The man who would outlaw sand castles

Offer Larry Rockefeller some licorice candy and he will take just one piece, lay it carefully on the wing of his sofa, and save it as a "reward" for some choice moment later when he feels he has earned it.

It's a perfect gesture for the man who believes in not taking more than we need out of the world and in carefully conserving the little we do take.

No one could accuse him of trying to hog much of anything, including public attention.

In fact, he'd much rather that this article talk about his current passion -- saving barrier islands -- than concentrate on him.

That attitude about sums up this unassuming young conservationist who was instrumental in the passage of the landmark Alaska Lands Bill in 1980 and who is currently engaged full time in a campaign to save the necklace of fragile outposts, known as the barrier islands, strung along the Gulf Coast and Eastern Seaboard.

Sitting in a low-slung, old-fashioned rocking chair in his smallish office at the National Resource Defense Council where he is a staff attorney, he hunches over slightly, folding his hands in his lap and wonders aloud if he can provide enough material for an entire article.

"I have about an hour for the interview," he jokes gently, "but you may be done a lot sooner than that."

In fact, the hour stretches into 90 minutes and is picked up again on another day, as the conversation roams from his youthful service with VISTA (Volunteers in Service To America), when he lived for three years in an East Harlem tenement , to his current long-lived passion for conserving the precious wilderness remaining in this country.

All around him are evidences of this passion: a lead army of miniature bears, moose, deer, and other wildlife; a tiny solar-powered windmill; a wooden puffin, given to him by the Audubon Society; pictures and posters of rugged mountains, pristine lakes, and shaggy woods.

Dominating the entire scene is a giant photo of a mountain ram staring, defiant and independent, from the wall over a worn sofa where Mr. Rockefeller has tossed his battered parka and a shaggy old earmuff cap.

The ram became an emblem of the Americans for Alaska Committee during the pitched battle to have almost 100 million acres of Alaskan wilderness -- protected from industrial and commercial development

His active involvement in such crusades has led to some minor media attention for the tall, slender, forgetfully dressed Mr. Rockefeller, son of Laurance C. Rockefeller and nephew of Nelson and Winthrop. He refuses to trade on his family name. Little about him beside his environmental interests ever appears in print.

This is obviously quite all right with the man who travels quietly in conversationist circles and among the Washington influencers they court.

He is a bit ill at ease as a newspaper interview begins. As he begins to relax, he chats casually about himself and his preoccupations in life.

A minor preoccupation, it furns out, is the small farm he owns in the Catskill Mountains, where he has two pigs named Pork Chops and Bacon. They were given their names when his organic-farming sister him a book that advised never naming an animal one intends to eat. "The idea seemed to be that you would grow attached to them and forget their ultimate purpose," he says. "I compromised and named them something that would always remind me what they would be used for."

His immediate preoccupation, however, is barrier islands.

These fragile outposts, encircling the continent from southeastern Texas to northern Maine, are slender accumulations of sand built up during the last 5,000 years or so. Sometimes as little as a few dozen yards across, they provide critical shelter for the mainland from the open fury of the ocean. The big question is how long they will continue to provide this protection.

The islands already are four times as populated as the mainland and are developing twice as fast, according to a Department of Interior environmental impact statement. As a consequence, the overburdened ecology of these islands is being sacrificed to skyrocketing real estate values, a land boom that could be catastrophic not only for the islands' ecological structured but also for new residents.

Barrier islands are seldom more than a few yards above sea level. While they provide protection for the coastal shores, they themselves are threatened by ocean overwash. If left undeveloped, these delicate sand structures normally react to sea pressures by actually migrating, moving their sand from one end of the island to another.

Manmade seawalls, jetties, and other structures are thwarthing this natural process, however, and aggravate erosion rather than prevent it. Some islands are being literally eaten away by the sea. To compound the problem, huge condominium developments have been erected upon these islands -- which include, by the way, Galveston, Texas; Miami Beach; and Atlantic City as well as dozens of almost unpopulated tiny islets -- during years of relatively hurricane-free storm seasons. Many barrier island communities have never faced the full fury of a major hurricane. If they do, scientists predict, the resulting loss of human life and property would be staggering.

The federal government subsidizes this development by providing low-cost flood insurance, disaster relief, and bridge and highway development to island communities, even though some branches of the government, like the National Park Service, are trying desperately to stem the tide of real estate devellopment.

This regulatory quagmire and the ecological disaster it encourages attracted Larry Rockefeller's attention during a 1976 Conservation Foundation conference in Annapolis, Md., when scientists and others presented the case for saving these islands from overdevelopment. He was appointed to a barrier islands task force formed at that meeting.

The objectives of this task force and subsequent conservation efforts were to get the federal government to buy many of the undeveloped barrier islands and make them into wilderness areas and to end federal subsidies of overdevelopment.

"It's folly to continue the current policies," he says emphatically. "i suppose you can say we had advance notice way back in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus said, and there it is in the Bible, not to build on the sand. And here we are, not only building on the sand, but asking the general taxpayer to subsidize it."

Two bills designed to stop the building and subsidizing of these sand castles died in the last Congress without making much headway; but one knowledgeable congressional source points out that "a good economic argument could be made for ending these federal subsidies," even though efforts to end them would run into "a hornet's nest" of crisscrossing jurisdictional disputes.

"Last Congress was only the first go around," Larry Rockefeller points out optimistically. "Strip mining took eight years. I'm confident there will be a change in policy. The present course just doesn't make any sense."

Mr. Rockefeller and his associates are banking on the fact that the Reagan administration is committed to cutting waste out of government spending. If the federal government cannot be persuaded to purchase undeveloped islands, he says, it might certainly be interested in "cutting off the federal subsidies, which would slow the pace of development."

"We're not proposing a regulatory bill that would prevent development," Mr. Rockefeller argues, "just a move to cut off the subsidies. It should have substantial appeal to a government that is considering cutting food stamps and a number of other items which are important to people in need. And these subsidies benefit the well-to-do in the building of their condominiums on the beaches."

Its's not only the wealthy and their condominiums that will be affected by barrier islands legislation. Countless tiny island communities dot the coastal waters of the Eastern Seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico. Frequently made up of houses as fragile as the dunes they sit on, these communities are easy prey for violent ocean storms.

This precarious combination of unprotected communities, unchecked natural forces, and delicate island ecology is an unacceptably unstable concoction, according to Larry Rockefeller. He says there is no justification for "the loss of life, waste of taxpayer money, and environmentaal damage" it naturally encourages.

Sitting in his rocking chair 45 series above Grand Central Terminal, he seems remote from the elemental sea forces he talks about; but out the windows, beyond the southern tip of Manhattan, one can see the churning mouth of the bay leading to the ocean. and not too many miles from that inlet lies Fire Island, a rather typical barrier island, if such a thing exists.

Fire Island, a collection of small residential communities and designated wilderness areas lying off the southern shore of Long Island, possesses a status somewhere between the high-rises of Miami Beach and the islands inhabited by only egrets and sand crabs. Mr. Rockefeller describes Fire Island as a good example of the common traits shared by barrier islands.

"right there, exposed to storm and sea, they are dangerous places to build. The fact that Fire Island is so close to New York City means it deserves special attention as a recreation area and a place to protect wildlife."

On a recent visit the slender, fragile island was shrouded in fog and battered by waves driven by 55-mile-an-hour winds. The lighthouse, once on the island's western tip now is five miles from the island's end because of the constant migration of sand from one end of the island to another. If is only dimly visible in the fog and howling wind; the ocean is ghostly white, teeming with unleashed power, and chewing away at the soft sand.

Within yards of this fury, tiny communities of matchbox houses lie empty. deserted for the most party by summer residents. Near the water's edge a half-completed summer house has been abandoned for the winter, empty and fragile as a broken eggshell.

Such houses and the property they stand on are at a premium on Fire Island, where postage-stamp size lots sell for a minimum of $50,000 and summer rentals of houses climb upward of $7,500. Larry Rockefeller says much prices are more exorbitant when one considers that, at any moment, the entire investment could be washed out to sea.

In 1938 a massive hurricane cost several lives and did millions of dollars in property damage here. More recently, in 1962, another hurricane washed several times homes out to sea. Since then, building has gone on in the little picture-book communities at one end of the island, and the threat of destruction to life and property has increased dramatically.

Some Fire Island residents worry about the prospect but are not sure what to do. Year-round resident Bruce Kahler, a former community supervisor now in real estate, says his parents weathered the 1938 hurricane; and he weathered all the subsequent storms. Now, he thinks he would get out if a real major hurricane came along because, he says, the beaches have not been properly rebuilt in the wake of years of erosion by ocean and human forces. His wife, Genevieve, says she worries about the problem too.

"I go up there and look at the ocean all the time," she says. But she won't be moving out of her two-story home 800 feet from the water: "I've lived here all my life. My kids were born here. I guess you have to worry about something , no matter where you live."

There are signs that the residents are always wary of storms: Some of the fragile dunes have been piled with old Christmas trees in an effort to trap more sand for protection, just a minute's walk from Kahlers' living room.

Even more dramatic is the contrast one finds at a narrow point in the wilderness area in the island's midriff.

Here, there is an eerie loneliness where the wind whips the white, invisible sea into an uncontrolled fury.

And they, only a few dozen yards away, on the leeward side of the island, one can sit beside the tranquil bay watching idle ripples of wind pass placidly away into the fog.

This contrast is what these islands are all about. They provide a buffer for the mainland from the ocean violence (which almost snatched a large all-terrain vehicle off the beach while I was there). They are shelters from the storm for all kinds of life, human and otherwise.

Preserving this shelter from the unwise encroachments of man is what Larry Rockefeller devotes his time to these days. He feels are effort is certainly worth his while. And, oddly enough, he thinks that his efforts, along with those of a dozen other environmental groups, will prove succesful.

"I intend to see it through until a change in policy happens. And I'm confident it will happen," he says. "I feel good about it. Because the present policy just does not make sense to people. If we're wasting money, losing lives , jeopardizing this wonderful natural resource, then why do it?"

Right now, the National Defense Council's efforts to protect barrier islands, headed by Larry Rockefeller, are bearing fruit. The issue is getting attention from the public, and other organizations are taking an interest. A string of famous people have lent their names to the campaign.

The whole thing is very satisfying to Larry Rockefeller, who says these kinds of jobs pay off in a special coin for someone who tends to believe that "What you get is what you give."

And, if the campaign to save the barrier islands is successful, he'll probably lean back in his rocker and finally decide its time to let himself have a second piece of licorice candy.

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