Transformations in Coastal Zone Management

The Coastal Management Program, administered by NOAA, is a partnership between 34 coastal and Great Lakes states, territories, and commonwealths that works to preserve, protect, develop, and, where possible, restore and enhance the resources of the nation's coastal zone. Together, these programs protect more than 99 percent of the nation's 95,000 miles of ocean and Great Lakes coastline.

In 1972, in recognition of the declining health of our nation’s coasts, Congress passed the Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA). The goal of the CZMA is to protect, preserve, develop, and, where possible, restore or enhance the resources of the coastal zone.

At the core of the Act are two programs: the National Coastal Zone Management Program (CZMP) and the National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS). NERRS specifically protects our estuarine areas while the CZMP is a voluntary partnership between the federal government and U.S. coastal states and territories to develop and implement plans to protect coastal areas.

Photo of Coastline

Through the Coastal Zone Management Act, NOAA supports states in order to preserve and protect our treasured coastal areas. Click image for larger view.

Since the Act’s inception, the partnerships have expanded well beyond these two founding programs, to include an array of initiatives that address the mounting public concern for the well-being of the nation's coastal resources.

By design, each program maintains an adaptive and dynamic approach to local conditions and accounts for constantly evolving challenges. Today, some of the most critical challenges facing the nation’s coastlines include declining water quality, rapid urban development, and impacts from hurricanes and storms.

This article provides an overview of the programs and initiatives introduced since 1990 that address coastal zone management issues, ranging from land conservation to coastal development.


Protecting Our Resources

Dramatic population growth in the past two decades along the coast has brought new challenges to managing coastal resources. Coastal managers must contend with protecting life and property from coastal hazards; protecting coastal wetlands and habitats while accommodating needed economic growth; and settling conflicts between competing needs such as commercial and port development, recreational use, and national defense.

Photo of Coastal County

In the United States, coastal counties constitute only 17 percent of the total land area (not including Alaska), but account for 53 percent of the total population.

In response to rising coastal pressures, in 1990, Congress created the Coastal Zone Enhancement Program. This program defines nine coastal issues of national significance, including wetlands, coastal hazards, public access, marine debris, cumulative and secondary impacts, special area management plans, ocean/Great Lakes resources, energy and government facility citing, and aquaculture. Prior to the start of the program, states were granted “Significant Improvement Grant” funds that lacked the specific guidance and accountability now required by states wanting to apply for funding support from NOAA. Overall, the program has resulted in stronger initiatives at the state and local levels.

The Coastal Zone Enhancement Program encourages coastal states to evaluate management efforts in the nine issue areas and to implement changes to address the gaps. Through self-assessment, state coastal programs identify high-priority areas for enhancement. States then work with NOAA to develop five-year strategies to achieve these goals.  

Changes implemented by states often include developing new, or revising existing, laws, regulations, or administrative guidelines that address any of the nine enhancement areas; developing or revising a special area management plan; or creating a new program such as a coastal land acquisition or restoration program.

The Coastal Zone Enhancement Program has proven effective where nearly all states participate through a competitive funding process by submitting to NOAA five-year strategy plans and assessments for evaluation.


Developing Sustainable Communities

Coastal areas are popular destinations for work, recreation, and retirement. Over half of the nation’s population lives along the coast and this number is expected to increase to 15 million by 2015. Hurricanes, erosion, and landslides also influence the life and wellbeing of communities, the economy, and the natural environment. Recent years have seen millions of dollars in destruction from coastal storms.

The NOAA Coastal  Services Center

The NOAA Coastal Services Center, located in Charleston, South Carolina, provides training specifically designed for coastal resource managers. Each class uses coastal management-related case studies and data.

To address pressures caused by population growth and natural disasters, NOAA has developed a number of technical assistance measures over the last decade. The NOAA Coastal Services Center was established in 2001 and works nationwide using new technologies and developing innovative tools to reduce the adverse impacts of storms on life, property, and the economy and to maintain the health of the environment in coastal areas. To provide coastal managers with the tools and scientific knowledge to balance environmental, economic, and social goals, NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science was formed in 1999.

Another initiative to protect coastal areas from growth and development is Portfields. Developed in 2002, Portfields is a smart growth initiative that works to increase collaboration among local, state, and federal partners and ports on local port revitalization issues.  Portfields focuses on redeveloping port communities to enhance port infrastructure, protect human health, preserve and restore critical habitat, and provide improved quality of life and economic opportunity for communities.


Preserving Our Coastal Lands

Since colonial times, wetlands and other sensitive lands have been converted for grazing, farming, and development. In the past, people were not aware of the importance of wetlands and their role in flood protection, pollutant removal, and ground water recharge. Wetlands and associated uplands also provide important habitat for fish and wildlife. As these habitats become increasingly scarce, there is increased interest in restoring lost or degraded wetlands to their natural function.

Razor  clamming

Razor clamming is one of many recreational activities the public can enjoy with access to the natural resources lining our coasts. NOAA helps to ensure the preservation, protection, and management of coastal resources through its many state-federal partnership programs, including CELCP and the Coastal Nonpoint Pollution Program. Click image for larger view.

The Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program (CELCP) was established in 2002 to protect coastal and estuarine lands considered important for their ecological, conservation, recreational, historical, or aesthetic values. The program provides state and local governments with matching funds to purchase significant coastal and estuarine lands, or conservation easements on such lands, from willing sellers. Lands or easements acquired with CELCP funds are protected in perpetuity so that they may be enjoyed by future generations.

Through a competitive application process, NOAA selects the projects that receive funding support. To date, the program has supported about 300 projects and resulted in the protection of over 40,000 acres nationwide.



Our nation faces numerous coastal issues every day—from helping communities prepare for and recover from devastating storms, to restoring important wetlands critical for the survival of fish and wildlife, to ensuring the public has access to our nation's beaches. Addressing these challenges requires careful and balanced coastal management.

In 1972, the CZMA began a new era in the United States by recognizing the importance of stewardship of our nation’s coasts, estuaries, and oceans. The programs and initiatives that have followed have not only supported scientific study of coastal resources and estuaries nationwide, but also furthered policies that encourage smart community planning and sustainable development.

The coastal states and territories and federal government are working together to ensure regulations, policies, management plans, and education and outreach tools are in place and are being used effectively to maintain a balance between our often competing uses of the coasts, while preserving and protecting important coastal natural resources for our enjoyment long into the future.


Works Consulted

Crossett, K.M., T.J Culliton, P.C. Wiley, and T.R. Goodspeed. (2004). Population Trends Along the Coastal United States:1980-2008. Coastal Trends Report. Silver Spring, MD: NOAA, National Ocean Service.