Conserving the Nature of America
Office of External Affairs

Happy Birthday, Coastal Barrier Resources Act!

CBRA Turns 30 on October 18, 2012

There are more than 3.1 million acres of coastal barrier habitat designated within the John H. Chafee Coastal Barrier Resources System (CBRS), covering 2,500 miles of shoreline along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, Great Lakes, Puerto Rico, and U.S. Virgin Islands.  Often occurring in chains, coastal barriers are of relatively narrow strips of sand running parallel to the mainland coast.  They include anything from a tiny cove in Connecticut to the longest barrier island in the world, Padre Island, Texas – but they all do a very important job.

Coastal barriers and their associated wetlands provide essential habitat for fish and wildlife, including migratory birds and many threatened and endangered species.  These areas support commercial and recreational fisheries and are enjoyed by millions of vacationing Americans every year.  They create relatively low energy systems that protect our coasts and mainland communities from the full impact of hurricane force winds and storm surge.  These natural storm buffers will be even more important as our nation prepares for the increased frequency and severity of coastal storms, flooding, erosion, land loss and other anticipated effects of climate change and sea-level rise.

Cape Lookout barrier island, North Carolina. Credit: USFWS
Photo Caption: Cape Lookout barrier island, North Carolina. Credit: USFWS

Congress recognized the importance of these essential and fragile coastal systems 30 years ago by passing the Coastal Barrier Resources Act (CBRA) on October 18, 1982.  It recognized that certain federal government actions and programs were subsidizing and encouraging development on hurricane prone, biologically rich coastal barriers.  This resulted in the loss of natural resources and threats to human life, health and property, costing millions of taxpayer dollars each year.  The Secretary of the Interior, through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is responsible for administering CBRA.

CBRS units are located in 23 states and territories across four Service regions, seven Landscape Conservation Cooperatives and approximately 75 national wildlife refuges.  CBRA is a cost-effective federal tool to implement sound coastal management and discourage development that is risky, harmful to fish and wildlife resources, and costly to the American taxpayer. 

CBRA removes the federal incentive to develop these areas by designating relatively undeveloped coastal barriers along the coasts as part of the CBRS.  Under CBRA, these areas are ineligible for most new federal expenditures and financial assistance.  CBRA does not regulate or prohibit the development of coastal barriers.  Instead, it encourages their conservation by restricting federal expenditures that encourage development, such as federal flood insurance, development grants and funding for infrastructure, dredging and beach nourishment projects.  Areas within the CBRS can be developed if private developers or other non-federal parties bear the full cost and risk.

A 2007 Government Accountability Office report estimated that 84% of CBRS units remain undeveloped and 13% of CBRS units have experienced only minimal levels of development since they were added to the CBRS.  This shows that CBRA has been largely successful at reducing the intensity of development along our coasts. 

A 2002 Service economic study projected that between 1983 and 2010 CBRA would save taxpayers an estimated $1.3 billion (not including additional savings to the National Flood Insurance Program), and it will continue save millions more in the future.   These cost savings are essential to the nation, especially at a time when we are looking to reduce our federal deficit.

CBRA is more relevant now than ever before as our nation looks for common-sense, fiscally responsible ways to preserve our important coastal environment, but CBRA is a map-based law and the CBRS boundary maps were mostly produced in the 1990s and need modernization.  The Service has been working with our federal partners to bring the CBRS maps into the 21st century and improve CBRA compliance and outreach, making the CBRS even more effective in the future. 

In 2011, the Service partnered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to initiate a review of the entire CBRS for changes that resulted from natural forces such as erosion and accretion, and to digitally convert the existing maps over a five year period.  We are close to completing the first batch of digital conversion draft maps for the states of Delaware, South Carolina, Texas and one county in Florida.  These maps will be made available for stakeholder review within the next several months.  Concurrently, the Service is developing a new interactive mapper to provide our customers and partners with more accessible and accurate CBRS data and maps.

We also are preparing for congressional consideration final versions of comprehensively revised draft CBRS maps for some areas in Alabama, Florida and Rhode Island.  These maps will correct mapping errors affecting property owners, add qualifying land and aquatic habitat to the CBRS, and replace the outdated base maps.

For more information on CBRA, visit

Last updated: October 18, 2012
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