At long last, new protection for some of America's most precious natural resources -- the slim, fragile barrier islands from Maine to Texas -- has gained an important congressional beachhead.
After being grounded in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee for months, legislation to protect the islands from new waves of development has been sent on to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and is expected to go to the full US Senate for a vote within the next three weeks.
"It's moving," says Robert Kutler, a spokesman for Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D) of Washington, chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "We've got to get the legislation through this year or a lot more people are going to develop the islands."
Essentially, the bill, which has received stiff opposition from real estate brokers (though of late there are some moderating signs), does two things: (1) It limits federal disaster aid to discourage building and rebuilding; (2) it cuts programs that subsidize bridge, highway, and other developments on many of the islands.
Similar legislation in pending in the US House. There, too, in this "The Year of the Coast" there is a good deal of optimism that the measure will reach the floor shortly. A spokesman for Rep. Philip Burton (D) of California, chairman of the US House Subcommittee on National PArks and Insular Affairs, who introduced the legislation last November, says "everyone is serious about" getting it to the floor by the end of the current session.
As of now, the session is scheduled to wind up Oct. 4.
Congressman Burton's bill, however, would also add portions of the approximately 100 barrier islands now categorized as "undeveloped" to the National Park System for protection. Altogether, there are approximately 295 barrier islands, ranging in size from 50 acres to more than 100,000 acres. In fact, Atlantic City, N. J., now the casimo gambling capital of the East Coast, is classified as a barrier island, though obviously it is one of the most- developed of all.
But congressional sources say the House bill's provision to add islands to the National Park System, the most bitterly opposed portion, may be deleted before it reaches the floor to give the entire bill have a better chance of passage.
Aside from the obvious aesthetic reasons for saving the islands, there is scientific evidence that the islands provide inland areas with crucial protection from storms -- protection that is eroded when major construction is added to the islands.
Burton says the federal government's current economic development role -- in the past three fiscal years alone federal agencies have committed $500 million to barrier island development projects -- "does not make sense.
"We know from past records that killer storms and hurricanes will hit these islands -- with severe property damage and even loss of life. Nevertheless, increased federal aid programs have promoted development, and caused an explosive growth on the islands."
On the other hand, Burton says the tremendous "public" recreational potential of the islands has yet to be tapped, but it will never be realized if the islands are lost to private development.
Meanwhile, despite the private real estate land rush to the islands, some real estate people are realizing the need to protect them. Said Wallace Kaufman , president of Heartwood Reality Inc. in Carrboro, N. C.: "Barrier islands are developing twice as fast as the rest of the country. They are already 14 percent urbanized as compared to 3 percent for the mainland. . . but development of barrier islands is economic recklessness, it is a waste of public and private resources, and is often a form of welfare for the well-to-do."
According to a two-year study by the Department of Interior ordered by President Carter:
"The development of these [barrier islands] resources has often been encouraged by federally permitted or subsidized roads, bridges, and sewers, with the result that millions of people have been subjected to hurricanes, and to property losses from the erosion and other physical changes that are characteristic of barrier formations."