Plentiful access to the beach. Wide sandy beaches free of seawalls. Livable coastal communities. Ocean views. These are elements of the coastal zone that we have come to expect, appreciate, and fight for through local activism in Surfrider chapters across the nation. Because the coastal zone contains some of the most desirable real estate, important natural resources, and the most treasured public spaces—the beach—there is a natural and intense tension between development and preservation. This is clearly demonstrated by the growing concentration of people living on the coast. Coastal counties have the fastest growing populations in the nation and population densities in these counties are already five times the national average. By the year 2025, nearly 75% of Americans are expected to live in coastal counties. These demographic trends create an intense demand for growth and development and put tremendous pressure on our coastal communities, beaches, waves and water quality. Don Hinrichsen, a United Nations consultant, puts it in more extreme terms: "Humankind is in the process of annihilating coastal and ocean ecosystems. At the root of the problem are burgeoning human numbers and their ever-growing needs. Recent studies have shown that the overwhelming bulk of humanity is concentrated along or near coasts on just 10% of the earth's surface." In other words, we are loving the coast to death.
These pressures along the coast were recognized during the active era of environmental awareness in the late 1960s and were expressed clearly by the federal Stratton Commission's 1969 report, Our Nation and the Sea. This report was instrumental in focusing the attention of the public, politicians and scientists toward the importance of coastal regions and the lack of effective management. It is interesting to note that a similar process is going on today through the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, which issued an equivalently important report in 2004. The public desire for effective coastal protection was galvanized by the dramatic Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969, when national television told the horrific story of the ecological consequences of mistreatment of the coasts and oceans.
Even U.S. President Richard Nixon weighed in:
"It is sad that it was necessary that Santa Barbara should be the example that had to bring it to the attention of the American people. What is involved is the use of our resources of the sea and of the land in a more effective way and with more concern for preserving the beauty and the natural resources that are so important to any kind of society that we want for the future. The Santa Barbara incident has frankly touched the conscience of the American people."
As a result, in 1972 the Coastal Zone Management Act was passed, providing incentives for states and local governments
...to encourage and assist the states to exercise effectively their responsibilities in the coastal zone through the development and implementation of the land and water resources of the coastal zone, giving full consideration to ecological, cultural, historic, and esthetic values as well and the needs for compatible economic development programs...(16 USC 1452(2))
The Coastal Zone Management Act set the stage for comprehensive planning and protection of natural resources in the coastal zone through the establishment of coastal protection laws and state coastal zone management programs, such as the California Coastal Commission and North Carolina's Division of Coastal Management. In turn, this provided guidance and financial assistance for local communities to develop local coastal plans designed to provide beach access, protect coastal wetlands, address impacts of coastal growth, and reduce coastal hazards that result from erosion.
These laws, state programs and local plans are important tools for Surfrider activists in their quest to protect our oceans, waves and beaches. Whether it's fighting for access in Florida or trying to stop seawalls in Solana Beach, California, coastal zone management regulations that trickle down from the Coastal Zone Management Act are key to maintaining a healthy coast.
Unfortunately, these coastal zone management programs often lack the necessary resources to adequately defend the coastal zone from the immense development pressures that are increasing every day.
As discussed in Surfrider Foundation's State of the Beach report, in many cases we are failing to even track the cumulative impacts and slow degradation of our coastal zone.
For these reasons it is important for Surfrider Foundation activists to support coastal zone management programs and strong coastal regulations to ensure a balance between coastal development and preservation. All too often this balance tips toward the side with more financial resources, placing the beauty and health of the coast at risk.
The Coastal Zone Management Act is an evolving law that requires continual reauthorization and support by coastal advocates to ensure that this keystone coastal zone management law remains an effective sentinel of the coastal zone.
Note: This is a slightly edited version of an article that originally appeared in the June 2003 edition of Surfrider Foundation's publication Making Waves.
NOAA has set up a Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972 website that accomplishments of the CZMA and lists upcoming coastal events.
Also see the fact sheet Coastal Zone Management Program (CZMA)—FY 2012 from the Coastal States Organization.