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The East Coast From Maine to Brazil : THE VOYAGE OF THE SANDERLING by Roger D. Stone (Alfred A. Knopf: $19.95; 304 pp., illustrated)

January 28, 1990|David Graber | Graber is a research biologist with the National Park Service.

Sailors aren't like the rest of us. How else to explain eagerly accepting confinement to a 38-foot cutter for the better part of two years, forever contending with the vagaries of weather, tide and terrain, managing with minimal amenities, and all the while trying to get some work done.

The job, Roger Stone's notion, is to survey the condition of the Atlantic Coast from Maine to Brazil. Stone's credentials for the job are impressive: Beyond sailoring, Stone is the former chief of the Time-Life Bureau in Rio de Janeiro, former president of the Center for Inter-American Relations, and presently vice president of the World Wildlife Fund. No kid, Stone nonetheless executes his self-made assignment with that breezy, nearly brash self-confidence peculiar to a certain class of Yankee breeding.

This is a serious book, with a point to make about the prospects for our Atlantic Coast. But Stone and his varying youthful crew know how to make a good time out of their mission, as anyone who loves a brisk wind or a good strip of beach would do. Although his syntax is cosmopolitan--and a decided cut above Time Inc.--Stone occasionally lets fly an expletive or sexual allusion, reminding you that he's temporarily free of office protocol. "The Voyage of the Sanderling" is part travelogue, part history, part adventure and part environmental report.

We in California primarily seek our maritime pleasures on the Pacific Coast; our more exotic meanderings in Hawaii or tropical Mexico. For those living east of the Mississippi, exchange Maine for Washington or British Columbia, Florida or the Carolinas for Southern California; the Caribbean for Hawaii. Our images of the West Coast are kept reasonably current and realistic; not so, perhaps, for Back East. The Atlantic report reads like our own: not sanguine, but for me, more of an unpleasant surprise.

After her donation to the World Wildlife Fund in Camden, Me., the Sanderling and her crew work along the rocky, fog-bound coast toward Portland. Findings: Maine's natural environment is still recovering from the ravages of 19th- and even 18th-Century agriculture and over-exploitation of coastal resources. Forests, fish, whales, seabirds are in many cases increasing. The "summer people" and urban refugees, who have done much to aid Maine's meager economy, have, however, stimulated rapid development of the Maine islands and coast. But this doesn't touch the explosion on Cape Cod and Nantucket Island, nor the dangerous pollution of Boston Harbor and Buzzards Bay.

Meanwhile, over-harvesting, pollution and estuary destruction continue to hammer fish populations. The clamor for scenic space and the voracious greed of developers who oblige refuge-seekers by converting quiet coasts into the places they thought they were escaping reminds me of the blight that now afflicts the Orange and San Diego coast. But Stone finds solace and reason for hope in new legislation's getting a better handle on the fishery, and environmental activists along the shore successfully stopping or modifying some of the more grotesque developmental perversities.

In New York, the Sanderling finds the consequences of simply too many people and their enterprises adding too many waste products--especially sewage and solid waste--to the system. Places like Long Island, that had remained in good condition until quite recently, have simply run up against the numbers.

Chesapeake Bay, however, may be the greatest tragedy of America's East Coast. Once one of the finest fisheries and waterfowl habitats anywhere, the bay has been poisoned and silted and deprived of fresh water; its wetlands drained; its forests cut and built upon. Far upriver, distant farms leach fertilizers and pesticides that end up in the bay. There is no want of conservationist will, nor of outcry, says Stone of the Chesapeake, but massive momentum looks to destroy all but a few odd pockets of nature before much longer.

Unlike the relatively arid and cold-water Pacific, the southeast Atlantic Coast is wet and warm. Instead of rocky shores, it is largely boggy estuaries and barrier islands. It was, until quite recently, largely ignored. Stone's bits of historic description put the place in perspective.

Along the Carolina and Georgia coasts, the Sanderling discovers plans for more posh developments like Kiawah Island and Hilton Head, and a prolific tendency to build retirement and second-home condos along unstable barrier islands and unprotected coast, where the natural course of hurricanes and currents eventually moves and removes all attempts to tame them. Not that massive amounts of largely public monies aren't spent, futilely and destructively, in attempting to civilize the shore. Again, local individuals and groups speak sense to an increasingly attentive audience while shell fisheries, bird rookeries and invaluable marshes blink out. Stone finds Florida so hopelessly prostituted that he rapidly passes on.

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