Few today remember President Ronald Reagan as an environmentalist, and with justifiable reason. Though as governor of California Reagan signed the California Environmental Quality Act and opposed destructive dam and highway projects, the record of his presidential administration on issues such as fossil-fuel leasing, pollution standards, and Superfund is decidedly more mixed.
But Reagan did leave us with one crucial environmental program that continues to serve as an ideal model for a conservative, market-oriented approach to conservation. The Coastal Barrier Resources Act, which he signed in 1982, designates a 3.5-million-acre zone of environmentally sensitive beaches, wetlands, barrier islands, and estuaries along the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Great Lakes as completely off-limits to federal subsidies for development.
Notably, the CBRA does not actually prohibit development within the zone — formally, the John H. Chafee Coastal Barrier Resources System, or CBRS. But the Department of Transportation may not build any roads within the zone, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development may not finance any mortgage loans. Should a hurricane blow through development in the CBRS, the Federal Emergency Management Agency cannot provide disaster assistance and, indeed, the structures would be barred from coverage by the National Flood Insurance Program. Because developers would have to foot the bill for such things themselves, they mostly do not build in the first place. Today, more than 80% of CBRS units remain undeveloped.
That’s good news for critical bird and fish habitats. It’s also good news for taxpayers. According to a recent paper in the Journal of Coastal Research, the CBRS was responsible for $9.5 billion of avoided federal expenditures between 1989 and 2013. The researchers also project it will save taxpayers as much as $108 billion over the next 50 years.
For another example of how conservation can save taxpayer money, look no further than 2017 landfall of Hurricane Harvey. Two years later, Congress continues to appropriate billions of disaster relief toward recovery from Harvey, which also spawned nearly $9 billion in claims to the insolvent NFIP. But while most remember the destruction in and around the City of Houston, Harvey actually made landfall 200 miles away over the uninhabited San José Island. Like much of surrounding coastal Aransas County, the island is within the CBRS. The area therefore never saw the kinds of development one might expect for beachfront property on the Gulf of Mexico. There is no need to rebuild, because the area was not built in the first place.
That combination of environmental protection and taxpayer savings is probably why the program continues to enjoy bipartisan support. Last December, President Trump signed the Strengthening Coastal Communities Act of 2018, updating the CBRS maps to add more than 2,000 otherwise developable acres to the system. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers the program, is also conducting an even larger remapping project across 10 Atlantic Coast states that would add nearly 300,000 acres to the program.
While support for the program is bipartisan, so, too, are periodic attempts to chip away at its fabric. Most recently, Reps. Jeff Van Drew, D-N.J., and Garret Graves, R-La., offered an amendment to the Department of Interior appropriations bill that would have the effect of allowing federal funds, such as Army Corps of Engineers projects and FEMA public assistance grants, to be spent on mining sand within CBRS units to be used to re-nourish beaches outside the CBRS.
Every year, tens of millions of federal dollars are spent dumping truckloads of sand onto eroding beaches, which inevitably need to be replenished again and again. The process disrupts habitats and reproductive cycles, pollutes offshore water, smothers species like mole crabs, and kills marine life scooped up from the ocean floor — all this to benefit what are often disproportionately wealthy communities.
The Van Drew-Graves amendment would have the effect of overturning a 1994 opinion from the DOI Solicitor’s Office declaring that any sand mining within CBRS units could only be used to re-nourish other CBRS units. The amendment was, thankfully, pulled from the House floor, but the interests aligned to tap taxpayer dollars in service of environmental degradation are sure to be back. When they return, it will be a great opportunity, in this era of heightened polarization, for fiscal conservatives and environmental advocates to link arms and stand up to defend Ronald Reagan’s legacy.
Image credit: SeagullNady 
- “SeagullNady”: https://www.shutterstock.com/g/nadyzima_zimaveles