A net 135,705 acres and 37 units across four Northeast states would be added to the John H. Chafee Coastal Barrier Resources System, under a proposed remapping put forward by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The plan, published in the March 12 edition of the Federal Register, marks good news for fans of a free-market approach to conservation. Signed by President Ronald Reagan in October 1982, the Coastal Barrier Resources Act sets aside 1.3 million acres of protected wetlands, coastal barrier islands and aquatic habitat as, effectively, a “federal subsidy-free” zone. Units within the system, which also includes an additional 1.8 million acres of state and federal parkland designated as “otherwise protected areas,” do not have access to federal funding for roads and other infrastructure, cannot participate in the National Flood Insurance Program and are ineligible for federal disaster relief under the Stafford Act.

In essence, the bargain struck by the CBRA is this: land owners are free to develop in whatever ways they deem appropriate, including within the protected coastal system. They just aren’t entitled to a single dime of taxpayer money to do it. We long have felt this paradigm strikes the right balance between respecting private property and avoiding spending that serves to encourage bad behavior. The CBRA can and has been used as a model for other market-based approaches to the environment, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Compliance program to the Florida Legislature’s 2014 decision (based on an R Street proposal) to bar new development seaward of the Coastal Construction Control Line from getting subsidized insurance from the state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp.

The system’s benefits were on full view during the 2017 hurricane season. While Hurricane Harvey is estimated to have caused as much as $125 billion in damage, including massive flooding in and around Houston, the destruction would have been far worse were it not for where the Category 4 storm made landfall – at San José Island, an uninhabited barrier island that is entirely within the CBRS. Much of the coastal regions of surrounding Aransas County likewise fall within CBRS units, and are thus largely free of development.

The new updates stem from FWS’ Hurricane Sandy Remapping Project and cover changes to 112 existing units and 36 proposed units in Delaware, Massachusetts and New Jersey, as well as proposing for the first time a CBRS unit in New Hampshire. (Updates to CBRS maps covering Connecticut, Maryland, New York, Rhode Island and Virginia will be subject to public comment later this year.) The FWS plan calls for expanding the system’s acreage footprint in both protected land and aquatic habitat in each of the first four states:

cbrs table

FWS is required by law to review its maps at least once every five years to account for natural changes in the landscape. Additions to the system can be made where the area is reasonably considered a coastal barrier feature or related to a coastal barrier ecosystem, and where its inclusion would be related to the CBRA’s purpose of minimizing federal spending and protecting wildlife and natural resources. FWS can remove areas from the system where it identifies technical mapping errors.

The program also was directed by Congress in 2006 to undertake a pilot digitization project, which it completed in 2016. The original paper maps for Delaware and Massachusetts previously were converted to digital maps in 2013, while New Jersey’s was converted in 2015. This most recent update to the Massachusetts map also includes modifications that account for natural changes, voluntary additions and additions of excess federal property that weren’t included during the digitization process. Since the proposed New Hampshire unit is new, there was no paper map to digitize.

These updates all will ultimately have to be approved by Congress, and that can be a fraught process. Developers, who don’t tend to like being cut off from the spigot of taxpayer subsidies, inevitably argue for scaling back the existing system as much as possible. That’s why it’s crucial that a left-right alliance of environmentalists and taxpayer advocates stand up to defend the CBRS and to expand the model to new areas, such as those that face wildfire risk. Not only is this a conservation program that has proven to work, but it remains one of Ronald Reagan’s enduring legacies.


Map image from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service