Overview of Coastal Habitat Protection and Restoration in the United States

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Coastal habitat protection and restoration in the United States has developed incrementally in response to the concerns of various interest groups and shifts in government priorities. A series of articles have been produced for the European Union’s Coastal Wiki to highlight the key legislation, programs and approaches that together constitute the US response to the need to protect and restore coastal habitats. Case studies were selected to provide greater depth on how these programs operate at state and regional scales. These articles represent a fraction of the larger framework of government programs related to the governance of coasts. There are numerous housing, taxation and agricultural laws and policies that are part of the mosaic that determines how coastal planning and decision making unfolds in the U.S .


Understanding the Political Context

  • Issue of State's Rights
  • Individual Property Rights
  • Reliance on incentives from federal programs
  • Emphasis on Stakeholder Participation
  • Learning-based management through the re-authorization process

Birth of Modern US Coastal Management

  • Stratton Commission
  • Coastal Governance Framework Established
  • Protected Areas Programs
  • Coordination between Programs
  • Linking Science to Management

Future of Coastal Management: US Commission on Ocean Policy

Understanding the Political Context

There are several political, cultural and governance traditions in the United States that influence the policies, principles and strategies that shape coastal habitat protection and restoration. Some have their roots in the founding of the country and others are the product of the environmental and social justice movements of the 1960s and ‘70s.

State's Rights

As a federation of states, much policymaking, planning and decision-making is the prerogative of each state. Federal law is reserved for issues considered to be in the national interest - such as defense and interstate commerce. But other issues and resources in which there is a national interest must be approached in a manner that respects the powers and responsibilities that reside with the states. At the state level the chief executive officer is the Governor and lawmaking is the responsibility of state legislatures. State and local governments raise taxes, provide for police and schools, build roads and bridges, underwrite and support water supply and wastewater treatment facilities that all have major impacts on coastal qualities and the intensity and distribution of suburban and urban development. States vary in how much authority for land use planning is delegated to local governments or larger regional bodies called counties. Where they exist, zoning laws determine the density and types of development permitted in a specific locale and set construction standards. Tidal waters are under state jurisdiction out three miles from the coast. The differences in state and local authorities and traditions of governance influence the design of frameworks for coastal planning and management.

Property Rights

Much of the US Constitution is concerned with the individual rights of citizens, particularly their property rights. The Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution states “. . . nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation."(1) The “taking issue” has been a priority concern, and a major limitation, on the actions that can be taken by government to regulate coastal development and protect habitats. A general principle is that government can constrain the uses made of a coastal property but cannot prevent its development unless compensation at full market value is paid. In many states the municipal zoning maps that determine what densities and types of development are permitted were adopted long before environmental issues were a concern. Shorefront property is especially valuable and was often zoned for dense development. In these situations the limitations on development that can be required by coastal management agencies to provide for construction setbacks, public access and onsite water treatment are severely limited. Federal courts arbitrate when conflicts over individual rights cannot be satisfactorily resolved at the state level. A recent example is Palazzolla vs. Rhode Island in which state regulations to protect wetlands prohibited development of property located within a wetland. In this case the Supreme Court found an over-riding public interest in the state regulations, but in many other cases the outcome has been different. Coastal management policies and regulations are very careful to not invoke the Takings Clause in fear of incurring major costs and lengthy legal battles.

A Reliance on Incentives

The limitations on federal authority over states have led the federal government to rely upon a combination of incentives and dis-incentives to encourage cooperation between the federal government and counterpart agencies and programs at the state level. The provision of state funds for both the planning of state coastal zone management programs and then sustained grants for the implementation of programs that meet federal standards is but one example. In the case of the federal coastal zone management program, the additional incentive that federal actions would be consistent with a state’s CZM policies and procedures has been in some cases a major additional reason for states to join this federal program and comply with its policies.

An Emphasis on Stakeholder Participation

The country has a strong foundation of citizen participation in government. This grew stronger in the 1960’s and 70’s during the environmental and social justice movements. Federal procedures, and in many cases state legislation, call for ample opportunity for public review and comment on proposed governmental policies, plans and actions. Pending coastal development or conservation decisions must be made known and the record of the decision making process is typically available for public review. The identification of stakeholders and the solicitation of their views can be a lengthy, at times cumbersome process, but it is an essential feature of coastal governance in the U.S. When it works well the result is a high level of voluntary compliance with the procedures and programs that result.

Adaptive Management

Many federal programs are enacted for a specified time period and must be re-authorized if they are to continue. The re-authorization process triggers reviews of performance, the identification of lessons learned and often prompts significant amends to the legislation and the manner in which it is implemented. The federal programs concerned with coastal management and with the protection and restoration of habitats proceed through this re-authorization process and have benefited from this expression of adaptive management.