The Coastal Zone Management Act: A History of Treasuring Our Coastlines and Estuaries

The Coastal Zone Management Act, administered by NOAA, created a partnership of federal and state governments to reduce conflicts over land and water uses in the coastal zone, protect coastal resources, and support smart growth and development. Under the Act, NOAA and state partners work together to balance environmental conservation and economic development, ensuring future generations' access to, and enjoyment of, our nation's 95,000 miles of shoreline.

Photo of coastline

The Coastal Zone Management Act helps ensure the public has access to ocean shores and sheltered, coastal embayments for a variety of activities. Click image for larger view.

We are a nation fascinated by the water that surrounds our country and in awe of its tremendous system of inland freshwater lakes. However, despite the beauty — spectacular sunrises and sunsets, expansive sandy beaches and dunes, and a diverse wildlife population — we often fail to recognize our dependence on coastal resources to satisfy our increasing appetite for energy, goods, and services.

The U.S. coastal zone supports valuable coastal and ocean resources, including fisheries, marine mammals, minerals, oil and gas, and other energy resources. The ocean is also valued for such uses as marine transportation, tourism and recreation, and military operations.

Management of our coastal areas to balance environmental, economic, human health, and human activities is a relatively new concept, initiated less than four decades ago by Congress. Since that time, NOAA has worked with U.S. coastal and Great Lakes states to manage our nation’s coastlines. This article traces the history of coastal zone management, beginning with the passage of the Coastal Zone Management Act in 1972.


Meeting the Emerging Challenges of Our Coastal Zone

The concept of coastal zone management is a relatively new one, emerging less than four decades ago from the need to tackle an array of interconnected problems associated with population growth and development along our nation’s coasts.

people on a beach

Allowing public access to beaches and other shorefronts can lead to other management issues. Natural areas along coastal waterfronts contain sensitive habitats that are important to fish and wildlife. Consequently, public access regulations must be designed to minimize impacts to dunes, salt marshes, and other wetlands, as well as all species relying on these ecosystems. Click image for larger view.

NOAA was created in 1970, amidst growing concern over the condition of coastal resources and increasing public interest in protecting these resources. Part of the responsibility of this new agency was the development of a comprehensive coastal program to manage our coasts.

The Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA) was passed in 1972 and provided a formal structure to address the challenges of continued growth in coastal areas. Administered by NOAA, the CZMA recognizes that ensuring access to clean water and healthy ecosystems that support a vibrant coastal economy requires effectively integrating science, technology, and public policy. The goals of the CZMA are to “preserve, protect, develop, enhance, and restore where possible, the coastal resources.”

The CZMA created two national programs to better understand and manage our coastal areas: the National Coastal Zone Management Program and the National Estuarine Research Reserve System.


The National Coastal Zone Management Program

The National Coastal Zone Management Program encourages coastal states and territories to work in partnership with the federal government to design and enforce local Coastal Management Programs consistent with the CZMA and accompanying regulations. Under the law, the federal government provides funding matched by states to implement a coastal zone management program that acknowledges the individual state’s priorities and needs. States must submit their program for approval to receive federal funding.

The majority of coastal states joined this voluntary program in the very early stages of the program. In 1976 and 1977, Washington and Oregon (respectively) became the first states to enact coastal management programs under the regulations set forth by the CZMA. By 1979, 19 states, covering 69 percent of the nation’s shoreline, had approved coastal programs. In 1986, 90 percent of our coastline had coastal zone management programs in 29 states and territories. Today, 34 of the 35 eligible coastal and Great Lakes states and territories have entered into the voluntary partnership. The last remaining state, Illinois, is expected to join the national system in 2007. To learn more about coastal zone activities in your state, click here.

Photo of coastline

Under the CZMA, coastal-dependent uses, including these energy facilities, should be given preference over other land uses within the coastal zone.

Since the inception of the CZMA 35 years ago, NOAA’s Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management has assisted states with over $1 billion in federal spending to address critical coastal issues, leading to better planned projects that support economic development as well as environmental conservation. It is the only program of its kind to address coastal issues through a comprehensive and integrated approach. By leveraging federal and state matching funds, this program gives states the flexibility to determine local priorities and subsequent initiatives to accommodate their unique coastal challenges and legal framework.

The CZMA also created a unique legal mechanism known as “federal consistency.”  Federal consistency requires the federal government and private parties using federal licenses or permits to abide by state laws, regulations, and policies that are part of a state’s coastal zone management program. By providing an alternative to litigation through conflict resolution between and among states and the federal government, the federal consistency provision is a major incentive for states to join the national coastal management program. Federal consistency has thus become a powerful tool that states use to manage coastal uses and resources and to encourage cooperation and coordination with federal agencies.


National Estuarine Research Reserve System

Estuaries are coastal zones where fresh water from mountains and planes meets the salty water of the ocean. Estuaries are rich and complex ecosystems that serve as nurseries to ocean life and they act as buffers to protect coastal areas from excessive storm damage.

Recognizing the importance of estuaries, the CZMA called for the establishment of a national system of estuarine sanctuaries protected for purposes of long-term research, public awareness, and education. The first sanctuary designated was South Slough, a 4,400-acre arm of Coos Bay in southern Oregon, in 1974.   By 1980, the estuarine sanctuary system encompassed more than 360,000 acres on the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf Coasts and the system grew over the next decade, as a dozen new protected areas joined the system.

This system was the predecessor of today’s National Estuarine Research Reserve System, a network of 27 reserves ringing the coast and stretching from Alaska to Puerto Rico. Each reserve is a unique “living laboratory” where a dedicated reserve staff conducts research and monitoring as well as public education and outreach activities. The reserves assist local communities and regional groups to address natural resource management issues. Through integrated research and education, the reserves assist communities in developing tools and know-how to effectively address resource management issues.


Managing Our Coasts: A Broad Effort

Photo of coastline homes

Shoreline erosion, such as the bluff erosion shown here, is a significant issue in many coastal areas.

In addition to the National Coastal Zone Management Program and the National Estuarine Research Reserve System, an array of independent programs and initiatives has resulted from the CZMA. The federal government has worked with states to implement programs that address hazard mitigation through setback regulations and permitting; erosion through mapping and monitoring; and hurricane and storm surge preparedness through the development of warning systems and evacuation plans. The partnership has also allowed states to target a wide audience in raising awareness around coastal issues and further build collaboration efforts across state and federal government agencies, non-profit organizations, and private enterprise.


Coastal Management—Today and Tomorrow

Nationwide Coastal Zone Management Programs and the National Estuarine Research Reserves System make significant contributions in providing us with knowledge to better manage our nation’s coastal areas. As a result of the Coastal Zone Management Act and the success of its programs, coastal communities are equipped to better address continued economic development of the coastal zone while accounting for natural resource management. This, we hope, will ensure the health and stability of the coast, both environmentally and economically, into the long-term future.

Contributed by Katarina Trojnar, NOAA's National Ocean Service


Works Consulted

NOAA Coastal Services Center. (2003). Coastal Zone 03 Web site. Retrieved August 16, 2006, from:

Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management (OCRM). 2006. OCRM Web site.  Retrieved August 17, 2006, from: