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Sandy-blasted wildlife areas target of cuts

– An eerie sight greeted Scott Kahan recently when he toured the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge near Atlantic City, N.J., 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 effect 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. 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 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, the U.S. Geological Survey said.

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.

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.

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 today by the Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement.

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.

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