Fort Wool started out as utilitarian, a smaller partner to Fort Monroe, protecting a vital area of Hampton Roads near where the Chesapeake Bay empties into the Atlantic. Also known as Rip Rap Island, it was an artificial island built on a shoal.
That was in 1819. Now, 200 years later, the dilapidated fort is at the center of a clash between two worthy causes — preserving and promoting the region’s considerable historic resources and protecting its rich but fragile wildlife and ecosystem.
Both causes are essential to the healthy, vibrant future of greater Hampton Roads. With some creative thinking and a willingness to compromise, these two worthy causes should not be mutually exclusive.
A year ago, people who care about birds, biological diversity and the environment were celebrating the success of a last-minute gamble to save the 25,000 migratory seabirds that, for four decades, had returned every spring to the manmade southern island of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel to raise their young. While the birds had spent the winter of 2019-2020 in warmer climes, their summer home had been converted into a staging ground for the expansion of the HRBT.
Bird experts said the loss of nesting ground could be devastating to one of the most important colonies of migratory seabirds in Virginia.
Before the Trump administration weakened many environmental regulations, state officials would have had to come up with a plan to minimize harm to the birds. But with a changed interpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, mitigation wasn’t required.
When environmentalists raised the alarm, the commonwealth mounted an emergency effort to entice the birds to nest at nearby Fort Wool instead. Biologists killed rats, removed invasive vegetation, spread sand and gravel, added barges, arranged decoys and broadcast bird noises.
Supporters celebrated when the plan worked and the birds settled in.
But by the time the birds were returning to Fort Wool this spring, historic preservation groups were complaining about the neglect and deteriorating conditions at Fort Wool.
The fort, they point out, is rich in history. It should be repaired, preserved and reopened to the public, they say. Turning the island into a refuge for thousands of messy birds is not part of their vision.
They are right, of course, about the historical significance of Fort Wool. Built not long after the War of 1812, it continued to be important for many years. Like Fort Monroe, it is rich in the Black history that is rightly getting more attention in Hampton Roads these days. Slaves helped to build it, and during Civil War times, some Blacks escaping slavery found refuge there.
The Army used Fort Wool during World War II. Later, the decommissioned fort was given to the commonwealth. For decades, the city of Hampton leased it, and for a time it was a park and tourist attraction.
But money was never available for the kind of work it would take to preserve the old fort, which has been sinking into the bay since Civil War times. Ruled unsafe, it was closed to the public last spring. The sand and equipment used to prepare for the birds probably didn’t help conditions. Removing vegetation and rats and some of the other work likely did.
Moving the bird colony to Fort Wool was never meant to be a permanent solution, just a stopgap. The hope is that an artificial island can be built near Fort Wool for a permanent migratory bird habitat. That, too, will take money and planning.
Preserving the rich heritage of Hampton Roads is vital, for its historic and cultural significance and for the economic importance of historical tourism. Preserving wildlife and the rich ecosystem of the region is equally vital, for quality of life and for the importance of tourism and fisheries in our economy.
What’s to be done? The best approach is for all concerned — historic preservation groups, environmental preservation groups and state officials — to work together in a spirit of compromise to keep both the birds and the fort’s history alive and well.