Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972

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Congress enacted the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972 (CZMA) to protect natural resources in coastal areas, including aquatic life, coastal waters, and adjacent lands (16 U.S.C. §1451 et seq.). This includes islands, transitional and intertidal areas, salt marshes, wetlands, and beaches. The CZMA’s primary goal is to protect, improve, and restore the quality of coastal waters by encouraging and assisting states in managing coastal zones “through the development and implementation of management programs to achieve wise use of the land and water resources of the coastal zone, giving full consideration to ecological, cultural, historic, and esthetic values as well as the needs for compatible economic development” (Id. §1452[1]–[2]).

Congress observed that about 75 percent of Americans lived in coastal states, and recognized, from two important studies on the health of coastal waters, that development in coastal watersheds was leading to problems of estuarine pollution and degradation of coastal waters and adjacent wetlands (S. Rep. 92-753, at 4777 [1972]). In response to these indicators, congressional delegates introduced several bills in the Ninety-first Congress and held many hearings. Although none of the bills was enacted during that term, Congress adjourned with a consensus that a state management approach was preferable, due in part to pressure from 22 coastal states, and indeed several states adopted their own programs without waiting for final action on the proposed CZMA. The congressional legislators recognized that “the ultimate success of a coastal management program [would] depend on the effective cooperation of federal, state, regional, and local agencies” (S. Rep. 92-753 at 4778 [1972]). Eventually, the CZMA became law on October 27, 1972, and has been amended several times since.

Congress incorporated a system of “cooperative federalism” into the CZMA by encouraging coordination and cooperation between appropriate federal, state, and local agencies. The cooperative nature of the act is apparent in nearly all its aspects, including collecting and analyzing data, preparing management plans and programs, and implementing these plans and programs. Management plans and programs are to be developed consistent with federal rules and regulations, and notice must be given to afford “opportunity of full participation by relevant Federal agencies, State agencies, local governments,” and other interested parties. The act sets aside a state fund for assisting and encouraging programs that provide for protections of the natural resources within the coastal zone, the management of coastal development, public recreation places in coastal zones, assistance in redeveloping deteriorating coastal zones, consultation with federal agencies, and planning and studying coastal zones and ecosystems. In addition to cooperation between the states and the federal government, the act requires federal interagency cooperation and also requires any federal action taken in coastal areas to be consistent with state management programs (Id. §1456).

As mentioned above, the act has been amended many times since its inception. In 1975, minor revisions were made to the administration of the grant program. In 1976, the Coastal Energy Impact Program was established in order to make coastal zones more self-sufficient in terms of energy. Also in 1976, an amendment created an Interstate Grants Program and a research and technical assistance grant program, called for the expansion of the estuarine sanctuary program to include public spaces, and established a national system for evaluating the performance of state management activities. Another amendment set up a new system of Resource Management Improvement Grants in 1980, which preserved certain coastal areas, redeveloped urban waterfronts, and worked to improve public access to beaches.

The act has incentive programs to promote coastal zone awareness, security, and purity. It provides for the Walter B. Jones Excellence in Coastal Management Awards, which are given to individuals outside the federal government whose contribution to the field of coastal zone management has been significant, including five local governments that made the most progress, and up to ten graduate students whose academic study promises to contribute to the field in particular.

To ensure that everything completed is accounted for the person in charge of enforcing the CZMA at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is required to submit a biennial report to Congress. This report contains detailed information on the various CZMA-, state-, and federally-sponsored programs that deal with coastal zone management. Also, states and regions that are doing all that they can to manage their coastal zones correctly are labeled, in order to attract their attention and garner support for coastal zone management.


“Coastal Zone Management Act,” 61C Am. Jur. 2d Pollution Control §§1132, 1133; John A. Duff, “The Coastal Zone Management Act: Reverse Pre-emption or Contractual Federalism?” Ocean & Coastal Law Journal 6 (2001): 109–17; Lieutenant Patrick J. Gibbons, JAGC, USN, “Too Much of a Good Thing? Federal Supremacy and the Devolution of Regulatory Power: The Case of the Coastal Zone Management Act,” Naval Law Review 48 (2001): 84; and David R. Godschalk, “Implementing Coastal Zone Management: 1972–1990,” Coastal Management 20 (1992): 93.

Vaughn Pickell and Arthur Holst

Last updated: 2006

SEE ALSO: Devolution; Environmental Policy