Federal and tribal activities

Washington's Shoreline Management Act (SMA) applies to private projects on privately owned lands and to private, local government, and state government actions on local or state government lands. The application of the SMA to federal and tribal lands is more complex. State rules address the application of the SMA. The Shoreline Master Programs Handbook, Chapter 5 provides guidance to local governments on interpretation of those rules.

Shoreline Master Programs required by the SMA are part of Washington's Coastal Zone Management Program. The program includes:

  • Shoreline Management Act (SMA), including Shoreline Master Programs
  • State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA)
  • Water Pollution Control Act
  • Clean Air Act
  • Ocean Resources Management Act
  • Washington State Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (EFSEC) Act.

Washington's coastal zone

Our coastal zone includes marine shorelines and extends three miles from shore. There are 15 counties in Washington with marine shorelines in the coastal zone:

  • Clallam 
  • Grays Harbor 
  • Island 
  • Jefferson 
  • King 
  • Kitsap 
  • Mason 
  • Pacific 
  • Pierce 
  • San Juan 
  • Skagit 
  • Snohomish 
  • Thurston 
  • Wahkiakum 
  • Whatcom 

How are federal actions regulated in Washington's coastal zone?

The federal Coastal Zone Management Act requires that federal actions affecting land, water, or natural resources in Washington's coastal zone generally must be consistent with the our Coastal Zone Management Program. There are some exceptions.

Federal actions include activities and development projects:

  • A federal activity is any function performed by or for a federal agency.
  • A federal development project is an activity involving the planning or construction of buildings and structures, or the purchase or use of land or water resources.

The federal government is generally immune to state and local permits. However, Congress has waived federal immunity in certain circumstances. For example, the federal Clean Water Act requires federal agencies to obtain state water quality permits. Because federal courts have held that shoreline permits are water quality permits, federal actions that affect water quality may be required to obtain shoreline permits.

Federal consistency determination

If federal actions outside the state's coastal zone affect the state's coastal resources, a federal consistency determination is required. Federal consistency is determined through a combination of federal and state regulations. 

A local government may:

  • Require the federal agency determine a project's consistency with the local Shoreline Master Program.
  • Express its opinion on consistency directly, including any required conditions.
  • Waive review altogether.

We also review federal permits for state Shoreline Management Act consistency. If a shoreline use permit or variance is needed, we review the permit. If a project is exempt from these requirements, the affected local government reviews the federal permit to ensure it meets the local Shoreline Master Program.


Our decisions regarding federal consistency can be appealed to the U.S. Department of Commerce. The Commerce Secretary can overturn our decision if they find the federal proposal is consistent with the federal Coastal Zone Management Act or meets national security interests.

How does the SMA apply to tribal lands?

Applying Washington's Shoreline Management Act to tribal lands is a complex legal issue. Typically, state jurisdiction within a tribal reservation is specific to the facts of a particular case. State laws generally apply to non-Native Americans and any land held in fee-simple within their reservations. Courts will usually examine the status of the land, whether the owner is Native American or not, the impact of the activity, and the possible preemption of state law by federal statutes.