Let's cut to the chase. The New York Times has called it "the most important environmental law that no one's ever heard of."
The 1982 law-- the Coastal Barrier Resources Act-- was engineered to protect relatively undeveloped coastal barriers along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts as part of the Coastal Barrier Resources System and made these areas ineligible for most new federal subsidies and financial assistance.
Two Republicans, Representative Thomas Evans Jr. of Delaware and Rhode Island's Senator John Chafee co-authored the legislation. When the bills were introduced, almost no one gave them a chance of being passed. They were opposed by the National Association of Homebuilders, the National Board of Realtors, big oil companies and many other high profile wealthy lobbying groups. Evans and Chafee built their own coalition that included environmentalists, hunters, fishermen, deficit hawks, firefighters, police officers, and the American Red Cross. In Congress Evans and Chafee cobbled together liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans to vote for the measure that President Ronald Reagan signed into law on October 18, 1982.
At the signing ceremony President Reagan reflected: "the law is a triumph for natural resource conservation and federal fiscal responsibility."
Evans called it simple common sense. Take away the subsidies. By barring the outlay of federal subsidies, including flood insurance and infrastructure funding for such development and letting the market work, the law preserves coastal habitat, keeps people out of harm's way and reduces wasteful spending. The land was placed in the Coastal Barrier Resource System, designated on maps held by the Department of the Interior. The protected lands include national and state parks and lands owned by conservation groups such as the Nature Conservancy.
"We said to developers, if you want to build on these fragile storm prone barriers, do it on your own nickel and not the American taxpayer," says an animated Evans.
"The barrier lands are the first line of defense against the full force of hurricanes and other powerful storms. These lands also provide natural habitats for numerous species of birds and other wildlife. The barriers and the wetlands are spawning grounds and habitat areas for all kinds of fish, shellfish and wildlife. We would not have commercial fishing, sport fishing, oystering and clamming without them. Their destruction would have a severely negative impact on the economics of coastal states but also to a lesser degree on many other areas of our country."
The Coastal Barrier Resources system includes 585 units, which comprise nearly 1.3 million acres of land and associated aquatic habitat. In addition there are also 272 "otherwise protected areas," a category of coastal barriers already held for conservation purposes that include an additional 1.9 million acres of land and associated aquatic habitat.
Evans says the Coastal Barrier Resources Act is more timely and valuable today than it was more than three decades ago. To that end he has spearheaded the production of "Battle for the Barriers: Nature Always Wins." The powerful documentary film explores the fight to save the barrier lands that protect our shoreline. It looks at how sea level rise and more frequent super-storms have spurred strategies and projects across eastern coastal states to protect people, wildlife and property.
The film was produced by Teleductions, a Wilmington, Del. film company, with assistance from the Florida Wildlife Federation and other entities. Evans is interviewed in portions of the documentary "Battle for the Barriers" which was featured at the Ft. Lauderdale Film Festival in November and is headed to Austin in early 2016.
Geologists define barrier islands as long, narrow bodies of sand, running parallel to the shoreline, separated from one another by inlets and from the mainland by marshland, a shallow sound, bay or lagoon. The word barrier identifies them as buffers, protecting the mainland from storm and surf.
Drifting on the whims of sea and sand, barrier islands by the hundreds rim the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. A bit over two percent of the world’s coastlines are framed by barrier island chains. The longest stretch wraps around 2,000 miles along the coasts of the U. S. in an irregular chain from New York to Texas.
It is thought that barrier islands were formed about 18,000 years ago when the Ice Age ended. As glaciers melted and receded, sea levels began to rise, and flooded the areas behind the beach ridges. The rising waters carried sediments from those beach ridges and deposited them along shallow areas just off the new coastlines. Sculpted by wind and waves, barrier islands when left in their natural state tend to lengthen with prevailing currents and migrate toward land. Human development may impede this migration but can never bring it to a halt.
In that New York Times article, environmental reporter Justin Gillis points out that we are in an era once again when our shorelines are at risk and the nation's coffers are strained. Front and center is the catastrophic damage of Super Storm Sandy in 2012 ($75 billion in damages) and Hurricane Katrina ($80 billion in damages) seven years earlier due in large part to the destruction of so many wetlands in the New Orleans area.
Gillis writes that sea level rise is on the march, saying that it rose about eight inches over the past century requiring billions of dollars to fight erosion. As temperatures climb so too will sea levels. One reason is that when water heats up, it expands. The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers projects sea levels could rise by as much as five feet by the end of the century, while the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration predicts up to six and a half feet. Climate scientists note that the flooding that happened during September 2015's super blood moon could be a precursor.
Evans points out that policies at the state and federal levels work against the barrier lands protection.
"Incredibly, our federal government is encouraging high-risk coast development by, among other things, subsidizing storm damage insurance," he says.
At age 84, Evans continues the fight, speaking and writing about protection of barriers and the environment. He says developers and their lobbies are constantly chipping away at protected coastal areas to release lands now sheltered by the Coastal Barrier Resources Act for new development, qualifying for Federal Flood insurance.
"Battle for the Barriers" is his latest weapon. Examining the urgency to protect our barrier islands, dunes, wetlands and beaches as sea level rises, the film drives home the threat to fragile ecosystems that are imperiled by the construction and re-construction in these coastal environments. (You can see a clip of the film at its website: www.battleforthebarriers.com)
"This is high drama, set against a backdrop of sea level rise and increasingly powerful storm events," Evans says. "It is a story that needs to be told because once these natural lands are developed, they're gone--until that is a Super Storm washes away the risky infrastructure and 'we the people' get to subsidize the loss. 'Battle for the Barriers' looks at the islands, dunes and wetlands that buffer our shores and offers adaptive solutions that are currently being implemented, as well as the strategies and projects in coastal states along the east coast now underway to strengthen and protect these valuable natural barriers."