Safeguard our coasts

April 15, 2003|By Leon Panetta

WITH MORE than half of the U.S. population living along the coasts and another 25 million people estimated to move there over the next 15 years, the scientific evidence is clear that the health and productivity of our coastal waters - in particular our estuaries and bays - are declining.

This week, hundreds of scientists, resource managers, environmentalists and business leaders are in Baltimore to search for ways to restore the nation's estuaries and preserve the natural and cultural heritage they support.

Our coastal ecosystems are vital to commercial and recreational fishing. They filter our water, buffer the shores from storms and are important nurseries for thousands of species of fish and birds. Their beauty and the bounty they support are among the reasons so many of us choose to live along the coast.

Yet despite these many benefits, we currently lose nearly 60,000 acres of wetlands in this country each year, most of it to development. The resulting roads, parking lots and rooftops carry pollution from our cars, lawns and fields into the sea. Our challenge, then, is to live and work along the coast without harming it.

Three years ago, I agreed to lead the Pew Oceans Commission - an independent group of leaders from science, fishing, conservation, government and business - in search of solutions to the problems facing our oceans today. Our review, along with that of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, is the first top-to-bottom look at U.S. ocean policy in more than 30 years.

In early June, we will present our findings to Congress, the Bush administration and the nation on ways to restore fisheries, manage coastal development, curb pollution and better govern the oceans.

Much has changed over the past 30 years, both in terms of how we use the oceans and our understanding of the intricate and fragile nature of ocean ecosystems. In talking to people around the country, we found a growing appreciation that the oceans are part of our public trust and that we all have a responsibility for their stewardship. If we are to protect and restore our estuaries, bays and wetlands, then we must improve ocean and coastal management to reflect this priority. Here are just a few solutions we will recommend:

Identify and protect sensitive coastal habitats. Coastal communities that are eager to protect sensitive wetlands and estuaries often lack the ability to do so. Federal and state governments must provide the resources and incentives that communities need to protect sensitive areas.

Manage development to lessen impacts on coastal ecosystems. We need to reconsider development patterns and practices, especially those that contribute to sprawl. We must move toward development that makes more efficient use of space and infrastructure while protecting open space and important habitats.

Reduce incentives for harmful development. Our nation spends billions annually on activities that often damage our coastal environment. We need to re-examine flood control and navigation projects, flood insurance and tax policies and subsidies for roads and other infrastructure to ensure that governments support the kind of development that maintains the healthy ecosystems upon which our coastal economies depend.

Since the first Earth Day in 1970, our nation has made great strides in protecting the environment. We fought against dirty air, littered streets and fouled rivers. In doing so, we discovered a national conscience and an environmental ethic.

Our coasts and oceans - the final frontier on this planet - are showing the same signs of stress we have seen on land. Poorly guided development, mismanagement of our fisheries and pollution are taking their toll.

This Earth Day, April 22, we should remember the 70 percent of the planet that is the ocean and extend this nation's proud conservation ethic toward the sea. Our oceans are our public trust and are calling out for our help. This generation has a duty to be good stewards and to respond to this challenge for the sake of our children.

We can start right where we live - on the coast.

Leon Panetta, a former White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton and a former California congressman, chairs the Pew Oceans Commission.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.