Rob Evans, Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation

As Threats Rise to Virginia's Coast, State Works To Protect Habitats and Communities

Leader of Coastal Zone Management Program explains efforts to safeguard, restore vital ecosystems

Virginia’s 7,345 miles of coastline are home to a variety of habitats, many of them critical to wildlife, coastal communities, and the state’s economy. To learn more about these areas, Pew spoke to Laura McKay, who leads Virginia’s Coastal Zone Management (CZM) Program. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: “Coastal zone management” has a bureaucratic ring to it. Tell us why people should care about this?

A: A huge portion of Americans live in coastal zones. In Virginia, it’s more than 60 percent of residents—over 5 million people—who live in our Tidewater area, and millions of others enjoy seafood from the coastal zones, or come to work and play there. So, it’s critical to our economy and quality of life that we manage our coastal and ocean resources sustainably.

Q: How does Virginia manage and protect its coastal resources?

A: The Coastal Zone Management Program brings together federal, state and local partners to address resource management and development in near-shore areas of the commonwealth out to 3 miles into the Atlantic Ocean. And while the program isn’t always visible to the public, it’s always busy. Over the past 34 years it has improved public access and boosted ecotourism in coastal communities, and helped preserve some of our state’s most vital and fragile habitats, like underwater grasses, oyster reefs, salt marshes and maritime forests.

Laura McKay
McKay rakes oyster shells that were gathered for a shell recycling program overseen by Virginia CZM grantee, Virginia Commonwealth University. Shell is used to restore oyster reefs, which provide several benefits to coastal areas, including filtering pollutants from water and providing habitat to other marine life.Virginia CZM Program

Q: The federal Coastal Zone Management Program includes tools, such as special area management plans, that states can use to conserve their coastal habitats. Has Virginia used these tools?

A: Special area management plans, also known as SAMPs, are fantastic and we’ve used them many times. SAMPs allow us to focus on specific geographic areas where close coordination—by federal, state, and local governments, and stakeholders—is needed to protect natural resources and promote sustainable uses.

We typically develop SAMPs over a five-year cycle, but one of our longer-running SAMPs from 2002 to 2011 was in the Dragon Run, a 40-mile spring-fed waterway in Virginia’s Middle Peninsula that features cypress swamps. Dragon Run watershed communities were interested in supporting activities such as hunting and paddling. We also wanted to protect iconic species like bald eagles as well as rare ones like the prothonotary warbler. The SAMP helped us to achieve these goals, conduct research to support new policies, acquire lands for conservation, and build public support for protecting this unique place.

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