The Biden Administration recently delivered an important victory for the environment and the federal taxpayer, by reinstating the full protections of Coastal Barrier Resources Act. In a legal memorandum the Department of the Interior reversed a harmful prior rule that would have allowed the sand on pristine beaches to be plundered at the taxpayer’s expense.

This important decision from the Biden Administration comes in response to a lawsuit filed by the National Audubon Society defending the Coastal Barrier Resources Act (CBRA). CBRA is a little-known but incredibly powerful statute that was signed into law by President Reagan in 1982 and has enjoyed wide bipartisan support since then. It protects one of our nation’s most unique and important natural resources – the longest continuous chain of barrier islands in the world along the Atlantic Coast, as well as coastal areas in the Great Lakes and Gulf of Mexico. It uses an innovative, market-based approach of discouraging development in these storm-prone areas not through bans or mandates, but simply by withdrawing nearly all federal subsidies for development in those areas.

For decades, both Republican and Democratic administrations enforced CBRA’s ban on the use of federal taxpayer funding for activities that would encourage development on these untouched, ever-changing islands. This long-standing policy, however, was abruptly reversed in 2019, when then-Secretary Bernhardt illegally authorized sand mining in CBRA protected areas. Sand mining is a practice where sand is dredged from beaches in one area to replenish sand on private beaches elsewhere. Audubon, with representation by Democracy Forward, filed suit to challenge this illegal rule, and R Street Institute supported this lawsuit by filing an amicus brief. Last week, the case was resolved after the Biden Administration reversed the illegal Trump-era rule.

As we celebrate, policymakers should take stock of this law, because it’s one of the most important tools we have in helping us address mounting impacts from a changing climate. Rising sea levels and more intense and frequent storms are increasing costly and damaging flooding and erosion along our coasts, affecting people, property, and the environment. Coastal storms have caused almost $950 billion in economic losses in the U.S. since 1980, and sea-level rise alone threatens properties nationwide worth more than $1 trillion.

CBRA helps to limit federal subsidies that would promote development in harm’s way, while also protecting the barrier islands and habitats that serve as the first line of defense for coastal communities. Like nature’s speed bumps, these coastal areas slow down the wind and waves that storms bring, protecting mainland communities. Keeping these islands intact is crucial for the sake of the greater good, not just on our coasts but for taxpayers nationwide.

Studies have shown that the CBRA has saved U.S. taxpayers $9.5 billion over a 25-year period and will save $11-109 billion more over the next 50 years in avoided storm damage. Almost 40 years ago, the drafters of CBRA understood the fiscal costs that would be imposed on taxpayers if we continued to develop in highly-dynamic, storm-prone areas, including disaster recovery costs, flood insurance payouts, and endless cycles to replenish sand on beaches that would be continuously eaten away by the winds and the waves.

In addition to their flood resilience benefits, barrier islands and the wetlands, lagoons and mudflats that form in their sheltered waters are critical to the survival of coastal birds and other wildlife. Sea- and shorebirds have seen dramatic declines in their populations in the last 50 years, and they rely on sandy beaches and mudflats to nest, rest, and feed. These productive ecosystems also provide nurseries for economically important fisheries, support the tourism industry, and improve water quality. Audubon’s own research shows that Lea-Hutaff Island in North Carolina provides $12.3 million in storm protection and other environmental benefits annually and will contribute over $278 million in total ecosystem benefits to the region over a 35-year period.

As our nation grapples with mounting impacts from a changing climate, we must consider the important goals of the Coastal Barrier Resources Act: to protect public safety, minimize wasteful spending, and to conserve and protect these unique habitats. CBRA provides one of the most effective tools we have for protecting our precious natural assets, and the communities and wildlife that rely on them.

Image credit: vasilis asvestas

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