Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Gulf Coast Restoration Plans: conservation groups submit recommendations to Presidential Task Force

This week a coalition of leading conservation groups focused on finding long-term solutions for the Gulf of Mexico following last year's disastrous Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, submitted a blueprint for federal, state, and local action to restore the region's ecology and help communities dependent on the Gulf. Their recommendations were delivered to the Presidential Task Force on Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration which has an October deadline to develop a comprehensive strategy, dictated by executive order, "to effectively address the damage caused by the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, address the longstanding ecological decline, and begin moving toward a more resilient Gulf Coast ecosystem."

The Nature Conservancy, the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies, National Audubon Society, Ocean Conservancy, National Wildlife Federation, Environmental Defense Fund, and the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation cooperated to produce the recommendations, entitled a Strategy for Restoring the Gulf of Mexico.

According to PRNewswire, the timing of the work is important. "The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is expected to soon vote on legislation that would provide funding to implement the Presidential Task Force's restoration plans. The Senate bill, the RESTORE Gulf Coast States Act, would dedicate 80 percent of the oil spill fines to restoring the Gulf's communities, economies and environments. Under current law, most of the fines will be used for general government spending, rather than being directed towards the Gulf."

"The Gulf is a national treasure and restoring it must be a national priority," said Wes Tunnell of the Harte Research Institute. "Too much time has already passed. We cannot miss this important opportunity to rebuild the Gulf and ensure it continues to support our nation's economy, communities and wildlife."

PRNewswire reported that some of the blueprint's recommendations include:

  • Restoration activities should provide both environmental and social benefits.
  • Ensure sufficient delivery of freshwater flows to the Gulf in order to maintain ecological health of bays and estuaries.
  • Restore populations of endangered marine mammals, where their probability of extinction in the next 100 years is less than 1%.
  • Construct and operate a series of large-scale diversions of freshwater and sediment from the Mississippi River sufficient to build and sustain Delta wetlands to provide storm surge protection for people and restore habitat for economically vital fisheries.
  • Implement management plans for oyster reefs that support fish production, water filtration, nitrogen removal, coastal protection and other services that benefit both people and nature.
"If we really care about the Gulf and the communities that rely on it for survival, these fines must be used to restore the wetlands, marshes, oyster reefs, mangroves, fisheries and other natural resources that provide food, income and shelter to local communities – and the nation as a whole," said Cindy Brown, The Nature Conservancy's Gulf of Mexico Program Director. "The Gulf suffered the brunt of the spill and the fines should be used to bring the Gulf back to health."

Given the current mindset of Congress following the debt limit debacle, it will be interesting to see how the blueprint fares in light of the political trend towards spending cuts. It remains to be seen whether funding from fines will be directed to the project, thereby offsetting governmental outlays, or whether the fines will be retained to offset the current lack of government revenues.

"Although born of tragedy, there is a tremendous opportunity now for recovery of the Gulf. But we must think big," said Chris Canfield, Vice President of Gulf Coast Conservation/Mississippi Flyway with the National Audubon Society. "We must look and work across political and organizational boundaries. We know how to restore the Mississippi River Delta, to bring back wetlands and barrier islands, to make a better home for birds, fish and our communities. All we need is the resolve to do it."

"We hope our recommendations will help the task force develop its strategy, but the task force can't implement its strategy without the necessary funding that the RESTORE Gulf Coast States Act provides," said Courtney Taylor, policy director for the Mississippi Delta Restoration project at Environmental Defense Fund. "That's why Congress must hold the parties responsible for Gulf oil spill damage accountable by passing the RESTORE Gulf Coast States Act to ensure that we invest the oil spill penalties to restore the Gulf, or we risk losing this ecological and economic treasure."

We can only hope. But perhaps not. Perhaps we can do more. Let the White House and your Senators know that you want to see the Presidential Task Force and the RESTORE Gulf Coast States Act move forward. With the recent debt crisis, they finally acted, in part due to response from their constituencies. Perhaps we can get them to act responsibly again. Wouldn't that be a change of pace.

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