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Epic Games CEO funds conservation of a rare undeveloped barrier island on NC coast

Adam Wagner
·5 min read

Conservation groups and a North Carolina billionaire have successfully conserved a two-mile stretch of barrier island between Topsail and Figure 8 islands, Audubon North Carolina and the Coastal Land Trust announced Thursday.

Hutaff Island is a two-mile stretch of land that has long been one of the few privately held and undeveloped barrier islands on the coast, making it a prime destination for migrating birds and offering protection against coastal storms. The island sits on the Pender-New Hanover county line, just north of Figure 8 Island. In 1998, Old Topsail Inlet closed, connecting Hutaff to Lea Island, its northern neighbor.

“This is one of the few places where people can experience a wild and natural and dynamic barrier island,” Walker Golder, the executive director of the Coastal Land Trust, told The News & Observer.

Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney funded the purchase, which will protect about 1,300 acres of Hutaff Island and surrounding marsh. Once the sale is closed in about two months, the Coastal Land Trust will hold the land, and Audubon North Carolina will continue to protect bird colonies and sea turtle nests.

Andrew Hutson, the executive director of Audubon North Carolina, told The News & Observer, “It’s a gem. It sounds kind of corny to say, but it’s an absolute treasure. It’s so hard to find sections of barrier island that are undisturbed and where the natural processes still occur.”

Protecting a barrier island

Those processes include the overwash of dunes and the gradual accretion of sands, both of which result in wide, sandy beaches that many coastal birds prefer for nesting.

In 2019, waves from the Atlantic washed over much of the island, knocking over dunes and creating the perfect habitat for least terns, a small bird that builds its nests on sandy spans of beach. That year, Audubon biologists found a record 1,034 nests on the northern end of the Lea-Hutaff complex.

Other birds that visit Hutaff Island include piping plovers and red knots, both federally listed species that stop there while migrating.

“One of the best things that we can do given a changing climate on the coast is make sure they have robust populations,” Hutson said. “If we weren’t out there protecting those birds, their futures would be more uncertain than they are now.”

The island is also a popular nesting spot for loggerhead sea turtles, which crawl ashore and build nests there. Baby sea turtles have an easier time finding their way to the ocean than on more-developed beaches because of the lack of lights from nearby development, Hutson said.

Audubon’s management includes marking bird colonies and making sure that people know there are critical nesting areas in the region to avoid disruption. Biologists also count the birds that flock to the island.

Golder, of the Coastal Land Trust, has been visiting Hutaff Island for more than 45 years, starting as a boy when he would fish there with his father and family friends. When Golder visits, he said, he has to sit for a minute to take in the dunes and the wide beach.

“This is wild and natural, and it’s how all of the barrier islands once looked, and there are so few of those kinds of barrier islands left,” Golder said.

Conservation efforts

Efforts to protect the Lea-Hutaff complex began in the early 2000s, shortly after the islands merged, said Golder, who was working with Audubon at the time.

At the time, the Lea Island had been broken into dozens of parcels with an eye toward development, while the Hutaff family held the roughly two-mile southern portion of the island in a trust. When Audubon and the Coastal Land Trust began their efforts, the Hutaff family was not interested in parting with the land.

Efforts turned to Lea Island, with the conservation groups working with the N.C. State Parks to form the Lea Island State Natural Area in 2003. A natural area is similar to a state park, but typically doesn’t offer amenities like picnic tables.

Audubon purchased an additional 36.5 acres of Lea Island in 2010. Golder estimated that 90 to 100 acres of the northernmost island remain privately owned. The last remaining home on Lea Island crumpled during a 2015 storm, acording to The Wilmington StarNews.

In late 2019, Audubon and the Coastal Land Trust again approached the Hutaff family about selling its portion of the island. This time, Golder said, they were ready, with one condition.

“They wanted to see the island protected forever, and that was, of course, our goal, too,” Golder said.

At that point, the conservation groups approached Sweeney, the Epic Games founder and CEO who has used part of his fortune to conserve large swaths of land in North Carolina, including a 1,500-acre tract near Pinehurst that had been slated for a mixed-use community built around a golf course and a 7,500-acre piece of wilderness on the Avery-Mitchell county border.

“He liked the project for everything it offers and generously agreed to fund the acquisition cost,” said Golder, who declined to immediately say how much the island had cost.

Earlier this year, Audubon commissioned a study to look at the economic benefits of preserving Lea-Hutaff Island. Preserving the island would have an annual economic impact of $12.3 million, Earth Economics found, including $6.78 million for water quality in the island’s nearly 1,000 acres of tidal marshes and creeks and $2.39 million in terms of protection against storm surge.

“It’s a good win for wildlife, it’s a good win for communities and it’s a win for people,” Hutson said.