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Great Lakes Article:

'Free-market approach' to conservation is up for reauthorization
By Mary M. Shaffrey
Winton-Salem Journal Washington Bureau
Published November 13, 2005

First authorized in 1982, the Coastal Barrier Resources Act was designed to get the federal government out of the business of building or rebuilding in fragile coastal areas.

The act eliminated federal subsidies for flood insurance and infrastructure on undeveloped or sparsely populated barrier islands, and its boundaries now include more than 3 million acres along the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf Coast, Puerto Rico and the Great Lakes, including about 35,000 acres in North Carolina.

Described as a "free-market approach" to natural-resource conservation, it set out three main goals: saving human lives by discouraging development in areas prone to hurricanes or flooding; protecting natural resources; and saving money.

It didn't tell people how they could develop their land - it simply said that the federal government wouldn't bail them out if their homes or businesses were lost to flooding and had not been insured under the federal flood-insurance program before Oct. 1, 1983.

By many accounts, the act is working. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that its provisions will have saved $1.2 billion by 2010, and said that the policy has curbed development in many places mapped into its boundaries.

Even so, the pace of coastal development has continued to accelerate. A recent federal report said that over the last 30 years more than 37 million people and 19 million homes have been added to coastal areas.

As Congress begins considering reauthorization of the Coastal Barrier Resources Act, this year's devastating hurricane season has raised interest in a usually bureaucratic process.

"CBRA reauthorization isn't going to change the way (the law) is managed. Any pieces of land in the Outer Banks that would be affected are already covered. This (reauthorization) is not going to change that," said Rob Young, an associate professor of geology at Western Carolina University.

Under the current act, Congress may allocate up to $2 million a year to administer the program - maintaining and updating the official maps, making recommendations to Congress about areas that could be included or excluded from the program, and deciding whether a private property is inside the boundary.

Young and others think that the reauthorization is a good time to push to extend the boundaries of the coastal-barrier protection act and include limits on disaster aid to developed areas.

During a congressional hearing last week on the reauthorization, Young recommended the establishment of a Shore Retreat Advisory Commission. It would identify shorelines to be excluded from receiving federal aid for development and be patterned after the Base Realignment and Closing Commission, which made recommendations earlier this year about which military bases should be closed or consolidated. The federal government, he said, could help communities build farther away from the shore rather than funnel money into areas likely to be damaged by hurricanes. The burden of rebuilding after storms could be left to local governments, he said.

In his testimony before the House Subcommittee on Fisheries and Oceans, Andrew Coburn underscored Young's point.

"The nation needs to come to its collective sense about the future of development along our beaches and seriously consider retreating from eroding shorelines," said Coburn, the associate director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Duke University.

Steve Ellis, a vice president of the group Taxpayers for Common Sense Action, told the committee that a visit to Dauphin Island, Ala., in 1999 -- six months after Hurricane Georges battered the region - showed him that the coastal-barrier protection program had worked, at least in part.

"The western half of the island, which was particularly vulnerable, had remained undeveloped ... but right outside the CBRA boundary, on land virtually indistinguishable from the CBRA unit, reconstruction of damaged vacation homes was well under way," Ellis said.

The Mobile (Ala.) Register reported last week that 500 homes on Dauphin Island have been destroyed as a result of hurricanes since 1979. It also said that the huge number of claims along the Gulf Coast from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita would likely force the federal government to spend billions of dollars bailing out the national flood-insurance program and result in changes to how it works.

FEMA, which administers the flood-insurance program, gets about $2 billion a year in insurance premiums from the 4.6 million homeowners enrolled in it.

Claims from Katrina and Rita alone could total more than $22 billion - 11 times what the program collected in premiums last year, according to a congressional report.

"Add Katrina and Rita to the battering that Florida has absorbed in the last two years, and we have a sobering glimpse into the future of U.S. shorelines during a period of enhanced storm activity," Young said.

Mary M. Shaffrey can be reached in Washington at (202) 662-7672 or at

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