The coast of North Carolina is among the country's great natural resources, though it is one not widely known beyond the immediate vicinity. The 300-mile string of barrier islands that begins at the settlement of Duck near the Virginia line and ends at Sunset Beach near the South Carolina line shelters some 2.2 million acres of water in an estuarine system "second in size on the East Coast of the United States only to the Chesapeake Bay." Like the Chesapeake, it is a breeding ground for an astonishing variety of plants and sea creatures; like the Chesapeake, it has a rich and romantic history; and like the Chesapeake, it is now imperiled by the greed and carelessness of man.

But unlike the Chesapeake, which lies between Maryland and Virginia and is more often the subject of dispute than agreement, the North Carolina coast may have a chance of surviving in a condition at least vaguely reminiscent of its natural state. That is because in 1974 the state of North Carolina, after much wrangling, approved a Coastal Area Management Act. It was the product of legislative compromise, and it is still too young to be judged effectively, but it provides the legal raw material "to preserve the natural and historical resources of the region and to allow development consistent with that goal."

Those are the words of Thomas J. Schoenbaum, who as a teacher at the University of North Carolina Law School played a central role in the drafting of the Coastal Area Management Act and in the lobbying effort to win its passage. He has since moved on to Tulane University, but he retains an intense interest in the North Carolina environment. "Islands, Capes and Sounds" is a direct result of that interest--a book that is at once an entirely appealing labor of love and an enormously useful guide to its subject. For the lay reader it seems to me the most thorough, authoritative and readable introduction to the history and ecology of a region that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year; it is to be hoped that before long its publisher will see fit to make it available in a paperback edition, as the $22.50 price tag of the hard-cover is likely to discourage many potential readers.

Schoenbaum begins with a quick introduction to the subject, noting the unique beauties of the barrier islands as well as the sounds and mainland areas that they protect. He points out that the North Carolina coast emerged during the 1960s from a long period of general neglect, and that the boom of the '60s has had far-reaching economic and ecological consequences--good news on the first count, bad on the second. He writes:

"Each region of the coast stands at a significant crossroads. The choice is clear: Either the area will be overwhelmed by the kind of rapid, intense and wasteful development that has devastated many coastal areas in the Northeast and in southern Florida, or future growth will be channeled, respecting and safeguarding the traditional natural and historical resources and way of life. This is not to say that the region should try to return to the past or reject the modern world. It is a question of accommodating the modern world to traditional values and the natural forces that have made the area what it is."

Having set the scene broadly, Schoenbaum then takes the reader on a tour of the Carolina coast, beginning with the Outer Banks to the north and ending with the Cape Fear area to the south. Each chapter is a tidy, informative blend of history, legend and popular science. The reader is reminded of what he probably has forgotten: That from the settlement of Roanoke Island's "Lost Colony" to the piratical activites of Edward Teach and Stede Bonnet to the World War II missions of German submarines, eastern North Carolina has played a considerable role in American history. Schoenbaum describes the unique environmental characteristics of each area, and lists the contemporary developments that threaten them, from corporate farming to road-building to real-estate development to toxic chemicals.

This tale, like virtually every other involving the environment, has heavies aplenty. But two are heaviest: the North Carolina Highway Department and the Army Corps of Engineers. The former, with its insatiable appetite for road construction, has troweled asphalt across fragile islands and has brought tourists and developers into remote, vulnerable areas. The latter, with its equally insatiable appetite for digging and building, has ignored the natural tendency of the barrier islands to shift and has undertaken "massive shoreline engineering and navigation projects," the sum effect of which is to throw away good money after bad.

Schoenbaum points out all of this, but he is by no means an environmental extremist. He understands that "the human coast is as important as the natural one," and that programs to manage the coast must take into account the desire of the populace to live, work and relax there. But throughout his book, the operative word is "manage." He realizes that most of the mistakes of the past were the results of a failure to comprehend the nature of the coast: "I decided that the most fundamental error we had made was to carry out programs without understanding what was really going on, how the natural systems worked. I was convinced that we needed to know the ecology and geology of the area before we could adopt policies for solving the problems. We have to work with the natural forces of the coastal environment, not against them, if we are to succeed."

In this respect as in many others, "Islands, Capes and Sounds" is of far broader interest and pertinence than its subject may at first suggest. It is a book about learning to live in an environment as it actually exists, as opposed to how we might hope--vainly--to alter it. It is a book about devising realistic, unsentimental policies that permit man and nature to coexist. That it is also a book about one of the country's most beautiful places is merely an added, though most attractive, bonus.