Congress Is One Step Closer to Expanding a System That Keeps Shorelines Pristine

The Coastal Resources Barrier Act protects 3.5 million acres of bird habitat and saves taxpayers billions—but it uses decades-old, hand-drawn maps.

Update December 20, 2018: The U.S. Senate passed H.R. 5787, otherwise known as the Strengthening Coastal Communities Act of 2018, by unanimous vote last night. The new 17,000 acres will be rolled into the reserve system in the first half of 2019.

A bill to protect thousands of acres of Atlantic coastline from development sailed through the House of Representatives on a 375-1 vote last week. The Senate is likely to pass it as well, though it’s unclear if that will happen before the end of the year.

H.R. 5787 was introduced by Representative Neal Dunn (R-FL) back in May and cosponsored by Representatives Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-DE), Thomas Rooney (R-FL), and Brian Mast (R-FL). Using digitally created maps, updated for the first time in decades, it adds 17,000 new acres of shore and near-shore waters in Delaware, Florida, and North and South Carolina to the Coastal Barrier Resources System, which already covers 3.5 million acres of land. The protected lands, as a whole, benefit taxpayers, wildlife, and waterfront communities.

Enacted in 1982, the Coastal Barrier Resources Act (CBRA) authorized the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to map undeveloped areas along the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, and Great Lakes. After Congress reviewed and accepted the identified tracts, they became off-limits to federal programs that offer funds to underwrite development projects that would degrade or destroy habitat.

Removing these incentives, which lower developers’ costs to build and blunt weather-related damages, has helped preserve wildlife and buffer people against climate change-driven storms and sea-level rise, says Karen Hyun, Audubon's vice president of coastal conservation. In the process, she adds, the law has saved taxpayers billions of dollars.

The act was last reauthorized in 2006. At the time, Congress asked the USFWS to use modern geographic data to digitize the original hand-drawn maps. The additional acres that the House greenlit on Friday are the first agency recommendations from that process. 

Overall, the CBRA has earned a gamut of supporters in and outside of the environmental sphere who agree with the law’s free-market approach to conservation. Several Audubon chapters and offices, the National Audubon Society, the National Wildlife Federation, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, and others joined the Reinsurance Association of America to sign a recent letter to House leaders urging passage of the bill.

“Conservatives love to hear if you have ideas to spend less,” says R.J. Lehman, the director of finance, insurance, and trade policy for R Street, a libertarian-leaning think tank that also signed the letter. “If you’re doing so in a way that reduces areas in which the federal government is actively encouraging environmental harm, that’s a good place to find common ground.”

In a 2007 report to Congress on the CBRA's impacts, the Government Accountability Office found that about 84 percent of the areas covered by the law had remained undeveloped and 13 percent were minimally developed. Just 3 percent of the remaining acres had seen “significant development” of 100 or more structures per unit of land.

As a result, taxpayers have saved more than $1.3 billion that would have otherwise been spent on buildings, roads, and other infrastructure on sensitive and flood-prone lands, according to a study commissioned by the USFWS in 2002. And that’s not even including money scrimped from indirect financial incentives like loan guarantees, Hyun says.

On the downside, the General Accountability Office found that despite the law, several federal agencies have put at least $21 million in flood insurance, loan guarantees, and other financial assistance toward development of coastal lands covered by the CBRA, in part due to outdated maps. Meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers and various state departments have issued hundreds of permits for pier construction, wastewater discharge, offshore disposal of dredged materials, and more in priority areas.

These activities degrade habitat that’s uniquely suited to sustain both breeding and migratory shorebirds like American Oystercatchers and Piping Plovers, says Bill Stewart, former director of conservation for the American Birding Association and owner of Red Knot Outfitters. He points to his local marine ecosystem, parts of which are included in the amendment, as an example. “Along Delaware Bay is a fine mix of sand and small pebbles that allow horseshoe crabs to come up and lay their eggs,” he says. “Each tide washes some of those eggs out so the birds can feed on them.”

Just like people, birds need resource-rich sites they can return to year after year to thrive, Stewart explains. “If you go away for two weeks and come back and your house has been turned into a parking lot, you can’t exist.”

Keeping the CBRA updated and enforced is crucial because many shorebird species are in sharp decline, with hunting, habitat loss, and climate change affecting them at every stage of their annual migrations. Indeed, the USFWS reports that shorebird populations have plummeted by roughly 50 percent between 1974 and 2014.

“When you introduce human development and human infrastructure into an area, you’re going to affect all species. They don’t get to recover,” Stewart says.

Rising sea levels and stronger, more destructive storms add to the pressures on shorebirds. “This kind of coastal habitat is shrinking because of development on one side, climate change on the other,” Hyun says. “It’s getting smaller and smaller, with less places for birds to stop over for food or raise a chick.” A more robust CBRA can work to prevent that, she adds.

Now the question is whether the Senate will cram in a vote and get the bill on President Trump’s desk before December 14, when the current legislative session ends. To help make that happen, Stewart and Hyun suggest bird lovers contact their senators to urge them to support the update. “[Congress] authorized these maps to be modernized,” Hyun says. “All it requires is for Congress to finish the work.” 


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