Overview of Coastal Habitat Protection and Restoration in the United States

From Coastal Wiki
Jump to: navigation, search

Coastal habitat protection and restoration in the United States has developed incrementally in response to the concerns of various interest groups and shifts in government priorities. A series of articles have been produced for the European Union’s Coastal Wiki to highlight the key legislation, programs and approaches that together constitute the US response to the need to protect and restore coastal habitats. Case studies were selected to provide greater depth on how these programs operate at state and regional scales. These articles represent a fraction of the larger framework of government programs related to the governance of coasts. There are numerous housing, taxation and agricultural laws and policies that are part of the mosaic that determines how coastal planning and decision making unfolds in the U.S .

Understanding the Political Context

There are several political, cultural and governance traditions in the United States that influence the policies, principles and strategies that shape coastal habitat protection and restoration. Some have their roots in the founding of the country and others are the product of the environmental and social justice movements of the 1960s and ‘70s.

Issue of State's Rights

As a federation of states, much policymaking, planning and decision-making is the prerogative of each state. Federal law is reserved for issues considered to be in the national interest - such as defense and interstate commerce. But other issues and resources in which there is a national interest must be approached in a manner that respects the powers and responsibilities that reside with the states. At the state level the chief executive officer is the Governor and lawmaking is the responsibility of state legislatures. State and local governments raise taxes, provide for police and schools, build roads and bridges, underwrite and support water supply and wastewater treatment facilities that all have major impacts on coastal qualities and the intensity and distribution of suburban and urban development. States vary in how much authority for land use planning is delegated to local governments or larger regional bodies called counties. Where they exist, zoning laws determine the density and types of development permitted in a specific locale and set construction standards. Tidal waters are under state jurisdiction out three miles from the coast. The differences in state and local authorities and traditions of governance influence the design of frameworks for coastal planning and management.

Individual Property Rights

Much of the US Constitution is concerned with the individual rights of citizens, particularly their property rights. The Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution states “. . . nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation."[1] The “taking issue” has been a priority concern, and a major limitation, on the actions that can be taken by government to regulate coastal development and protect habitats. A general principle is that government can constrain the uses made of a coastal property but cannot prevent its development unless compensation at full market value is paid. In many states the municipal zoning maps that determine what densities and types of development are permitted were adopted long before environmental issues were a concern. Shorefront property is especially valuable and was often zoned for dense development. In these situations the limitations on development that can be required by coastal management agencies to provide for construction setbacks, public access and onsite water treatment are severely limited. Federal courts arbitrate when conflicts over individual rights cannot be satisfactorily resolved at the state level. A recent example is Palazzolla vs. Rhode Island in which state regulations to protect wetlands prohibited development of property located within a wetland. In this case the Supreme Court found an over-riding public interest in the state regulations, but in many other cases the outcome has been different. Coastal management policies and regulations are very careful to not invoke the Takings Clause in fear of incurring major costs and lengthy legal battles.

Reliance on incentives from federal programs

The limitations on federal authority over states have led the federal government to rely upon a combination of incentives and dis-incentives to encourage cooperation between the federal government and counterpart agencies and programs at the state level. The provision of state funds for both the planning of state coastal zone management programs and then sustained grants for the implementation of programs that meet federal standards is but one example. In the case of the federal coastal zone management program, the additional incentive that federal actions would be consistent with a state’s CZM policies and procedures has been in some cases a major additional reason for states to join this federal program and comply with its policies.

Emphasis on Stakeholder Participation

The country has a strong foundation of citizen participation in government. This grew stronger in the 1960’s and 70’s during the environmental and social justice movements. Federal procedures, and in many cases state legislation, call for ample opportunity for public review and comment on proposed governmental policies, plans and actions. Pending coastal development or conservation decisions must be made known and the record of the decision making process is typically available for public review. The identification of stakeholders and the solicitation of their views can be a lengthy, at times cumbersome process, but it is an essential feature of coastal governance in the U.S. When it works well the result is a high level of voluntary compliance with the procedures and programs that result.

Learning-based management through the re-authorization process

Many federal programs are enacted for a specified time period and must be re-authorized if they are to continue. The re-authorization process triggers reviews of performance, the identification of lessons learned and often prompts significant amends to the legislation and the manner in which it is implemented. The federal programs concerned with coastal management and with the protection and restoration of habitats proceed through this re-authorization process and have benefited from this expression of adaptive management.

Birth of Modern US Coastal Management

Twice in the past four decades the federal government has conducted an across the board assessment of the condition and use of coastal and marine areas and resources and the efficiency and effectiveness of their governance. The first was conducted by the 1969 Stratton Commission and the second in 2004 by the US Commission on Ocean Policy.

The Stratton Commission

This landmark report set forth the arguments and built the political will for a new ocean and coastal governance system. The Commission concluded that local governments were not capable of planning orderly development and resolving the multiple conflicts along coastlines. It called for a new tiered system of governance and called for major investments in science and technology. The Commission’s findings led to the establishment of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration within the Department of Commerce, to a new approach to the management of fisheries, to major investments in the restoration and protection of coastal and marine habitats and to a federal coastal zone management program.

Coastal Governance Framework Established

A flurry of environmental laws was passed in the early 1970’s including the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and the Coastal Zone Management Act. These acts also extended the role and authority of the United States Army Corps of Engineers in permitting wetlands development and sediment management on beaches and in navigable waters .

Protected Areas Programs

There are significant portions of the nation’s coastal resources within federal or state protected areas. They provide varying degrees of protection due to the balance of goals between conservation and development which is predominate in the United States. The primary federal programs that provide protected area status are the National Marine Sanctuaries Program, National Refuge System, National Estuarine Research Reserves System, and the National Park Service. The Coastal Barrier Resources Act is another program of limited authority that prohibits federal funding for vulnerable barrier islands. Each was established with different goals and priorities. Overall, these programs can only protect small representative areas for recreation and conservation. A case study of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary highlights the coordination required between federal and state governments to provide protection to marine habitat and species.

Coordination Among Programs

The federal government has numerous programs and initiatives with overlapping goals and habitat coverage. Coastal America is an example of a partnership between the government and private business. They have focused on removal of old damns to restore fish spawning areas. The Coral Reef Task Force has brought together federal agencies and the states to coordinate funding and action plans. Congress passed the Estuary Restoration Act of 2000 with the goal of restoring one million acres by 2010. The Act required federal agencies to establish a coordinating council to build partnerships, develop a monitoring protocol and a database of restoration work. Restore America’s Estuaries is the non-governmental partnership program that is championing this work.

Linking Science to Management

A hidden strength of the US coastal management framework is the long-term programs to support science that can be applied to management issues. The National Sea Grant Program is a pioneer in the extension field for coastal issues. Established in 1966 by Congress, the Program established state Sea Grant Programs at universities specializing in applying their science to the needs of local industries and communities. The program’s three key elements are science, extension and communication. Another science focused program is the National Estuarine Research Reserves System that again protects coastal habitats with the purpose of conducting applied research and education.

The Future of Coastal Management in the US

In 2004, the US Commission on Ocean Policy released a report that documents the continuing degradation of coastal resources and the fragmentation of responsibility and of programs designed to address coastal and marine issues of national concern. This was the first major national analysis of coastal management since the 1969 Stratton Commission.

The US The Commission’s report finds that by 2001, 23 percent of the nation’s estuarine areas were considered impaired for swimming, fishing, or supporting marine species. Harmful algal blooms appear to be occurring more frequently in coastal waters and non-native species are increasingly invading marine ecosystems. The report concludes that while progress has been made in reducing point sources of pollution, nonpoint source pollution has increased and is the primary cause of nutrient enrichment, hypoxia, harmful algal blooms, toxic contamination, and other problems that plague coastal waters.

The Commission’s assessment of US’s governance system is summarized as follows [2]:

  • Our oceans, coasts, and Great Lakes are in trouble and major changes are urgently needed in the way we manage them.
  • Without question, management of the nation’s coastal zone has made great strides, but further improvements are urgently needed, with an emphasis on ecosystem-based, watershed approaches that consider environmental, economic, and social concerns. The Commission recommends that federal area-based coastal programs be consolidated and federal laws be modified to improve coastal resource protection and sustainable use.
  • Currently the many entities that administer conservation and restoration activities operate largely independently of one another, with no framework for assessing overall benefits in an ecosystem-based context. The multitude of disjointed programs prohibits a comprehensive assessment of the progress of conservation and restoration efforts and makes it difficult to ensure the most effective use of limited resources.
  • Our management approaches have not been updated to reflect the complexity of natural systems, with responsibilities remaining dispersed among a confusing array of agencies at the federal, state, and local levels.
  • One pervasive problem for state and local managers is lack of sufficient, reliable information on which to base decisions.
  • A steady theme heard around the country was the plea for additional federal support, citing decades of underinvestment in the study, exploration, protection, and management of our oceans, coasts, and Great Lakes.
  • Congress should reauthorize and boost support for the Coastal Zone Management Act, strengthening the management capabilities of coastal states and enabling them to incorporate a watershed focus. The Coastal Zone Management Act, Clean Water Act, and other federal laws should be amended to provide financial, technical, and institutional support for watershed initiatives.

The Commission has proposed a National Ocean Council. Linked to the President’s Office, the Council would work to improve communication and coordination at the federal level. The Council would encourage states to establish regional ocean councils to improve cross jurisdictional research, planning and decision making. These regional ocean councils would serve as focal points for discussion, cooperation, and coordination. The Commission has called for all parties to adopt an ecosystem-based management framework.

Internal Links

External Links

Further Reading


  1. Roberts, Thomas. 2002. Taking Sides on Takings Issue. American Bar Association.
  2. US Commission on Ocean Policy Final Report: An Ocean Blueprint for the 21st Century http://www.oceancommission.gov/documents/full_color_rpt/welcome.html

The main authors of this article are Stephen Bloye Olsen and Glenn Ricci
Please note that others may also have edited the contents of this article.

Citation: Stephen Bloye Olsen; Glenn Ricci; (2021): Overview of Coastal Habitat Protection and Restoration in the United States. Available from http://www.coastalwiki.org/wiki/Overview_of_Coastal_Habitat_Protection_and_Restoration_in_the_United_States [accessed on 24-06-2024]