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Book Review: Stanley Riggs, et al, The Battle for North Carolina’s Coast

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In a beautifully produced book from University of North Carolina Press, Stanley Riggs and his associates review what they call “The Battle for North Carolina’s Coast.” By this, they mean the constant struggle to maintain the Outer Banks against threats including climate change, rising sea levels, powerful storms, and the development that imperils the regional ecology. A marine geologist, Riggs spends most of the book explaining the geological forces shaping the North Carolina coast to the general reader this book is intended for, only getting to the “battle” at the book’s end.

Americans’ knowledge of science is pretty dismal. This ignorance, which has many antecedents we can discuss in another post, means that before we can even begin talking about coastal ecosystems, we need to be educated about them. This ignorance also gets in the way of meaningful conversations about climate change and any other scientific issue that is affecting our lives. I am a pretty smart guy I think and an environmental historian at that. I have some knowledge of biology and geology, though at the level of a interested amateur. And despite Riggs laying this out as simply as possible, without the copious full-color maps, drawings, and photographs in the book, I would have gotten lost pretty quickly. Kudos to UNC Press for investing in this. Riggs explores how the North Carolina coastal system formed, how ice ages have shaped it, and how the plentiful and powerful storms that hit the Outer Banks affect the land. He breaks down different types of barrier islands and regional differences in the ecosystem. This is the first 2/3 of the book. Only after reading 65 pages of this can we have an intelligent discussion about how to save this ecosystem.

And save is a proper word, for there is much at risk. Riggs and his coauthors repeatedly point out that ecosystems change. Climate change will destroy much of the current barrier islands but new islands and beaches will form over time. But like we think about the rest of the environment, we treat it as static, not incorporating change into our economic development plans. In this context, it means we build huge resorts on the beach and then are shocked when they get washed away. To stop this, we pour millions of dollars into technologies to keep the ocean out, just to see them continually fail.

At the same time, if Americans demand anything, it’s beach vacations. The Outer Banks have seen enormous economic and population growth over the past few decades. This is a poor region and the tourism dollars have replaced some of the lost income from textile mills and agriculture. It’s centered in only a few places and the interior counties of eastern North Carolina are pretty poor, but it helps. To maintain this economy, we look for sand to dredge for beach replenishment and keep building new homes and resorts. While overdeveloped beaches are not my favorite places to vacation, that’s just personal preference. Especially in the east, where public land is at a premium, enjoying the natural world is a premium, even if it is just sitting on the beach.

But we have to ask hard questions about how much money we are going to pour down the toilet of maintaining the Outer Banks exactly as they are today. Riggs uses the example of the Oregon Inlet Bridge to bring this home. This 2.44 mile bridge was constructed in the 1960s in order to connect Highway 12 to what were then small villages. The problem is that it was built to an inlet that natural processes dictate will constantly move. To stop this, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers engages in huge dredging operations to rebuild the inlet and keep the bridge stable. Between 1983 and 2009, the government spent $93 million to maintain the bridge. Is this a good use of taxpayer money? I don’t think so. But overwhelming pressure from developers, the tourist industry, and the Army Corps itself makes a change in policy very difficult.

Riggs tries to present some realistic economic options for North Carolina that will maintain the tourist economy on a more sustainable level while making intelligent decisions based upon scientific understandings of what barrier islands do. He suggests giving up on maintaining Highway 12 and the Oregon Inlet Bridge, noting that allowing nature to take its course would not only save us billions in coming decades but also improve fishing and help build an ecotourism economy. Ecotourism is central to his economic plans. Eastern North Carolina is a pretty amazing place with great diversity of landscapes and fantastic wildlife opportunities. More developed areas would see development limitations and houses raised onto stilts to allow for more natural ecological processes to nourish the islands and protect the structures from the ocean. He notes private islands that already have boat service from the mainland to allow people to enjoy the beaches without building a road system, suggesting an expansion of this system for areas currently connected to land by the state highway.

I doubt very much any of this is going to happen soon. There are too many economic forces combining with too much scientific illiteracy to see it through. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need smart environmental and economic planners seeking to create a more sustainable region and economy. Riggs and his co-authors deserve a lot of credit for their ideas. Hopefully somebody will take them seriously.

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