The late President Ronald Reagan and current Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge project leader Kevin Godsea share an appreciation of the Coastal Barrier Resources Act (CBRA).

“It is a classic example of environmental legislation that is a triumph for natural resource conservation and federal fiscal responsibility,” President Reagan said in 1982 as he signed the CBRA.

CBRA is “not just about on the refuge. It applies to beyond our borders ... within the landscape,” Godsea said recently. More on that later, but first some context.

Americans forever have been drawn to the coasts for their natural beauty, recreational value, and fish and wildlife. In the mid-20th century, development of hurricane-prone and biologically rich coastal barriers took off. By the early 1980s, Congress and the federal government recognized that such development was unsustainable and that certain federal actions and programs were subsidizing and encouraging this risky development. This resulted in the loss of natural resources and threats to human life and property, costing taxpayers millions of dollars annually.

Congress addressed these challenges by enacting the Coastal Barrier Resources Act of 1982. The act and its amendments established the John H. Chafee Coastal Barrier Resources System (CBRS), a set of defined geographic units along the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, Great Lakes, Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands coasts where most new federal expenditures are prohibited.

All or portions of 73 national wildlife refuges are within the 3.3-million-acre CBRS. The CBRA adds a layer of protection that promotes long-term conservation and fiscal responsibility by prohibiting most federal funding for flood insurance and infrastructure development in the high-energy, dynamic coastal environment of the CBRS.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s CBRA program is responsible for modernizing and digitizing official CBRS maps so they are more accurate and useful to the public. To accomplish this, the CBRA and refuge programs often work together to determine where the CBRS boundaries should be relative to the individual refuge boundaries.

The two programs recently collaborated on such a mapping project involving Ten Thousand Islands Refuge on Florida’s southwest coast. The goal was to add part of the refuge to the CBRS. Doing so supports the Service’s goal of expanding the CBRS by adding undeveloped coastal barrier lands to protect vulnerable areas from development.

For Godsea, who has been at the refuge since 2010, having the CBRA designation on a refuge that is facing sea-level-rise challenges offers more protection to the valuable habitat within the larger landscape. “CBRA provides adaptability of those habitats to move and transition without the urbanization that encroaches upon and impedes the natural processes that are occurring as a result of sea-level rise,” he says.

For American taxpayers, the designation means that the refuge won’t build structures in places that may be underwater in a few years. It will also help prevent the encroachment of development around refuges where the landscape is threatened by sea-level rise.

Godsea says the CBRA is “a law refuge managers don’t typically deal with every day.” But he thinks it should be part of a coastal refuge’s comprehensive conservation plan. “Managers need to be thinking about it in a planning context,” he says. “Where will future visitor services and administrative facilities be? CBRA can limit you on some of that, so it needs to be identified in the planning process.”

When incorporated into planning, the CBRA helps ensure that refuges remain among the nation’s most valuable places for fish and wildlife species and habitat. Regarding vulnerable coastal barrier areas, Godsea says, the CBRA “provides some certainty to refuge managers and the general public” that these areas will have some protection from future risky development.

Margaret Engesser is a program specialist in the Ecological Services CBRA Program.