This week, The Nature Conservancy’s Marine Team has been meeting here in Virginia. When the meeting began a couple of days ago, there was a real sense of optimism among the participants that the U.S. had turned the corner on recognizing the immense value of coastal wetlands.
The U.S. House had included $400 million for coastal restoration in its economic stimulus legislation, and it looked like the Senate would include about the same amount in its version of the bill.
But that optimism turned to near despair yesterday when word got around that a bi-partisan amendment might strip all of the coastal restoration dollars from the Senate bill.
Dr. Mike Beck, one of our leading marine scientists and someone who has worked along the East, Gulf and West Coasts, asked, “Why do our coasts always come last?”
I said, “If you were testifying before the Senate tonight, what would you tell them?”
He went off to gather his thoughts and some specific information and came back with this:
The infrastructure in our country has fallen into disrepair and no one doubts that rebuilding it will be a good and much needed stimulus for job creation. This black and gray infrastructure of roads, bridges and buildings should be rehabilitated.
But the decay in the green and blue natural infrastructure of our nation – our coastal wetlands and waters — is far worse. Not only has this green infrastructure been degraded over the past few decades, but much of it has been lost entirely. More than 90 percent of coastal wetlands on the West Coast and more than 85 percent of our oyster reefs nationwide are simply gone.
Rebuilding this natural infrastructure through coastal habitat restoration is a great stimulus for our economy. Habitat restoration creates jobs — probably even more jobs than the construction of roads and bridges. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that for every $1 million spent, there are 15.6 jobs created through construction projects and 20.3 jobs in the agriculture, forestry and fisheries industries, which include restoration.
In 2007 and 2008, we found that the Conservancy’s coastal habitat restoration projects across the country supported more than 50 full and part time positions per each $1 million spent. Good jobs. Diverse jobs. And this figure ignores the array of manufacturers and technology companies and their employees that provide the tools and equipment required to restore our green infrastructure along the coast.
Habitat restoration is labor intensive — if you have ever seen marshes being planted or reefs being constructed, you know the hard work it takes. Thousands of people have been employed to plant marshes from San Francisco Bay to the bayous of the Atchafalaya. I have watched them build whole shellfish reefs that clean the waters of our bays, protect houses from storm damage and make great fishing spots from Puget Sound to Pamlico Sound and Chesapeake Bay.
Lastly, the rebuilding of our coastal treasures preserves our heritage — the quality and way of life — and, yes, it does create jobs often for the same folks who have been thrown out of work by the impacts of coastal degradation.
It seems to me this is a convincing explanation that makes it difficult to understand why — in a country where most of the people live and work along the coasts — it’s too much to spend .05 percent of a national economic stimulus package on restoring the coastal wetlands and reefs.
This is exactly the kind of stimulus this country needs. It will create thousands of jobs in the near term, provide lasting economic benefits through supporting tourism, commercial and recreational fishing, and improving property values. Moreover, this natural infrastructure protects our communities from the impacts of storms and erosion, sustains fish and shellfish stocks, and improves water quality.
Like the forest restoration I wrote about in an earlier blog, the cost of restoring the health of natural systems is not really an expenditure but rather an investment that will pay handsome returns.
We can only hope that Senators from coastal states will intervene at the 11th hour to keep money in their version of the stimulus bill to conserve coastal resources so vitally important to the future of their constituents.
(Image: Hauling nets in southeast Alaska. Source. Bridget Besaw.)