Fiscal stewardship and environmental stewardship are two sides of the same coin. Both are needed to ensure that we do not pass unfair burdens onto future generations. Accordingly, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that good stewardship of our natural resources also can result in better fiscal health and significant savings for taxpayers.
Thirty years ago, on October 18, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Coastal Barrier Resources Act, which prohibited federal financial assistance for building on about 700 miles of undeveloped barrier islands on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
The law passed by wide margins, as Republicans and Democrats joined forces to pass legislation reflecting shared values of sensible stewardship and responsible fiscal management.
The legislation stopped what Reagan noted was a “subsidy spiral:” high costs of initial construction, which during Reagan’s time totaled about $25,000 per acre, and recurring costs of replacing buildings, roads, bridges, and utility lines damaged by the inevitable next hurricane. A 2002 Interior Department study estimated $1.3 billion in cumulative taxpayer savings by 2010.
The law does not bar development, but discourages it by requiring developers and other non-federal parties to pay all costs of building in such risky places.
Coastal barrier islands provide valuable services. They shield the mainland from the full force of hurricane winds and storm surges. Barrier islands protect habitat-rich mainland marshes and estuaries, and create inlets that offer good habitat for productive fisheries and migratory birds.
Undeveloped barrier islands are part of the John H. Chafee Coastal Barrier Resources System, named after the Republican senator from Rhode Island and renowned conservationist who sponsored the legislation and was instrumental in getting it enacted into law.
As Reagan noted in signing the legislation, the Coastal Barrier Resources Act earned widespread support, including the American Red Cross, taxpayer advocates, conservation groups, and coastal states. Members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, worked together to pass an imaginative bill that, as Reagan wrote, “solves real problems in the stewardship of our natural resources.”