If 1980 is indeed to be the "Year of the Coast," as proclaimed by President Carter and enthusiastically endorsed on New Year's Day by thousands of other Americans concerned about the erosion, pollution, and over- development of the 80,000-mile US shoreline, the national attention such a designation implies comes not a minute too soon. In the years that have lapsed since Congress enacted the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972, far too little progress has been made in carrying out its provisions for regulating coastal development and balancing the environmental, recreational, energy, and other needs that frequently come into conflict on the nation's imperiled beaches and offshore islands.
It is to be hoped that this new show of concern signals an end to the public apathy and neglect that have fostered the continued haphazard growth and overpopulation of coastal areas, a trend that does more than threaten the destruction of irreplaceable wildlife and natural resources of fragile ecosystems along the shoreline. Lives and property, too, are at stake because federal and state policies encourage people to build and rebuild on beaches that are assaulted by erosion, repeated hurricanes and "northeasters," and other natural disasters. Costly man-made rescue efforts have proved futile in protecting sandy shores from nature's forces, and millions of taxpayers' dollars in disaster aid and flood insurance, for instance, go to rebuild time and again homes and stores in locations where flooding and hurricanes are known to pose constant threats.
The lack of enthusiasm for coastal zone management -- and outright hostility to it in some waterfront communities where residents resent outside interference -- is reflected in the slowness of coastal states to draw up management plans satisfactory to federal officials. In seven years, only 19 of the 35 states along the US shoreline have produced federally approved management programs. As demand for offshore oil drilling and coastal retirement and recreation communities has grown, so has resistance to developing overall strategies for regulating the coasts.
President Carter has called for "a clear national coastal protection policy" -- a proposal which Congress should give urgent consideration as it takes up reauthorization of the Coastal Zone Management Act early this year. The lawmakers, among other things, should increase the federal inducements for states and waterfront communities to develop management plans. And they need to reassess the federal government's role in encouraging the overdevelopment of shoreline areas. Congress could provide the needed leadership in this Year of the Coast to shift the tide of public opinion more toward protecting and preserving the precious US coastline.