Managing Coastlines: Here, There, and Everywhere

They created a revolutionary process for the sustainable management of coastal ecosystems that was first used in Rhode Island, later replicated in numerous other states, and is now being applied to dozens of developing nations around the world. It’s a process that has even withstood a legal challenge that was argued all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The 19 employees of the URI Coastal Resources Center —12 of whom are URI alumni—have every reason to be proud of the far-reaching implications of their pioneering work. Yet explaining exactly what they do is a challenge, even for the center’s director, Stephen Olsen ’70, who has worked there since the day CRC was founded.

“I often have a hard time describing what we do because it’s a very unusual organization,” he said. “Basically, the greatest challenges for achieving more sustainable forms of development on this planet are along coastlines, because half of the world’s people are concentrated there on just 10 percent of the world’s inhabited land. If we’re going to learn how to deal with global warming, species extinctions, growing competition for fresh water, and conflicts between an incredible diversity of human activities, coastlines are the place to learn to do it.”

Located in a homey building attached to the Coastal Institute on the Bay Campus, the Coastal Resources Center got its start in early 1971 when the state of Rhode Island passed landmark legislation that changed the process for planning coastal development. Similar federal legislation followed a year later.

Rather than having separate agencies responsible for managing ports and water quality and fisheries and development and recreation and other issues, the new approach called for examining how all of these activities and interests interact before making decisions. It was a huge challenge, but with funding from Rhode Island Sea Grant, the CRC was formed to assist the newly created R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council to develop the plans, policies, and regulations to make it work. This early work led to the development of Special Area Management Plans, which recommend policies and actions that government can undertake to protect complex natural resources.

Virginia Lee, M.S. ’79, long-time manager of the CRC’s Rhode Island projects, was still a student when she helped develop a management plan for the state’s coastal salt ponds. “We looked at the economics of the region, the geology, the water quality, set priorities for open space acquisition, and worked with the towns and the state,” she said. “It was adopted by the state and agreed to by all the municipalities involved. That work has had a big impact both locally and nationally.”

The science-based research that went into developing the plans was put to the test in 2001 when regulations resulting from the plan for the salt ponds were appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court

“I was lucky enough to get an invitation to be at the court when it was argued,” Lee recalled with pride. “The rules and regulations stood up in court; you can’t fill and develop salt marshes. It was quite an achievement.”

While the success of the Rhode Island projects was being replicated in numerous other states around the country, CRC was selected by the U.S. Agency for International Development to adapt its process and tools for use in developing countries. Beginning in 1985, the center began to develop coastal management programs with partners in Ecuador, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.

“We knew that the problems that were so obvious around the coasts of the U.S. also existed, or probably would soon exist, along the coastlines around the world,” said Olsen, who noted that the center has attracted $75 million in funding to the University. “The issues were the same, though we also had to factor in poverty, different cultures, and in Sri Lanka, civil war.”

Just as the international efforts were ramping up, Brian Crawford, M.A. ’86, returned from a four-year stint in the Peace Corps. He enthusiastically joined the CRC staff as a training coordinator. One of the biggest challenges the CRC faces, he said, is the lack of well-trained coastal managers at partner institutions in the countries where they work. So Crawford helped launch a bi-annual Summer Institute In Coastal Management to provide people in developing countries with the tools and training to manage their coastal resources in a sustainable way. Since 1991, more than 240 people in 58 countries have benefited from this internationally recognized course.

After eight years and dozens of trips abroad, Crawford moved his young family to Indonesia to accept a two-year assignment there. “I wanted to get back to my Peace Corps roots, to be working long-term in a specific place,” he said. “I led a field initiative in three different provinces, established a field office in north Sulawesi, and developed pilot models to community-based approaches to coastal management.”

His experience there made him the right man to return to Southeast Asia to help with the rebuilding effort after the devastating 2004 tsunami. “Our goal was to help communities build it back better and get people back to the way their lives had been before,” he said. “We worked in five villages helping restore their livelihoods by providing small interest loans and back-to-work programs while also preparing disaster management and evacuation plans.”

Lesley Squillante ’71, M.B.A. ’90, calls the Coastal Resources Center’s international projects “an opportunity to do some good in the world.” She had international development experience before she arrived at CRC in 1994, and she has led numerous initiatives since then, including roles in finance, computer systems, fundraising, and training. She now spearheads a new effort to certify managers of marine protected areas in the western Indian Ocean region.

“We’re really making a difference in people’s lives,” she said. “We’re working with Muslim women in Zanzibar, helping them farm ‘half-pearls’ and make jewelry. Before, they were shellfish collectors, but they were depleting the shellfish. So we worked with the women and their communities to create ‘no-take’ zones where no extractive activities can take place. This helps protect breeding stocks and increases the number of young bivalves in down-current areas that are open to harvesting. As for the bivalves that they do harvest, we’re helping them develop uses for the shells that they used to throw away. We’re also working with a group in Newport who are interested in selling some of the jewelry at charity auctions.”

Jennifer McCann, M.S. ’94, is also proud of the many international projects the CRC has managed. She spent the early years of her tenure helping communities on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico better manage their natural resources and expand ecotourism efforts. But after traveling three to five months a year for several years, she decided to shift her focus to help local communities in Rhode Island.

She succeeded in bringing together stakeholders on Aquidneck Island for the first time to address their common concerns while also working with the Coastal Resources Management Council to facilitate the development of an Urban Coastal Greenway Policy for the cities of Providence, Cranston, and Warwick. “The overall vision is to create a greenway around northern Narragansett Bay and help streamline good development where it’s supposed to be and to protect greenway corridors, too. It requires developers to use low impact strategies to have less impact on the environment,” said McCann, who lived in the Dominican Republic during her high school years.

So why do so many people who work at CRC have degrees from URI?

It stems, in part, from the broad approach that the Graduate School of Oceanography has taken to addressing issues in the marine environment. “GSO was working on all sorts of practical problems, not just basic science, and that attracted people who wanted to explore the question of what we need to do as a society to solve these problems,” said Olsen. “When they saw what CRC was beginning to do, a great many grad students or recent graduates said ‘this is what I want to do.’”

The University’s Department of Marine Affairs, the nation’s first academic program focusing on marine policy, has also been a breeding ground for future CRC staff members. As Lee noted, “Marine Affairs grads are a natural for us. They are at the interface between the science and the policy, which is exactly what we do.”

Equally important, however, is the fact that once people start to work there, they never want to leave.

“I feel supported here and encouraged to try things out and learn,” said McCann. “I can’t imagine not working here because it’s a part of me. And we’re making this world a better place to be for my kids and for other kids. You don’t do that in other jobs.”

For more information about the Coastal Resources Center, go to

By Todd McLeish