Saving islands in the Year of the Coast

Barrier islands have qualities unequalled and virtually unparalleled. They are unique in their animal and plant life, providing a favorable habitat not only for fish and shellfish but for reptiles, birds, and mammals. They provide protection for our mainland, and recreational activities of a special sort for millions and millions of people.

The figures, by the way, are astounding. About 25 million people visit the ten National Park Service-administered barrier islands annually. We must remember that 25 percent of our population lives within 100 miles of our East and Gulf coast barrier islands.

Yet, while interest in the barrier islands has been great for some scientists and conservationists for years, it was not until 1977 that it was articulated as a national concern. Only then did President Carter call for a national study and policy relating to the barrier islands.

He spoke then of 189 coastal barrier islands of which 68 were unspoiled, and he spoke movingly of the need to protect this special, irreplaceable national treasure of natural resources.

Subsequently, at his direction, we have studied a total of 295 units -- which were part, all, or a group of the islands -- totaling 1.6 million acres. Compared to the entire continental United States, which contain over 2 billion acres, they may not be a large amount. But they perform unique functions. They protect a thousand miles of our coast from storms and the frenzied power of the sea. Think, if you will, what the consequence might be without them, think of the power unleashed on those millions who live so close to them on the protected mainland. It is quite unbelievable that we should as a nation remain casual or indifferent to their proper survival.

Yet we seem so. We ignore or shrug off the sand castles of developers, hardly more permanent than a child's play buildings at the edge of the sea. We must in this Year of the Caost recognize the many dangers to the continued existence of these islands. Few of those dangers are natural -- almost all are manmade. Of those dangers, most come from acts of development made without apparent thought to consequences or, worse still, from a callous indifference to the inevitable changes.

Those islands are tolerant of the great power of wind and water; they can absorb everything from gentle shifting of sand to the untold devastation of great hurricanes. What they cannot tolerate is the petty little power of dune buggies crunching through spartina marshes destroying their grasses, the static hulks of wood and concrete plopped where they should never be.

We can foresee the consequences, yet we build on dunes which, left alone, replenish themselves. And then we see them destroyed. And then we build again, so close to the sea as to challenge nature. When the inevitable destruction comes once again, the remnants of our works -- half structures of wood and metal in bits and pieces -- stand mute like scarecrows in a field that has been ravaged by birds or weather. We are wise as those scarecrows, monuments to empty bravado.

I say to you that it is presumptuous -- no, maybe just ignorant -- to handle nature this way. I understand that much of the real estate development grows out of the legitimate human urge to savor the sights, sounds and joys of the sea and the shore. But to purchase those temporary, transitory pleasures for a few today at the inevitable expense of future generations is scandalous.

We seem unable even now to define a protective system for our coasts. We watch even now in the Year of the Coast as they are threatened by refinery and power plant sitings, by ports for ever-larger tankers. We fill up marsh land, pollute estuaries, destroy the grasses and life of the coast as though these things were the only protein on which to build the sinews of industry. It is shortsighted.

I sometimes hesitate to criticize our private economic policies even when they seem confused since our federal government policy which should be more amenable to some rational order is just as confused -- maybe more.

There are about 20 federal agencies which administer about 30 programs which affect the barrier islands and half of those programs are pro-development and about a quarter of them protection-oriented. Man giveth and man taketh away.

We spend endless millions of dollars to encourage development while we spend other millions to encourage the protection of the islands. When nature proves us fools by blowing away what we have built, we start all over again because we have federally insured what was bound to be destroyed.

Our barrier island economic policy is part compulsion to build and part local boosterism, I suppose. It is the creature of economic development laws and small business loans and disaster insurance and emergency compassion -- all of which make sense except on the barrier islands.

We still have the chance to protect much of the barrier islands. If it costs too much to buy them all -- and it does -- there are still things that can be done, or at least started in what remains in this Year of the Coast.

First, while much is known about the barrier islands and how they react to various forces, we need a coordinate, system-oriented research program to determine even more precisely how the islands function so that we can better predict how they will react to future forces.

We need to move to protect the undeveloped and as yet unprotected islands. We need to improve the level of protection of lands which are already under public control. That will take further coordination and consultation between federal, state and local governments.

Where there are already developed islands, where it is appropriate we must move to restrain or channel development from freeform growth into development which is compatible with permitting the islands to live on, ever changing, but in a sense ever permanent.

We must do this together. We have not lost our ability to foresee. We have not lost our ability to forestall.

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