When the citizens of this seacoast village wanted someone to protect the fragile beachfront from the forces of nature, they went to Pieter Schipper. He seemed to be a natural.A longtime resident, he was born in Holland -- and don't the low-lying Dutchmen know about controlling the ocean?
That they do, but they know the sea too well to try to completely impose man's will on it -- especially the will of property owners who can be menacingly ignorant about the coastal character. Twenty years ago, a riprap -- a piling of boulders along the shoreline -- was installed off Quonochontaug's shore. Sand was heaped onto it to protect, of all things, a community parking lot. But the new barrier had the opposite effect: It increased the erosion of sand to such a degree that a beachless beach was created.
With Pieter Schipper currently in command, the riprap has been taken out. "We're hoping now," he says, "that the beach will renew itself. We've planted dune grass to capture the drifting sand. Best of all, we've learned that you can't interfere with nature. We can only cooperate. If we're intelligent, we'll all learn how to mind the shore."
This intelligence, as gratifying as it is in this idyllic section of the Rhode Island coast, is not common in other parts of America's 84,000 miles of shoreline. In the 1970s, the 75 percent of the nation's population that lives in states bordering the oceans and the Great Lakes has been acting as if the carrying capacity of the coastline is limitless. Beachfront homes, ocean condominimums, luxury hotels, marinas, docks, dune buggies, drilling operations -- all of these symbolize the reckless attitude of going down to the sea at $2,000 a front foot.
That is the precious cost of the shoreline in some places, at least when the winds are calm. When they aren't, in the hurricane season when a David, Agnes or Camille crashes into a coast head on, the other costs are seen. The hurricane is "blamed" for the destruction of property, as if the forces of nature are out of order in laying waste to what the real estate speculators or resort developments so carelessly -- but profitably -- erected on the edges of the sea.
Hurricane David, coming at the end of a development-happy decade, was a fitting reminder that in the 1970s Americans were wild gamblers in messing with the coastline. We played a loser's game. Tens of thousands of acres of wetlands, marshes or barrier islands have been destroyed merely because of commerical schemes to interfere with what Henry Beston, the Cape Cod naturalist, called "the ancient courses."
Pragmatists conform themselves by pointing to the political protections found in the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972 or the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1968. But those laws, which were weak and compromised even before enactment, have done more to illustrate the problem than solve it: We are short-term beings interacting with a long-term planet. Artificial seawalls, groins or jetties meant to stabilize shorelines actually do more to raise a higher and higher tide of false security.
This security is needed in the hot pursuit of economic goals. The return on investments can be realized in "the foreseeable future," which rarely even reaches the life of the mortgage. As for the future that can't be seen -- 50, 100, or 1,000 years away -- who cares? If we can't see it, why strain to look for it?
Legislation can't change the destructiveness of this thinking. Just as no federal Leave the Shoreline Alone act is about to be passed, no sudden illumination about the natural functions of the seacoast and our relationship with it will soon overtake us. A major victory would be recorded merely to control the politics of destruction as practiced by the assembled powers that brought us an oil spill on Padre Island this year, one off New England last year or Santa Barbara 10 years ago.
It is enough to hope that a few more citizens like Pieter Schipper emerge. In nearly every barrier island I've visited in the past 15 years -- on both coasts, from Fire Island's 31 miles of beach to the tiny sandspits of southern California -- someone like him has been there.
In some places, the enemy is the Corps of Engineers, in others the local zoning commission that has been bought. If a beach is saved, it is because those making the struggle had an argument that couldn't be washed away: Taking care of the coast means letting the coast take care of itself.