Hands off these islands

The first warm and sunny days of late May in this "Year of the Coast" signal more than the start of another summer season for a growing number of Americans concerned about the pollution, erosion, and overdevelopment of the 80,000-mile US shoreline. Of particular concern to conservationists and federal agencies involved in protecting and preserving the nation's coasts are the widely unrecognized threats to the string of barrier islands that dot the waters off 18 states. A major three-day conference this week on Cape Cod, sponsored by the National Park Service and attended by scientists, land managers, and other specialists on coastal problems, is focusing welcome attention on the need for new government policies to put a halt to the largely man-made destruction of the barrier islands.

The importance of barrier islands is not limited to the recreational opportunities they hold for the one-fourth of the US population which lives within 100 miles of them, as pointed out by Robert Herbst, assistant secretary of interior for fish and wildlife and parks. Mr. Herbst notes that 10 million people visit the islands administered by the National Parks Service each year. The assistant secretary, part of whose keynote address at the Cape Cod conference appears on today's Opinion and Commentary page, stresses that barrier islands provide crucial protection to shorefront areas from the full force of storms and hurricanes. They contain unique and fragile ecosystems which serve as wildlife habitats for hundreds of species. "Yet," he warns, "despite their value . . . people have shown little interest in protecting them."

Not only do federal policies encourage the development of condominiums, apartments, and such on the islands by providing flood insurance, sewer subsidies, and other incentives. They encourage rebuilding in areas frequently hit by storms and other disasters. Over the last three years, development-oriented federal agencies have spent some $500 million in largely futile attempts to stabilize the islands and rehabilitate private beaches.

Legislation currently before both houses of Congress would place limits on federal disaster aid and federal flood insurance to discourage such rebuilding. It would curb other federal programs that subsidize development on those islands still unspoiled by bridge and highway construction, and it would add undeveloped islands and portions of islands to the National Park System for full protection. Says Rep. Phillip Burton, sponsor of the House bill which is expected to come up for debate by July, "I suspect we will find that the combined costs to the taxpayer for development subsidies, beach restoration, and the emergency rehabilitation costs after a hurricane, will be far in excess of the costs to purchase and preserve the remaining undeveloped islands."

Unrestricted development of the barrier islands must be curbed by some such measure if they are to remain for future generations of Americans to enjoy -- and if the islands are to continue to provide valuable nesting and feeding grounds for millions of migrating birds and a fertile environment for a wide variety of fish and other wildlife.

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