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Reflecting on Gulf Milestones

February 13, 2013

Restoring the Gulf can help revive one of the nation's most important seafood industries. Credit: Amie Vitale

By Judy Haner, Marine and Freshwater Programs Director for The Nature Conservancy in Alabama

In today’s news cycle, 2010 seems a long time ago.

But the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is still making headlines. Are we any closer to recovery? 

The year opened in a frenzy of renewed media attention on the Gulf Coast. A judge approved the BP criminal settlement from the spill and the headlines told the story:  “BP to Pay Record Fines for Gulf Oil Spill”, “BP Oil Spill Settlement Payments Exceed $1B Mark”, “BP Criminal Fines Could be a Game Changer.”

As a result of this settlement, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation is entrusted with administering nearly $2.4 billion to fund restoration work in the Gulf. Of course, the resolution of civil fines and penalties under the Clean Water Act is still pending and that trial is currently set to start in Louisiana later this month.

Like everything in the Gulf, the mechanisms of restitution and recovery are, well, complicated, and likely to play out over years.

But even in the midst of the swirl, one point rises above everything else: the appetite and the vision for restoring the Gulf continue to gain clarity, momentum, and most importantly, broad-based support.

The milestones of progress and the importance of community-based restoration are clear.

Milestone: Passage of the RESTORE Act
Normally, a large portion of fines from human-made disasters or accidents are set aside for response to the next eventual event and the rest goes into the general revenue fund, but that’s not the case with the Deepwater Horizon.

Due to the size of the spill, the magnitude of anticipated fines and the enormous extent of restoration needed were unparalleled in U.S. history.

For most people, returning the fines and penalties to the Gulf was a simple matter of fairness and there was an outcry for the funds to be used for recovery of the Gulf, rather than sit waiting for the next disaster.

Thus, the RESTORE Act was born. In July, the RESTORE Act passed Congress, directing 80% of the Clean Water Act fines eventually levied for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Spill to federal and state efforts to help the people and environment of the Gulf of Mexico.

With the five Gulf state delegations working across the political aisle, this bipartisan effort was led by Senators Richard Shelby (R-AL), Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Mary Landrieu (D-LA).

These funds will help restore and protect coastal habitats that are the nursery areas for fish and shellfish, reviving the seafood industry that provides the majority of the nation’s seafood.

It will also boost the recreation and tourism industries that employ some 600,000 people and contribute $20 billion a year to the country’s economy.

Passage of the RESTORE Act confirms the economic and environmental importance of the Gulf of Mexico to the nation.

The people of the Gulf have proven their resilience time and again. As a Gulf resident, I find it extremely heartening that people are finding a way to turn this terrible tragedy into what is likely the biggest opportunity of our lifetime to “pay it forward” in the Gulf of Mexico and make a lasting investment in ourselves, our future, our children’s future and our grandchildren’s future.  

Milestone: Community Resilience
Coastal Storms have quite simply put community resilience on the forefront.

Hurricane Isaac came ashore and crept slowly along the Mississippi-Alabama-Florida shoreline in late August, stacking up water on the coast for more than a week. Rivers and bays merged across roadways. Historic floodplains reconnected. Barrier islands were breached.

Two months later, Super Storm Sandy devastated the Northeast coast. In the aftermath of these storms, we realized that areas with a natural first line of defense – such as beach dunes and oyster reefs — fared better that those without.

Local leaders came together across party lines to make smart decisions as they began to rebuild their communities and a stronger public awareness of the role of nature in making communities safer emerged.  

The passage of Milestone: Passage of Forever Wild
Forever Wild protects land for conservation and recreation, and, inadvertently, protects the Gulf.

Alabama’s Forever Wild land acquisition program, Amendment 1, passed the state ballot with around 75% of the vote, extending funding for the program for another 20 years.

The renewal of Forever Wild ensures the continued protection and restoration of Alabama’s rich natural heritage. The fact that Amendment 1 succeeded despite the tough economy is affirmation that conservation is a mainstream value of people everywhere.

Less than two months after this success, the Alabama chapter closed on over 11,000 acres in the Paint Rock River watershed known as Jacobs Mountain, one of our all-time greatest conservation accomplishments, as beautifully shown on Alan Cressler’s Flickr site.

Long-term conservation of these critical areas protects not only the Southern Appalachian forests and unique cave habitats, but also the freshwater headwaters that feed coastal Alabama and other areas along the Gulf of Mexico.

Most folks in Montgomery, Birmingham and Huntsville don’t consider themselves “coastal” managers, but their activities, decisions and actions affect the coast as much or more than those living close to the Gulf.

Looking Ahead
As we ponder and contemplate the possibilities that 2013 may hold, I’d like to consider some ideas for coastal Alabama for the next year that build on our often forgotten successes:

  • To accelerate oyster reef restoration to make our communities and natural resources as resilient as our people.
  • To work side-by-side with local leaders to invest RESTORE funds for our future.
  • To convince communities across Alabama and our watersheds of their link to the Gulf of Mexico.

I think “thirteen” (as in 2013) will be a lucky number for coastal Alabama and the entire Gulf.  Now more than ever, there is an awareness of the need to restore our coastal habitats, boost our local economies and rebuild coastal communities to make them “better than before.”

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

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