Vanishing Tidelands

A new system of property management is needed if the nation’s tidelands are to be saved, says the author of this discussion of the values ofand threat to — “the low,drowned country where fresh waters merge with salt.”She makes a strong case for passage of H.R. 25, a bill sponsored by Michigan Representative John D. Dingell and scheduled to come before the House of Representatives this month. Mrs. Redford is active in Miami’s Tropical Audubon Society, and her husband is president of the Florida Izaak Walton League. Her next book. CHRISTMAS BOWER,will be published by Dutton in September.

by Polly Redford

ALONG the Gulf coast and most of our seaboard from Florida to Massachusetts, a long green and brown cushion lies between solid ground and open ocean. Without it, the land would be gnawed away by the sea. This cushion is made of soft, yielding materials, mostly sand and mud held together by huge mats of tough, resilient rushes and grasses. Endless amounts of water can be hurled upon it; each grain of sand, each blade of grass, acts as a tiny baffle catching and holding the water back. And twice a day, like a sponge, it slowly soaks up the flooding tide, impounding the water until it subsides.

No one word includes the whole of this spongy natural barrier: we speak instead of bays, basins, lagoons, sounds, creeks, deltas, sandbanks, marshes, mangroves, mud flats, and oyster bars. But whether they are covered twice a day or only twice a year, it is the tides that shape them and give them life.

Tidelands, then, are all of that long, low, drowned country where fresh waters merge with salt. Most people, seeing only a monotony of mud and grass, sand and silence, think of them as desolate wastes, uninhabitable, therefore worthless. Besides, they are buggy. The bugs themselves are a sign of life. So are the millions of birds that live in the marshes, and the millions more that migrate from northern to southern tidelands every year. So, too, are the clams and crabs, die oysters and lobsters that are now such luxuries, and the myriad fish — salmon, sturgeon, shad, flounder, weakfish, pompano, snapper, striped bass, redfish, bluefish, tautog, anchovy, sand lance, herring, ale wife, mackerel, menhaden, silversides, smelt, and others —that are found there.

But even if tidelands were lifeless, we would need them as safety valves against major storms. Without them, storm tides pile higher and higher upon the shore, overflowing harbors, sucking away beaches and roads. After a storm, engineers survey the damage and draw plans for massive piers and dikes to hold back the tides as a fortress repels an enemy. Like all armaments, these fortifications are expensive. And once begun, they lead inevitably to more and more piers, groins, seawalls, and jetties, which may be fine for engineers and contractors; taxpayers are not amused.

Perhaps it is the Army Engineers (under whose aegis most of these projects fall) who have persuaded us to wage war against the sea. Certainly, tidelands do just the opposite. By meeting the ocean and impounding its overflow, they gather many of its riches, since the richest part of the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico is the shallow, sloping Continental Shelf that lies just seaward of our tidelands. Only recently have marine scientists learned how the wealth of the two are tied together; and only recently have the rest of us begun to realize that instead of lighting the sea, we have much more to gain by farming it.

Our Continental Shelf and tidelands combine to make our south and east coasts the largest, most productive in the world. In the swamps and marshes alone, biologists have discovered an annual growth of living matter equal to that of the most fertile farmlands. For tidelands trap the silt and organic matter that rivers wash down from the land, holding them to be fertilized again and again by new loads of minerals and salts carried in from the sea. Among the shallow bays and creeks, the ebbing, flowing tide spreads all these ingredients out in the sun and blends them. What follows is an extraordinary bloom of life. It blooms in the surface water, where microscopic vegetables called phytoplankton grow in fantastic numbers; and on the bottom, where marine algae and grasses also draw substance from the water and energy from the sun; and in the marshes, where thick mats of decaying grasses make a compost of proteins, vitamins, and carbohydrates.

And on the flats there’s an algal scum, just enough to give the top of the mud the faintest tinge of green. Ten years ago, someone thought of taking a section of mud and measuring the life there, only to find that one pound of mud may yield more food each year than many pounds of grass.

All this is only plant life, so-called “primary production.” It does not include protozoans, copepods, or the countless tiny wiggling things that only scientists can name; nor does it include the worms and oysters, shrimp and clams that filter this rich broth and add their own proteins to the mixture. These, in turn, are eaten by crustaceans and small fish, which themselves become food for larger fish and birds and mammals, whose wastes add still more proteins, vitamins, oils, and amino acids to what is now called the ecosystem.

At any rate, so much lives and grows and breeds in our tidelands that over half the United States’s harvest of saltwater fish and shellfish is called “estuarine dependent”; which means that most of our commercial fish, and almost all our sport fish, either spawn or hatch here, or spend some vital stage of their lives here, or feed upon the life that flows from here out over our Continental Shelf, where 90 percent of our offshore seafoods are taken. Thus tidelands represent the livelihood of about 90,000 American fishermen, whose catch of more than three billion pounds of estuarine dependent fish on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts paid them $250 million in 1965. And this, of course, is only a fraction of the catch; large fleets from Russia and Japan have been fishing there in such numbers that last October, U.S. fishing rights were extended from the traditional three miles to twelve.

Still, we Americans go right on treating our tidelands as sewers and garbage dumps. Whenever possible we drain them, dredge them, and fill them with rubble and rubbish which we then call improvements and enter on our tax rolls. Recently some of our shores have become biological disaster areas. On Long Island, for instance, fish and wildlife surveys show that 29 percent of the coastal wetlands existing in 1954 were obliterated ten years later. Of the remainder, only 12 percent seemed at all safe; the other 88 percent were “vulnerable to destruction” — for housing, roads, airports, parking lots, factories, dumps — as are all wetlands and estuaries wherever population pressure swells the need for land near America’s great harbor cities.

Last June, many Long Islanders appeared before the House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries to testify on what had happened in Hempstead and South Oyster Bay, a story that is just as true of Boston, Norfolk, Miami, Tampa, Mobile, Houston, or San Francisco as it is of New York. Town officials, many of whom thought they were putting useless swamps to work, sold publicly owned bay bottom for 10 cents to 35 cents a cubic yard to developers, who dredged it up onto the salt meadows. Since the fill cost so little, this madeland was cheaper than upland acreage, and so was the housing that was built there. Dredging not only destroyed the marshes but dropped the bay bottom thirty feet in places, too low for light to reach marine plants.

“Areas of our bays which were once highly productive of marine life became rapidly transformed into deep polluted cesspools,” said one witness. A second described “navigation” channels dug twenty feet deeper than necessary to accommodate the yachts that used them, while nearby, private housing developments covered areas of brand-new fill.

The Long Island crisis brought a number of related bills to the 89th Congress. Representative Tenzer and Senator Kennedy of New York proposed a National Wetlands Recreation Area on Long Island, while Senator Edward Kennedy and Representative John Dingell of Michigan introduced a National System of Estuarine Areas authorizing the Secretary of the Interior to “preserve, protect, develop, restore, and make accessible” any endangered tidelands in the nation.

All the House bills were finally blended into one, which Congressman Dingell brought to the floor late in October during the last rush before adjournment. When it fell just three votes short of a needed two-thirds majority, he promised to try again in January.

Dingell’s bill aroused a good deal of opposition, not for what it tried to do, but because so much authority was given the Secretary of the Interior. At times, even the most ardent conservationists have misgivings about our sprawling, many-sided Department of the Interior. Nevertheless, a whole new system of property management must be found if tidelands are to be protected, developed, and restored, because our traditional system of ownership and control no longer fits the facts of life. The dilemma is a typically modern one: though the problem is biological, science cannot solve it because its causes are political.

How very political they are becomes obvious when you consider who owns what in the tidelands. Marshes and salt meadows, probably because they seem like dry land, are often privately owned by people who are extremely sophisticated in matters of riparian rights. However, their rights stop somewhere in the creeks and smaller bays that are neither walkable nor truly navigable. These arc usually owned in common by the town, or the county, which has rights, too, some of them going back to colonial days. (Clam Constables and Worm Wardens are still taken seriously in parts of New England.) But further offshore, in navigable waters, the Constitution gives the states control of the bottom and any fish, shellfish, fuels, minerals, sunken treasure, or building materials found therein or thereon, though the water above is jealously guarded by the U.S. Army, whose Engineers lay claim to everything in the name of navigation.

In this comic opera of conflicting interests, there never has been, and never can be, the overall policy we must have to use our tidelands sensibly. What makes it oven more confusing is the fact that tideland owners seldom get any direct return on their property. No matter how many taxes a marsh owner pays on his patch of Spartina alternijlora, it is the fisherman miles away at the mouth of the river who reaps the reward.

The answer may eventually lie in a “TVA of estuaries,” proposed by the distinguished ecologist Eugene P. Odum. Another of Odum’s political solutions to what is essentially an ecological problem is estuarine conservation districts similar to soil conservation districts. For, as he says. “We must consider the entire estuary — sounds, creeks, mud and sand flats, the marshes — as one unit, regardless of whether it is one or one hundred miles wide.”

ONE of the best-studied, best-documented estuaries in America, and one that is small enough to be seen as a unit, is Newburyport Harbor and the mouth of the Merrimack River forty miles north of Boston. It is simple as estuaries go, because there are only 4000 acres under water at high tide and another 4200 acres of adjoining salt marsh. All of them lie within three towns—Newbury, Newburyport, and Salisbury, Massachusetts. These towns share a common problem, for the Merrimack is probably the most continuously polluted industrial river in the Western Hemisphere.

Even in Thoreau’s time, the salmon, sturgeon, shad, and herring fisheries that had made the Merrimack famous for two hundred years were already on the decline. During the rest of his century and the beginning of ours, fish disappeared as textile mills poured dyes and wool rinsings into the river. The water turned septic in summer months until the old-fashioned red-brick mills, some of them a mile long, fell into disuse.

No longer were the riverbanks dyed red one week and blue the next; all that remained were the purple flowers of the swamp loosestrife, an English plant whose seeds had been washed from raw imported wool. Industrial pollution dropped 70 percent. Still the water grew no cleaner, for the cities made up the difference by spewing more untreated sewerage into the river every year.

Yet after a century of abuse, the last six miles of the river remain fertile because eleven feet of cold salt tide pour in and out of Newburyport Harbor twice a day and flush it clean. Enough fin fish were left at the mouth of the river to support a small commercial fishery, and to attract growing numbers of anglers, whose vacation money has become vital to the townspeople. But the shellfish, the soft-shelled clams that Newburyport formerly sent to Boston at a rate of 100,000 bushels a year, were contaminated. By 1964. when the Massachusetts Department of Natural Resources arrived on the scene, 80 percent of the shellfish acreage in the Merrimack estuary was condemned for human consumption, 11 percent usable only if the clams were purified. That year the city of Newburyport built a sewerage treatment plant.

This year every state in the union is required by the 1965 Water Quality Act to set standards for its rivers and streams by June 30. If they don’t, the Department of the Interior will do it for them. But, alas, even here there’s a double standard. The human race is not a clean one. People can do with quite dirty water; fish are more fastidious. Shall we make our water only good enough for people? Or spend more and make it clean enough for fish? Let’s hope that Massachusetts chooses fish. For when the Merrimack is clean enough for clams, biologists say its salt flats could be worth $1 million a year.

Polluted as it was in 1964. the Merrimack estuary produced a $123,000 commercial harvest of fin fish, shellfish, and bait. But its real harvest was sport fishermen, 100,000 of them, who came to Newbury, Newburyport, and Salisbury in 1964 to spend over a million dollars on food, lodging, gas, beer, bait, boats, and tackle.

A coalition of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, Izaak Walton League, Nature Conservancy, the Fund for Preservation of Wildlife and Natural Areas, and the Massachusetts Conservation Council gave the Commonwealth its Coastal Wetlands Act in 1965. This act, a model of state legislation, forbids anyone to “remove, fill or dredge any bank, flat, marsh, meadow or swamp bordering on coastal waters” without a hearing, and a state license, and a biological investigation. To pass it, these organizations worked five years with the state Department of Natural Resources to study and to publicize the plight of Massachusetts’ tidelands. One fifth had already been destroyed, and the public had to be taught what their real value was.

There are in the United States at least 8,200,000 bird watchers, 1,650,000 waterfowl hunters, and 8,305,000 saltwater anglers. These are the people who first understand that when tidelands go, they go forever, and fish and birds and boating and beaches go with them.

MASSACHUSE ITS was not the only state to take action; Connecticut passed a similar law, though not until most of its tidelands were beyond repair. In New York, New Jersey, and Maryland, hundreds of thousands of acres of coastal marshes have been bought as state wildfowl and shellfish preserves; but with 70 percent of all tax monies going to the federal government, no state in the union is rich enough to buy back the coastline it so recently, so eagerly sold to get on its tax rolls.

This is particularly true in the South, where tidelands get bigger and state governments poorer. Florida, for example, is not buying tidelands, it is selling them. Over 7000 acres of publicly owned submerged lands were sold between 1962 and 1965, some of them at prices that confirm what cynics have been saying for fifty years: bay and lake bottoms, held inalienably in trust for all Floridians, are a rich source of graft and political payoffs for state politicians.

In January an astounding set of prices for a twenty-seven-acre turtle-grass flat near Miami impelled the state attorney general to call a moratorium on all submerged land sales until the legislature could set some kind of policy. “This range of appraisals — from 8700 per acre to $2,886 per acre — for the same tract of land over the past four years is so broad as to suggest that a new method of setting appraised values must be provided,” he told the cabinet. “The implication that submerged lands just offshore from enormously valuable Key Biscaync have declined in value in the past four years strains the credulity of anyone who knows anything at all about waterfront property in Florida.”

Florida, which has more tidelands than any state except Alaska, desperately needs a wetlands protection act similar to Massachusetts’, but only one bill has been prepared for this session of the legislature, and it applies to future sales of public tidelands, not to dredge and fill. Moreover, in Florida, bulkhead lines are not set by the state at all, but by local city and county commissions that can, and do, set them miles from shore. Thus, the same battles must be fought over and over again throughout the state.

The bitter truth is that local action alone has little effect on the forces now controlling the environment. If these forces were only the wicked industries that most people think they are, life would be a lot easier. But we are all at fault: city fathers who cannot pay for sewerage plants, yachtsmen who keep their boats in marinas dredged in marshes, factories and power plants that use bay water for industrial cooling and washing, and all the nice, well-intentioned people who build or buy filled, bulkheaded waterfront estates.

Ironically, the worst offender is usually the government itself. Local, state, or federal, each one has its own plans for tidelands. most of them ruinous. Each agency, acting independently, rules its own part of the landscape like a feudal fief. The system is essentially baronial, as anyone who has been to highway or canal hearings and watched the various department heads and their vassals jockeying for power will tell you.

The largest, most destructive agencies are (1) the Corps of Engineers, whose navigation and flood control projects are often designed without the slightest regard for biological consequences, (2) the Department of Agriculture, whose pesticide and drainage programs poison estuaries and obliterate marshes, (3) state and federal highway systems, which find tidelands make cheaper roadbeds than any other lands.

To see the final result, you must go to the Gulf of Mexico where Brobdingnagian public works programs have combined with pollution and real estate development in a way that threatens not only tidelands but the entire gulf. In the past three years the brown pelican, state bird of Louisiana, has vanished from that state, believed killed by pesticides washed down the Mississippi. There, $200,000 worth of preliminary research could not prevent the Corps’s Gulf Outlet Canal from intruding salt water into the New Orleans area, affecting oyster production for a hundred miles. In addition, the Soil Conservation Service plans to drain thousands of acres of Louisiana marshland for cattle grazing. In Florida, dredging for waterfront estatcs has laid ten feet of choking silt over once productive areas of Boca Ciega Bay. In Texas, the Bureau of Land Reclamation proposed an immense system of dikes and levees to divert fresh water from west to east, but die project was delayed when conservationists pointed out that the estuaries of Sabine, Galveston, Matagorda, Aransas, and San Antonio Bays would be destroyed in the process. Offshore, in state waters, are thousands of oil wells whose pipes corrode and often break in spite of oil companies’ efforts. One of these accidents can spread crude oil over the gulf in blotches a mile wide.

At a meeting in New Orleans last November, my husband and I listened as marine scientists from Mexico and the Gulf states presented papers that were a catalogue of destruction. Saddest of all were the losses to come, the exact damage these men know in advance but are helpless to prevent because no one listens to them. For after a hundred years of poverty, the Gulf states are enjoying the biggest industrial boom of their history; and when bank deposits are tripling, no one wants to be reminded of industrial valleys like the Merrimack with its contaminated river and empty mills.

“Our estuaries are dissolving in front of us,” said one speaker, a thoroughly angry man from Alabama. “But after a thirty-minute movie filled with pictures of shiny new automobiles in the factory parking lots and distribution of payroll incomes by housewives in mink stoles. . . After all this, the state biologist, who is probably covered with mud up to his knees, must stand there and convince those people that the empty marsh on the proposed plant site is worth saving.”

Fortunately, these state biologists do not always stand alone. All along our coasts people are working to save what they can. On Cape May, a small but determined chapter of the Izaak Walton League is leading the fight for county action to preserve 35,000 acres of coastal marshes. Another chapter, on Florida’s unspoiled Loxahatchee River, recently persuaded their town commission to pass the state’s first local bulkheading ordinance, requiring Conservation Department approval of all future dredge and fill. On the Gulf Coast, the Nature Conservancy has bought 1600 acres of Hats and mangroves in Rookery Bay and has an option on 1000 more. To protect Mobile Bay, the National Wildlife Federation joined with sportsmen, citizen groups, and the state conservation department to push through a complete revision of fresh and salt water pollution laws. In Carmel, California, garden club ladies turned out en masse to defeat a proposed oil refinery on their bay, while

further north, a Conservation and Development Commission has been empowered by the state legislature to preserve natural shorelines in San Francisco Bay.

Five years ago, my husband and I joined one of these seemingly lost causes to save a unique stretch of tideland, Miami’s Biscayne Bay. With the help of almost every civic and conservation group in the county, this fight has been carried from the local level to Congress, where it will be won or lost this year on the vote for H. R. 551. This bill authorizes a Biscayne National Monument— 100,500 acres of tropical lagoon, islands, mangroves, turtle grass, and coral reefs, which have no counterpart anywhere in the nation.

But all tidelands cannot become national parks — or state parks, for that matter. We need other methods, a variety of them, to administer the nation’s tidelands as an ecological unit. Last year’s Dingell-Kennedy bills marked the beginning of an overall policy for these misunderstood, mismanaged areas. This year, Dingell and Kennedy introduced new estuarine bills in the opening days of Congress. Though the budget and land acquisition are very limited in these bills, they give the Secretary of the Interior the job of studying which of our tidelands need protection the most. More important, they would require his approval of dredging and filling in the tidelands and the Great Lakes.

“There can be a tremendous amount done under my bill with a very modest amount of money,” answered Mr. Dingell when I asked him about appropriations. “It can be done with scenic and similar kinds of easements. It can be accomplished by agreements with the states. It can be handled by leasing, and by federal management of state and private property for the maximum protection of fishery resources.”

He admitted that to pass even this much in the face of recent budget cuts will take strong popular support — “Not just from people who understand the aesthetics of marshlands and their importance to ducks and game and conservation,” he said, “but from those who understand their economic value. Once we get them all filled in. we’ll know their value, beyond question, because we’ll watch our offshore fisheries vanish.”

Of course, some Americans find it profitable to keep tidelands just as they are — divided among hundreds of ineffectual, conflicting jurisdictions; but this is something the rest of us can no longer afford, not if we hope to have fish or birds or open space left on our shores.

No nation, even the richest, is rich enough to throw so much away.