In 1950, real estate developers looking to satisfy postwar America’s burgeoning demand for housing decided that Assateague Island, a sandy slice of land off the Maryland and Virginia coasts, would make a good place for a new neighborhood. Using federal and state funds, they built a road running almost half the length of the island and leveled land for houses. It was not the first development effort in the area. In the 1930s, the New Deal-era Army Corps of Engineers opened a navigation channel to improve shipping and expand beaches in nearby Ocean City, Maryland. Other federal programs encouraged fishing and the construction of jetties. Local boosters on the Eastern Shore talked of a bridge linking the island to the mainland. Assateague, it seemed, might soon become an Ocean City suburb.
The neighborhood was never built. Today, Assateague is almost entirely wild (if not natural). Parts of the island became a bird sanctuary in the 1940s, and a National Seashore was established on other parts in the late 1960s. These parks, however, didn’t deter commercial developers. Through the late 1970s the island seemed likely to remain a hot potato tossed between conservation and development interests. Many investors held onto land hoping to develop it after the government built more infrastructure.
But things changed. In 1982, President Reagan signed into law the Coastal Barrier Resources Act. The law establishes the rule that the federal government will not help the private sector do anything to develop barrier islands like Assateague: It won’t underwrite flood insurance, won’t build most roads, and won’t subsidize mortgages. In all, 53 federal programs that encourage development no longer function on barrier islands.
The law changed everything on Assa-teague. While a few private landholdings (mostly hunting camps) remained until the middle of the last decade, talk of developing Assa-teague stopped. And it’s a good thing. Assa-teague is essentially an overgrown sandbar, and any structure built there is likely to wash away eventually. As a “barrier,” furthermore, the island’s unaltered presence can slow hurricanes and absorb storm surges. The two million visitors who flock to Assateague every year add far more to the local economy than a few subdivisions ever would have.
And Assateague isn’t alone. Today, what’s called the John H. Chaffee Coastal Barrier Resources System covers 3.1 million acres of land similar to Assateague. And all this environmental protection has saved taxpayers over $1 billion that would have been spent on harmful development, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service office that oversees the system.
The story of Assateague, and the way withdrawing government subsidies preserved it, is instructive for those intent on reducing the federal budget deficit: Selectively cutting spending can help the environment.
It’s simple. The federal government consumes about a quarter of the United States’ GDP, owns more real estate, uses more energy, employs more people, and has more cars than any other entity. The government’s size allows it to invest in projects on a scale that private entities cannot. That means decisions the federal government undertakes have outsize impacts—which means outsize damage when the government makes spending choices that are bad for the environment. Our organizations, Friends of the Earth and the Heartland Institute, have joined with the Ralph Nader-founded consumer advocacy group Public Citizen and deficit hawk Taxpayers for Common Sense to issue a report entitled “Green Scissors 2011” that shows just how much government spending is both wasteful and environmentally destructive. There’s a lot: up to $380 billion over the next five years.
Those who follow environmental and budget issues may already know of some government programs that harm the environment. For example, the $50 billion-plus five-year tab for ethanol subsidies—which the Senate voted to end in June—has brought millions of acres of previously wild land under cultivation, increased the use of chemical fertilizers, and wasted billions of gallons of water. And there are indirect ethanol subsidies too. The federally backed “Clean Cities” program—untouched by the Senate—has largely been a subsidy to the corn industry hidden under the guise of oil savings.