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Pender County's undeveloped barrier island is an immaculate anomaly. Now, it will forever remain that way

An aerial shot of Hutaff Island.
NC Coastal Land Trust
An aerial shot of Hutaff Island.

Nestled between Figure Eight Island and Topsail Beach, Hutaff Island boasts miles of pristine, undeveloped beaches. Through a purchase by the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust, it will eternally remain a haven for coastal wildlife.

North Carolina’s last privately-owned and undeveloped barrier island has been officially purchased by the Coastal Land Trust.

Hutaff Island is in southern Pender County, sandwiched between Topsail Beach and Figure Eight Island. It possesses 1,000 acres of salt marsh and island hammocks, which provides critical habitat for threatened species like rare plants, sea turtles, and beach-nesting birds.

Since 1925, the island has been owned by the Hutaff and McEachern families. Permanent conservation efforts to protect it were announced back in April, by the Coastal Land Trust in partnership with Audubon North Carolina. Conservation philanthropist and Epic Games CEO — Tim Sweeney — funded that initiative.

With the Land Trust’s purchase of the area, Hutaff Island will continue to be managed in partnership with Audubon North Carolina to ensure the sustainability of the area's landscape, natural habitats, plant communities, and wildlife.

“A classic barrier island landscape”

The North Carolina Natural Heritage Program recognizes Hutaff Island as a critical component of the Lea-Hutaff “Significant Natural Heritage Area.” That’s due to the presence of rare species, unique natural communities, important animal assemblages, and other ecological features. The NC Division of Water Quality has also championed the island for its exceptionally high water quality.

Dr. Stan Riggs is a coastal geologist, who says the island’s conservation is critical:

“Hutaff Island not only serves as important habitat for coastal wildlife but, like other barrier islands, also serves as nature’s speed bump slowing down the forces of storms before they reach the mainland. Even with sea-level rise, Hutaff Island will still be around and will continue to roll back as these undeveloped islands do.”
Dr. Stan Riggs

Barrier islands form as waves deposit sediment parallel to the coast. They protect coastal communities and ecosystems from extreme weather, according to the National Ocean Service, because dunes and grasses on barrier islands absorb wave energy before it hits the mainland. That means less storm surge — and less flooding.

In addition to benefiting coastal communities, Hutaff provides critical stopover habitat for thousands of migrating birds as well — including federally threatened Piping Plovers and Red Knots. It also serves as an important migratory stopover and overwintering area for the imperiled Saltmarsh Sparrow, a species that could be extinct by 2060 if current trends continue.

Tidal marshes and creeks on the island serve as primary nursery areas for fish, shrimp, crabs, and baby Loggerhead sea turtles. And because the island is undeveloped, there are no lights to distract turtle hatchlings when they head toward the sea.

“Hutaff Island is a rare gem on the North Carolina coast. It’s one of the last, best examples of a natural barrier island with dynamic dunes and productive saltmarsh,” said Walker Golder, Executive Director of the Coastal Land Trust.

“We are so very grateful to the Hutaff/McEachern family for their commitment to conserving the island forever and to the partnership that brought us to this important day.”