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Making waves 

Orrin Pilkey's mad. The man who's had more influence on North Carolina's once-benchmark coastal management policies than perhaps anyone else has seen the protections he inspired slowly whittled away. And he's not going down easy.

In 1979 he published The Beaches are Moving, the definitive work describing the dynamics of barrier islands--and the futility of trying to stabilize them. His influence on state regulations in the '80s--aimed at keeping coastal construction within environmentally sensible bounds--cannot be overstated.

While the coastal development industry never liked what Pilkey had to say, for many years his science and activism won out--and the beauty of much of the Outer Banks is a testament to that. But he's seen that change. As the value of oceanfront property skyrockets, regulations that once restricted development too close to the ocean are being eroded as quickly as the beaches themselves. Regulations that exist aren't being strictly enforced. And we're spending hundreds of millions of dollars for beach "renourishment"--the euphemism for dredging sand (or whatever) offshore and dumping it on an eroding beach--that Pilkey says is being done neither wisely nor sometimes even within the law. And it's mainly to protect construction that shouldn't be there in the first place.

It's not that Orrin Pilkey is against beach houses. The first of his 23 books was one he wrote with his father in 1975 called How to Live With an Island. It was a guide for safe construction published by the state, and it had immediate impact. Pilkey, until then a deep-sea sedimentologist, discovered a new passion.

Now, his passion is turned back to the North Carolina beaches that launched him on an international career (recent work: a study of the Colombian Pacific coast barrier island chain).

"I've become very discouraged and even frightened about the future of our beaches in North Carolina," he says. "There's not a whimper, not even a whimper, of protest about these really bad beaches from anyone officially." The problem, he says, is that small communities desperate for protection just want a wide beach to protect rental properties and avoid the spectacle of homes falling into the ocean. Meanwhile, he says, state regulators have been beaten down by legislators who complain whenever they try to enforce an unpopular restriction.

With articles like the one in this issue, Pilkey hopes to raise public concern and strengthen the resolve of state agencies that are supposed to protect the beaches. Because 70-year-old Pilkey, who has been helping us understand beaches for more than 30 years, just won't quit.

More by Richard Hart

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