Conservation, Not Commerce Keys Revival of Environmental Localism

Local decision making critical to environmental protection

An oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara in 1969 helped trigger a volley of federal environmental statutes. Those statutes left Americans with volumes of top-down prescriptions from the nation’s capital. Thirty years later, that top-down legacy is bucking up against opposition – from citizens, city officials, some scientists, and sea-centered businesses – along that same California coastline.

Just as the 1969 spill and its regulatory aftermath became symbolic of environmentalism in the 20th Century, the outcome of this new battle may be symbolic of what to expect from 21st Century environmentalism. Thirty years ago, in the political tug-of-war between localism and federal power, the feds prevailed. Voices for greater local control, however, are gaining momentum. California’s coastline politics is a microcosm of the waxing of this new localism.

The new localism is not mainly a battle between economy and environment. It’s a struggle over information – over who has knowledge tailored to best manage ocean habitat and resources. The locals say they, not the feds, have that knowledge.

After the 1969 oil spill, federal lawmakers passed the 1972 National Marine Sanctuary Act to protect marine habitat and resources. Out of the act came the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, created in 1980 to protect the marine area surrounding the five Channel Islands that lie off the south-central California coast. To protect marine resources, the act banned oil development, prohibited illegal discharges of fuel, waste, or other materials into the waters, and required permits for any seafloor alterations within marine sanctuaries.

Marine sanctuary managers were supposed to produce a new management plan every five years. It took, instead, almost 20 years before a new management plan began to take shape.

Two decades of accumulating ambition is getting condensed into an aggressive federal management plan that may call for expanding the original six-mile boundaries around the island, possibly extending the sanctuary all the way to the mainland shores. A new regulatory package may accompany the management plan. That package could restrict boat traffic through the zones, establish no-fish zones, and prohibit seafloor alterations, including the deposit of sand dredged from harbors.

Local port and harbor officials have no dedicated seat at the table of the Sanctuary Advisory Council that makes recommendations regarding sanctuary management. And even this council has no real decision-making authority. That authority lies with federal officials who run the marine sanctuaries.

North of the Channel Islands, harbor managers in Monterrey Bay have a taste of what this federal authority means. There, the marine sanctuary already includes the shore. Since the harbor comes within sanctuary boundaries, just about every harbor-management decision requires the OK from national sanctuary officials. Moving a boat-mooring block 50 feet, for example, can trigger review by these national officials. Harbor dredging can require approval by sanctuary authorities.

To date, sanctuary authorities have called municipal input on the sanctuary management plan premature. Wait, they have said, until the Environmental Impact Statement for the revised plan, which will include boundary-expansion options, is complete. Locals, in other words, can react to the plan. They cannot help shape it from the outset.

But local folks want to help shape the plan.

In part, their motivation is economic. The value of seafood landed in Santa Barbara and Port Hueneme to its south was $40 million in 1999. One estimate puts the total economic value of commercial fishing and related activity at $280 million for the area. Recreational fishing adds to that tally. Commerce through Port Hueneme generates $388 million annually and produces $34 million in tax revenues.

This is the same-old, same-old environment versus economy argument that has long sparked feuds over environmental policy. But the new localism debate goes beyond the matter of economics. Local (and state) officials say environmental protection is at stake in the sanctuary management plan debate. These officials say they have a better understanding of marine habitat than federal managers.

From Washington, “bigger” often looks better, translating into a sanctuary-expansion mindset. But local folks say wholesale implementation of large reserves, according to a report by the Ports and Harbors Working Group in the south-central coast area of California, “countervails conventional fisheries-management wisdom.” Local experience has shown that “fishing modestly over large areas is more prudent (and more likely to encourage resource sustainability) than fishing intensely over small areas.”

Yet expansion of the marine reserve area could squeeze fisheries into an ever-smaller area. The result, opines the Ports and Harbors Working Group, would be a “congestion externality” – poor fisheries management resulting from crowding fisherman out of a larger area as “no-fishing zones” expand.

Dredge disposal looms as another potential environmental problem. Harbor dredging now occurs with oversight from federal, state, and local authorities. Timing and disposition of dredged sand are determined based on knowledge of local conditions. Federal usurpation of that local decision-making could well interrupt time-sensitive dredging needs, with adverse environmental consequences.

Thirty years ago, environmental protection had barely begun to surface as a high-priority value for Americans. Environmental protection efforts reflected that dim awareness – such efforts were sporadic and tentative.

Today, environmental values are situated squarely within the American “psyche” – over 85 percent of Americans say they are environmentalists to some degree. That environmental commitment shows up in local and state laws, in private conservation efforts, in investments in environmental research.

For the Santa Barbara coastline, this means 30 different federal, state and local agencies already oversee management of the Santa Barbara Channel and its harbors. Superimposition of a sanctuary “supra-authority” over this decision-making structure would sidestep the knowledge that comes from near-hand, long-time experience with local circumstances and conditions.

How the Channel Island sanctuary debate plays out may be a bellwether for 21st Century environmentalism. A growing chorus of voices – on issues ranging from marine sanctuaries to grazing lands to watersheds – is pressing for a greater local voice in environmental decisions that were relentlessly pushed to Washington, D.C., for the past 30 years. Their message? Local decision-making is critical to maintaining environmental protection and community well-being.

Lynn Scarlett is president of Reason Foundation.