.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HARRIS: Yeah, really.

His classmate Elizabeth Livingston happily labors nearby, on her spring break.

Ms. ELIZABETH LIVINGSTON (Student, University of North Carolina Greensboro): I feel like you'll remember this over, you know, partying at the beach or something.

HARRIS: The bags they're filling and then stacking on wooden pallets are enough to build just a few hundred feet of reef, to slow erosion along a coastline that stretches hundreds of miles. So you might ask whether these students are tilting at windmills. After all, the sea has been encroaching here for decades.

Just ask Winkie Silver. His family home on the nearby Outer Banks has been moved six times. And as he watches the students raking shells, he tells a story he head from one of the other old-timers around here.

Mr. WINKIE SILVER: He said his grandmother could walk from Roanoke Island to the Dare County mainland by rail, which meant not a railroad train, but a rail fence post that she would put from clump to clump, and build and cross over. Whether that's rocking chair history or geographic history, I don't know. But I do know that that was - if you look at the old maps, that was marsh all the way across.

HARRIS: Silver knows that the pond pines that are characteristic of the pocosin coastal forest are also losing ground to the ocean.

Mr. SILVER: The stumps out there in the shallow water you can tell, you know, if you bring a boat in there and tear your boat up, you know that once that was tree-line and land.

HARRIS: Silver wears a homemade visor to keep the sun off his ears. He's been hired to use his barges to build the reef out of these bags of shells. And though the work has been taking place on a federal wildlife refuge, the effort is actually being led by a scientist from the Nature Conservancy, Brian Boutin.

Mr. BRIAN BOUTIN (Scientist, Nature Conservancy): See you later, Winkie.

HARRIS: Boutin starts out in his pickup truck toward Point Peter, where the reef is being built. On the way, he explains that the reef is just one part of a larger plan to preserve the refuge.

(Soundbite of car door beeping)

HARRIS: We pull over along the side of the gravel road to see another element of the plan. The eager, young biologist slips on his rubber boots and heads off into a wide expanse of marsh.

Water comes up the sides of our shoes. You can't get any closer to sea level than this. About 100 yards off the road, he proudly points to a bare twig coming out of the sodden soil. It's a freshly planted cypress tree.

Mr. BOUTIN: This is one of our cypresses, right now, not quite leafed out.

HARRIS: Like the college students, this twig of a tree also seems to radiate hopefulness.

Mr. BOUTIN: Once these leaf out this spring here, we'll have a nice lime green veneer across the top of all this marsh grass out here. So it'll be pretty evident how many cypress are in this area.

HARRIS: The experiment is designed to see whether the 20,000 very tolerant trees they've planted can help create forest here, which is home to the red wolf, black bear, bobcats and other animals whose habitat is gradually disappearing. Of course, if the sea keeps rising, these trees could simply find themselves drowned in saltwater. Boutin has been thinking about that a lot.

Soon after we return to the road, we come across a refuge construction crew, installing a new culvert. And surprisingly, the goal of this project is to bring more water into the marsh where the trees are growing. Boutin explains that the hope is this fresh water will build up organic soil here by encouraging the plants that produce it.

Mr. BOUTIN: Part of the soil conditions that those species need to really be happy and healthy is to have a damp soil.

HARRIS: So you want to bring the water onto the landscape. That seems counterintuitive if you're trying to stave off sea-level rise.

Mr. BOUTIN: Well, not if you're a wetland and you need to be wet.

HARRIS: So how quickly can these soils build up?

Mr. BOUTIN: Well, they're not very fast. You're looking at a couple millimeters a year.

HARRIS: Unfortunately, sea level is rising at the rate of three or four millimeters a year here, and forecast to rise faster.

Mr. BOUTIN: We're not quite keeping up with sea-level rise, and I think that's going to be something that is the case pretty much everywhere that we work with in Pamlico Sound. But the idea is to reduce the rate of loss.

HARRIS: Losing the battle, but losing it slowly makes perfect sense to Mike Bryant. He runs this refuge for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Mr. MIKE BRYANT (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service): We expect change from sea-level rise as a consequence of the warming and the melting of ice. As that sea level rises, we expect to lose land.

HARRIS: When you look down the road, is this refuge doomed?

Mr. BRYANT: I don't know if it's doomed, but I certainly think it's shrinking.

HARRIS: Eventually, the maps of this area show this refuge will be almost entirely submerged once sea level rises four feet, which could be within a lifetime. But he says simply that change is inevitable on planet Earth. So what he can do is help the ecosystems adapt with some grace.

Mr. BRYANT: I don't think we can we can put a dike around a 150,000-acre refuge and pump it out. So I think we just have to adapt that landscape to the change.

HARRIS: That means fighting back the tide, in the short run. But it also means thinking ahead.

Mr. BRYANT: We'd like to think about where is the next best place for wildlife on higher ground. How do we have wildlife corridors between Alligator River Refuge and those lands? And then how do we secure some of those lands that are on higher ground for wildlife in the future?

HARRIS: While Bryant starts the delicate task of acquiring new land, Boutin is trying to buy time.

(Soundbite of water rushing)

HARRIS: When we arrive at Point Peter, a gale is blowing up between us and the Outer Banks off to the east. These churning whitecaps are eating away parts of Point Peter at the rate of up to 30 feet a year, he says. But then he points to some white pipes sticking out of the water to our left. That's where Winkie Silver has been stacking those bags of oyster shells out in the water. And Boutin says the marsh behind that reef is eroding at a much slower rate. But he knows he can't protect very much of this coast with labor-intensive reefs.

Mr. BOUTIN: We are focusing on finding those areas that are most vulnerable right now and that are most in need of having their shoreline erosion addressed.

HARRIS: It's not a permanent solution, but in the process, they are learning what works and what doesn't work in their struggle to fight back the sea.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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