On New Year's Day thousands of americans did not follow the usual regimen of football bowl games, parades, and parties. Instead, they hiked along America's beaches, dunes, estuaries, and marsh lands. With President Carter's endorsement , they were celebrating the first day of the "Year of the coast."
The coming year will be an important one for attempts to balance the protection and development of the country's 88,000-mile coastline. Unless reauthorized by Congress, the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972 will expire. With energy a prime national concern, pressures to build offshore facilities and coastal refineries are particularly great. Meanwhile, millions of Americans with jobs, recreation, and retirement on their minds continue to crowd toward coastal areas. Already 60 percent live there, and the number is expected to increase to 75 percent by 1990.
The coastal protection legislation passed in 1972 sends federal grants to states that develop management plans for their coastal areas. In seven years, however, barely more than half (19) of the 35 states and territories bordering the Atlantic, Pacific, or gulf coasts, or the Great Lakes, have completed federally approved plans.
"We expect to have many of the rest by the end of 1980," says Michael Glazer, newly appointed director of the federal Office of Coastal Zone Management. "But the process has taken much longer than anyone thought it would."
Critics outside the federal government say the law lacks effective inducements or goads to comply. They fault what they see as weak state programs.
"a lot of the weaknesses in the program flow from the structure of the law itself," says attorney Sarah Chasis of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We have found that the state programs in large measure have fallen short of the statutory goals."
In California -- the state with what many observers think are the best protection measures -- coastal regulations are coming under increasing attack from developers and local government officials. During 1977 and 1978, regional coastal commissions in California approved 93 percent of all requested building permits.
Others note that the federal government itself often undertakes programs that can adversely affect coastal areas. The US Army Corps of Engineers recently approved an oil refinery in Hampton Roads, Va., which could increase tanker traffic though the Chesapeake Bay once the dredging and filling is completed. Flood insurance, disaster relief, and community development programs can encourage unwise building in environmentally sensitive areas. Tax-supported networks to save homes from beach erosion in places like Long Island, N.Y., are artificial and expensive attempts to manipulate nature, it is charged.
All of this may be changing, however. As part of his 1979 environmental message to Congress, President Carter called for "a clear national coastal protection policy," and said he "heartily endorses" the designation of 1980 as the "Year of the Coast." The administration is preparing amendments to the 1972 coastal zone legislation that would strengthen and clarify certain provisions, particularly the role of the federal government itself as a prime developer of such things as energy production and sewage-treatment facilities in coastal areas.
Legislative hearings will be held on both East and West coasts in January and February, after which Congress will consider its own (as well as the President's) proposals to make the Coastal Zone Management Act more effective.
"We have a unique asset that has to be prudently used," Mr. Glazer says. "That's what we're really talking about in the Year of the Coast."