Narragansett Bay: A Friend's Perspective
Resource Management


As indicated earlier, the user groups of the Bay frequently are in serious conflict with one another. Those who need it for recreation and spiritual renewal, by far the most numerous, and those who need it for economic reasons, generally the most well supplied with money, do not hold the same values. What may be a marvelous commercial asset capable of producing jobs and income to the region to one might be an abomination to the other.

Generally in the past, if stakes were high enough, economic forces prevailed; however, in more recent times the developers have been forced to include environmental considerations in their decisions. The official managers of the Bay as a natural resource must walk a narrow line to bring some opposing forces into positions of practical compromise.

Along with pollution, there is a potent factor that has to be considered. This is the question of access to the shoreline and the water. The charter granted by King Charles to the young colony in 1663 not only ensured religious freedom but provided for access to the shores below the high tide line and established the fisheries of the Bay as "free and common," to be enjoyed by all of the inhabitants. The Rhode Island Constitution incorporated these provisions. The Bay's fishermen have jealously guarded their right to utilize the fisheries, but the public's right of access to the water is no longer guaranteed. The shoreline has been blocked off at many points by those with sufficient means to acquire land holdings for dwellings and by private beach clubs.

The Sunday afternoon shore visitor and the beach-front resident both seek the same thing. The water is a superb sensual treat on a sunny summer day. The public has to be channeled into areas not privately owned where state and local authorities have made formal dedication of public right-of-ways. But at these limited entry points there are problems. Automobiles bring inland visitors to the shores, plug up private driveways, and fill dead-end streets. Crowds concentrate at access points and overflow onto private property above the high tide line. By their numbers they create another form of visual pollution.

If a farsighted planner could have laid down the framework for development along the shoreline before the people arrived, this kind of conflict could have been avoided. An obvious first step would have been the establishment of set-back regulations preventing construction nearer than 300 to 400 feet of the high tide line and dedication of the open waterfront strip to public purposes.

Broad promenades along this buffer strip would have spread the numbers of Bay users in acceptable densities and still have provided aesthetic pleasures to the front-row property owners, who would still have an unobstructed view of the Bay.

Such a plan could have worked well in the commercial ports as well. Lateral quays for the berthing of ships parallel to the shore could have provided freedom of movement along the shores for commercial traffic and walking access for the public on the quays themselves on weekends when commercial activity slowed, or on elevated walkways during business days. This would have been a distinct improvement over the almost total shoreline blockage by warehouses and fenced-in storage yards and the harbor constriction caused by piers which jut out at right angles to the shore.

Set-back regulations would have saved millions in property damage from flood tides and hurricane surges, and removed some of the need for expensive barriers and federal flood insurance, especially if coupled with absolute prohibition construction in areas of extreme hazard.

But starting over is out of the question, of course. So the planners and managers must work with things as they are, and attempt to minimize conflicts and opposing desires under imperfect conditions.

The managers have been around for a long time. The planners are of more recent origin. First, efforts at protecting Narragansett Bay involved the fisheries—in particular, the natural oyster sets. Regulation of shell, trap, and lobster fisheries through licensing and establishment of open and closed seasons has a long tradition and a high degree of acceptance.

Growing concern over pollution added a fresh layer of regulation over the Bay's shellfisheries. State and federal authorities also have exerted jurisdictional powers over construction of docks, piers, and other structures for many years, primarily to avoid obstruction to navigation.

Today, in addition, an extensive network of new regulations is emerging, affecting almost every human activity on the Bay, its shores, and the ocean beaches beyond. Planning, underpinned by resource inventories, identification of user impact, and other complicated processes, has become the foundation for the web of regulations. As a result, life along the shores of the Bay is no longer simple and independent.

Imposition of regulation is a normal response by society to internal pressures. When, by sheer numbers, humans begin to change and destroy a resource used by all, they curtail their activities by law. Inland urban dwellers know this and accept hundreds of regulations designed to permit them to live together under conditions of considerable crowding. The saltwater regions are among the last to come under control. In terms of individual freedom, this is too bad, but it is vitally necessary if the Bay and the oceans are to remain a rich inheritance for future generations.

Chief among the managers of Narragansett Bay and its subdivision, Mount Hope Bay, are the states of Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Watching over them and ready to exert overriding authority in matters of interstate concern is the federal government.

Within the state establishments, the fish and game and public health people, and the engineers who examine construction drawings for docks and breakwaters, have been joined by a new group of coastal managers whose powers include all the - traditional areas of regulations and extend much farther. Chief among these in Rhode Island is the Coastal Resources Management Council, created by the General Assembly in 1971. This 17-member body is charged with regulating all activities on the water and along the shoreline which can have an adverse effect on the saltwater resource.

The areas of Council jurisdiction are listed by law as shoreline protection facilities; coastal physiographic features; intertidal salt marshes; power-generating and desalination plants; chemical and petroleum processing, transfer, and storage; mineral extraction; and sewage treatment, disposal, and solid waste disposal facilities.

Its overriding authority is contained in the charge in its enabling legislation "to preserve, protect, develop and where possible, restore the coastal resources of the state for this and succeeding generations through comprehensive and coordinated long range planning and management designed to produce the maximum benefit for society from such coastal resources; and that preservation and restoration of ecological shall be the primary guiding principle upon which environmental alteration of coastal resources will be measured, judged and regulated."

At the federal level, the greatest influence toward effective coastal and Bay management is exerted by the Department of the Interior and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the Department of Commerce in matters of fish and wildlife and coastal planning; the Environmental Protection Agency in curbing pollution; the U.S. Coast Guard in aids to navigation, boating safety, and oil spill cleanup; and the Army Corps of Engineers in harbor and channel dredging, erosion and flood control, and oversight of dock and pier construction.

The towns and cities have their own forms of control through zoning and building codes and, in some cases, ordinances establishing harbor lines, boat speeds, and mooring areas.

The average Bay shore resident has considerable difficulty in finding his way" through these layers of bureaucratic management. He often has to obtain permits at each governmental level before he can carry out his plans, but the Department of Environmental Management is now trying to concentrate permit activity at the state level at a single point. Massachusetts has a similar department. Knowledgeable public information officers in these relatively new departments can clear up much of the confusion. In Rhode Island, the Coastal Resources Management Council has gone to considerable effort in public relations and education to acquaint the ordinary citizen with its rules and procedures.

All of the managers and planners must reckon today with a new and powerful "watchdog" force—the people themselves, organized into committees, associations, and federations of associations. Harvey Flint's Pollution Information Committee in the fifties was unique at the time. Now there are all kinds of "Bay watchers." They will lobby in the State House, picket, pamphleteer, and go to court if necessary. They know the laws as well as the official managers and planners do, and their chief concern is with the environmental impact of any activity affecting the shoreline or the water.

A whole book could be written about the rise of the citizen environmental movement. It began years ago when Theodore Roosevelt was President and John Muir set about to save wilderness land in the high Sierras. Numerous naturalist writers contributed. Then the late Rachel Carson raised interest in the marine environment with her books, The Sea Around Us and The Edge of the Sea, dropping a bombshell with Silent Spring and its frightening reports of the effects of pesticides and other toxins on life in the natural world. A host of other writers, lecturers, and thinkers such as Ian McHarg and Barry Commoner kept interest alive. Through television, Jacques Cousteau has been a highly effective lobbyist against pollution and human, destruction in the marine world. Many young people looking for causes have found the maintenance of the delicate balance in nature to be one worthy of pursuing.

Among the "watchdogs" along the shores of Narragansett Bay are the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, the state's largest private conservation landowner; Ecology Action of Rhode Island; Save the Bay, Inc., an organization which boasts a membership of more than 20,000; the Conservation Law Foundation; the League of Women Voters; and various garden club and sportsmen groups. Many of the shore communities have conservation commissions which are concerned with happenings inland and along the waterfront.

Alliances form between these organizations, and other specialized, single purpose groups spring up almost overnight when such things as nuclear power plants, oil refineries, or liquefied natural gas facilities are proposed. The commercial fishermen are not above seeking and getting court injunctions when questions of disposition of dredge spoil on or near their fishing grounds arise.

Never before have the Bay and its shores received so much attention from so I many concerned amateurs and professionals. The challenge is to achieve consensus out of this welter of interest as to what is best for the marine resource and for the -humans who use it. There seems to be some point of unanimity almost everyone agrees that Narragansett Bay is important to the well-being of both shoreline and inland populations and that how it is used can affect the quality of all our lives.



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