US budget cuts may help save delicate barrier islands

Ironically, but not unintentionally, cut-backs in the recently signed 1982 budget may provide long-sought protection for some of America's most precious natural resources -- barrier islands.

A relatively little-noticed bill in the weighty budget package curtails what conservationists have long seen as a major cause of development on the fragile islands -- flood insurance payments.

The measure, co-sponsored by Rep. Thomas Evans Jr. (R) of Delaware, and Sen. John Chafee (R) of Rhode Island, forbids federal insurance payments for new construction on undeveloped barriers after October 1983. A second bill, to be introduced next year, would cut off all federal subsidies for undeveloped barriers.

Combined, proponents say the two measures could save millions of dollars in federal insurance allotments as well as help protect the delicate ecosystems.

Many conservationists see this year's initiative as a first step toward preserving the islands. A Washington representative of the Sierra Club terms the flood-insurance program the "keystone" to barrier island development, but added "that much more needs to be done" to significantly curtail future development.

The barriers, silvery spits etched by tides, follow the American coast from Maine to Texas like a slender necklace.

Despite their chunky and solid-sounding names, such as Squidnocket, Tuckernuck, and Chinqateague, the barriers are among the most fragile environments in the United States. Providing critical shelter for wildlife and the mainland, they absorb the brunt of changing winds and tides, and literally shift and migrate over the years.

Nearly one-third of the barriers are already protected under the Department of Interior. But the remaining breach-front acreage has had to fend for itself.

Through its 13-year-old flood-insurance program, insuring property development in hazard-prone coastal areas, the federal government has assumed much of the financial risk and has helped foster a boom in beach-front real estate. Some 140,000 acres of barrier land have been developed over the past 30 years, according to a recent United States Geological Survey study.

"The bill is going a long way in the right direction," says William Gregg of the National Park Service. Still, many would like the bill to have called for an immediate ban on federal insurance to undeveloped barriers instead of the October 1983 date. Some observers have predicted "an Oklahoma land-rush" of barrier development in the two years it will take before the legislation becomes effective.

Other proponents cite the bill's limited reach -- it only affects undeveloped barriers. All islands currently developed will remain open to further building.

Nevertheless, most observers see the bill as a means of slowing development detrimental not only to the barrier properties, but also potentially dangerous for the residents themselves. Unstable sands, limited access, and vulnerability to fierce weather are cited as the msot obvious obstacles of developed barriers.

"In the past 10 to 20 years, we've experienced massive development along the coast and have yet to experience severe weather," says Gary Clayton, an ecologist with the Massachusetts Coastal Zone Management. In addition, sea levels are generally considered to be on the rise. "We're setting ourselves up for a potentially disastrous situation," he adds.

Estimates vary as to the acreage that will be immediately affected in 1983. But one-third of the barrier beach front, or approximately 600 miles, is currently considered "undeveloped." A US Interior Department task force is being formed to redefine and redesignate the undeveloped barriers.

In the short run, the lack of federal flood insurance after October 1983 is expected to thwart new building on the undeveloped barriers -- mortgages are nearly impossible to obtain without such insurance.

But in the long run, observers say the outlook depends on the general housing market. In many instances, the home-owners building on barrier islands are affluent and are constructing second homes, often with full cash payments.

Should the beach-front properties continue to be such an enticement, barrier island development is likely to continue even without federal assistance.

Some states are pushing ahead with their own legislation to restrict barrier island development. With 200 to 300 barrier beaches of its own, Massachusetts enacted legislation last August to cut off all state funding for building or improvements to any barrier beach -- developed or not.

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