The Coastal Barrier Resources Act, signed by Ronald Reagan in 1982, ranks among America’s greatest free-market conservation success stories. Administered on a shoestring budget out of an obscure Fish and Wildlife Service office in Arlington, Va., the Coastal Barrier Resources System protects an area of land larger than all but one national park in the lower 48 states by imposing a simple “hands off” policy. In the marshes, beaches, and barrier islands (essentially overgrown sandbars) along the Gulf Coast, Atlantic Coast, and Great Lakes, property owners are barred from receiving subsidies for roads, housing, flood insurance, and other federal programs.
It’s still possible to develop land within the CBRS with private money, but by drawing a “no subsidy zone,” the law saves taxpayers more than $100 million annually, while also preserving coastal wetlands for conservation, wildlife habitat, and recreation.
That’s why it’s disturbing that some in Congress—many of them self-identified conservatives—want to weaken the law. In an early April hearing before a House subcommittee, several conservative members were more than willing to delete units from the system in order to open them to federal subsidies. Making matters worse is that the units are in Florida, where the state government has saddled its taxpayers with huge liabilities for property insurance in dangerous areas.
The cost of removing a given unit from the system here and there isn’t enormous, but each removal sets a bad precedent. For conservatives to develop their own sensible environmental policy, the first step should be finding ways to extend the principle of a “subsidy free zone” to other areas: beaches on the Pacific Coast, areas prone to forest fire, and wetlands near river valleys also might be declared “off limits” for many kinds of federal subsidies. At minimum, shrinking the CBRS should be off the table.