Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

The Coastal Barrier Resources System

Probably the least generally known of the various conservation systems established by Congress is the John H. Chaffee Coastal Barrier Resources System (CBRS). You’ve more likely heard of Chaffee, a U.S. senator from and governor of Rhode Island, who was the senatorial father of the CBRS. He also was secretary of the Navy and a United States Marine. He was my kind of Republican.

The Coastal Barrier Resources Act of 1982 (CBRA) was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan, not known for being a flaming conservationist. Reagan may not have loved nature as much as he hated government bailouts—especially repeated government bailouts—but in the case of undeveloped areas along our coasts, the conservation of both nature and the federal treasury aligned. CBRA abets the conservation of undeveloped coastal barriers by restricting federal expenditures that encourage development, such as flood insurance.

 If not for the development, this area would today likely be part of the Costal Barriers Resources System. Building the dwellings on posts may prevent serious damage during minor flood events, but not so much in direct hits of hurricanes. Credit: U.S. Geological Survey

 If not for the development, this area would today likely be part of the Costal Barriers Resources System. Building the dwellings on posts may prevent serious damage during minor flood events, but not so much in direct hits of hurricanes. Credit: U.S. Geological Survey

CBRA defines an “undeveloped coastal barrier” as

(A) a depositional geologic feature (such as a bay barrier, tombolo, barrier spit, or barrier island) that—

(i) is subject to wave, tidal, and wind energies, and

(ii) protects landward aquatic habitats from direct wave attack; and

(B) all associated aquatic habitats, including the adjacent wetlands, marshes, estuaries, inlets, and nearshore waters; but only if such feature and associated habitats contain few manmade structures and these structures, and man’s activities on such feature and within such habitats, do not significantly impede geomorphic and ecological processes.

When I was growing up in Oregon, an ocean to me was a thing of cold and gray water with large and powerful waves that crashed against a rocky shore. If those waves did crash on a beach, it was a direct hit on the beach and said beach was generally more stable than not. The adjacent ocean was deep as the adjacent land was steep. Where wave hit the shore was a narrow band.

Not so on America’s East Coast, Gulf Coast, and Great Lakes. The continental shelf and shore in many places are relatively flat, so the waves, in my view, are normally rather wimpy. However, when the wind is up, as in a hurricane, and the tide is really up, the ocean can come crashing ashore and do damage to any landward cultural feature in its way.

Coastal Barrier Resources System units in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Coastal Barrier Resources System units in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

As people—aided and abetted by government and banks—built in those lovely low-lying areas, the occasional, but inevitable, hurricane would come through and cause massive property damage. If enough people and property are harmed at one time by one event, it’s declared a disaster and Uncle Sugar comes running in with grants and loans to rebuild in time for the next inevitable hurricane, when the cycle begins anew.

Chaffee’s great idea to break the cycle of repeated bailouts for the repeated disasters—and to conserve some important nature as well—was to have the federal government identify undeveloped coastal areas and tell the landowners, bankers, and local governments up front that while they were free to build in these naturally hazardous areas, the federal government wouldn’t spend any money helping people rebuild their ill-placed houses or helping any local governments rebuild their ill-placed roads, water systems, sewer systems, or power companies their ill-placed power lines.

Pink areas are units of the coastal Barriers Resources System. The green areas are as well, but are "otherwise protected areas." The map is centered on Hilton Head, South Carolina. Savannah is at lower left. Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Pink areas are units of the coastal Barriers Resources System. The green areas are as well, but are "otherwise protected areas." The map is centered on Hilton Head, South Carolina. Savannah is at lower left. Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Bankers know that at least one major hurricane is likely to occur during a thirty-year mortgage, so mortgages dried up.

When people have to bear the cost of their own dumb decisions, people make fewer dumb decisions. Economists refer to the situation where one person takes more risks because someone else bears the cost of those risks as moral hazard, but in the case of coastal barriers, it could be called supply-side ecology. There is no government regulation of ownership of coastal barrier units—just a notice from the government that Uncle Sugar is no longer going to encourage moral hazard in undeveloped coastal barriers by providing financial assistance to rebuild.

In 2017, the CBRS consists of 862 total units, which include not only the traditional CBRS units of undeveloped private lands but also “otherwise protected areas” such as wildlife refuges and parks and such. A total of 3.1 million acres along nearly 2,672 shore miles stand ready to naturally absorb the fury of hurricanes and floods—and also serve as natural areas for this and future generations. CBRS units are found along the Atlantic coast and the Great Lakes in twenty-two states, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The keeper of the official maps is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The gatekeeper of the wampum is the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Alas, due to the lack of regular hurricanes and a generally different geology, no units of the CBRS are found in the five U.S. states bordering or in the Pacific Ocean (or any other U.S. possessions). Along the West Coast, people, local governments, and infrastructure are more threatened by subduction-zone earthquakes and subsequent tsunamis than by hurricanes. Nonetheless, the concept, principle, and wisdom of CBRS units could be applied along the Pacific Ocean as well.