Coastal Reserve History

The 1974, North Carolina General Assembly enacted the North Carolina Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA). CAMA laid down a blueprint for developing land use plans for the twenty coastal counties, identifying critical areas in need of protection, and installing a permit system to guide land development within these critical areas.

As the regulatory and planning programs of CAMA were implemented in the late 1970s, it became clear that an effective coastal management program must include land acquisition. To fill this gap, the coastal reserve program, along with the public beach access program, were incorporated into CAMA in the early 1980s.

In 1982, North Carolina initiated a project to establish a four-site National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) as part of the Division of Coastal Management in what is now the Department of Environmental Quality. The National Estuarine Research Reserve System, established through the federal Coastal Zone Management Act, is a partnership program between National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and coastal states. NOAA provides funding and national guidance and each reserve is locally managed. The four-site NC NERR, which includes Zeke's Island in New Hanover County, Rachel Carson Reserve in Carteret County, a site on Currituck Banks in Currituck County, and Masonboro Island in New Hanover County, were acquired within ten years. These sites were conserved for research, education, and compatible recreational and traditional use. 

As the NERR program was implemented, the state recognized other coastal areas that should be conserved but could not be incorporated into the national program. In 1987, North Carolina initiated a parallel state program, the Coastal Reserve, by acquiring Permuda Island in Stump Sound to prevent development of the island. Similarly, Buxton Woods near Cape Hatteras, the largest intact maritime forest in the state, faced proposals for intensive development in the mid-1980s. In 1988, the state began an acquisition project to preserve the heart of the Buxton Woods as well as a maritime forest complex on Bald Head Island in Brunswick County. 

In 1989, the legislature amended CAMA to formally establish the state Coastal Reserve Program, which also includes the NC National Estuarine Research Reserve and is modeled upon the national program’s tenants. The Reserve Program has allowed natural areas to remain undisturbed when that could not be accomplished using planning or regulatory tools. The national and state reserve sites were established for  conservation purposes  and for use as living laboratories and outdoor classrooms. Other traditional uses (fishing, hunting, navigation, and recreation) may be allowed so long as they do not disturb the environment and are compatible with the research and educational activities within the reserve. . 

All six state sites were acquired by the early 2000s. These include Kitty Hawk Woods a maritime forest where bald cypress dominates in Dare County; the Emily & Richardson Preyer Buckridge in Tyrrell and Hyde Counties, a riverine swamp forest area between the Alligator River and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuges; and Bird Island, an undeveloped barrier island near Sunset Beach. 

The research, education, and training programs provide better scientific and public understanding of these natural systems. The program has improved the Division of Coastal Management’s ability to conduct research, to learn more about the areas managed through regulation and acquisition, and to assess the knowledge of coastal residents. This provides both coastal residents and decision-makers a better understanding of the natural processes of coastal North Carolina.

Today, the North Carolina Coastal Reserve & National Estuarine Research Reserve is a network of 10 protected sites spanning more than 44,000 acres of estuarine land and water. The Reserve continues to provide essential habitat for wildlife; offers educational opportunities for students, teachers and the public; and serves as living laboratories for scientists. 

Adapted from: Milton S. Heath, Jr. and David W. Owens (1994) Coastal Management Law in North Carolina: 1974-1994, 72  N.C. Law Review 1413.