Our last chance to save the Gulf

 

In the last decade, the Gulf Coast has been slimed by the worst oil spill in U.S. history, slammed by increasingly volatile hurricanes, eroded by rising seas and hit with toxic red tide.

Today, in the face of continuing natural and man-made disasters, the Gulf Coast states are embarking on the largest ecosystem restoration effort ever attempted anywhere.

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This may be our last chance to get it right. We can’t afford to blow this.

Federal and state officials in Louisiana, Texas, Florida, Mississippi and Alabama are making critical decisions that could affect which coastal communities survive, including: What will be swallowed by rising seas and sinking wetlands? Which birds and other wildlife will be around for our grandchildren to enjoy and which will not? Will the Gulf coast remains one of America’s top economic and energy powerhouses?

Nine years ago, an explosion on a BP oilrig in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 men and caused the worst man-made environmental disaster in our nation’s history. The oil spill slicked hundreds of miles of marshes and wetlands from Texas to Florida just as nesting season began for millions of birds. It killed grasses and trees critical to supporting the natural barriers that protect communities and cities from rising seas and sinking coastlines.

It was a disaster that the already fragile Gulf ecosystem couldn’t afford.

BP agreed to pay $20.8 billion in penalties over 15 years to fix its mess and help restore the Gulf — the largest government settlement ever with a single company — but not nearly enough to address all the challenges facing the region and its environment.

Federal and state officials now are deciding how to divide the pot among hundreds of possible solutions and pick the ones that can best protect and benefit the people and wildlife of the Gulf Coast for generations to come. It is unlikely we will ever have an opportunity this big again.

Because of limited time and resources, funding should go to the most critical, science-based, large-scale restoration projects and conservation programs. These large-scale projects are our best solutions for restoring land loss, saving communities, and ensuring a sustainable future for birds and other wildlife.

Audubon’s science teams have carried out extensive modeling to figure out priority areas for restoration and conservation for birds.

Why do birds matter?

Where birds thrive, people prosper. The fate of birds and humans are inextricably linked. Like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, birds tell us about the health of our landscapes. When birds suffer, our own fate is not far behind. Here is just one example: The same barrier islands, beaches and wetlands that provide nesting and resting sites for birds help diminish the storm surges that batter coastal towns.

Audubon, which has worked in the Gulf for nearly a century, examined not only where birds and people need help today, but where they are most likely to need help in the future as seas continue to push inland. In fact, under a very conservative scenario of a one-foot rise in sea levels, 6 million acres of highly suitable habitat to protect breeding birds would be lost to Gulf waters. That’s more than half the area where we currently work.

We recommend $1.7 billion for key projects vital to recovery, including:

  • Rebuilding Louisiana wetlands by allowing sediment from the Mississippi River to rebuild delta wetlands as it did naturally before the river was straight-jacketed by levees.
  • Recreating and restoring Texas coastal islands in areas that were once important nesting sites for tens of thousands of Brown Pelicans, Reddish Egrets, American Oystercatchers and other iconic shore birds.
  • Restoring natural Florida coastal barriers that protected freshwater wetlands in and around the Everglades from encroaching salt waters from the Gulf.

Why should the rest of America care what happens to the Gulf Coast?

Threats to the Gulf Coast reverberate across the country. It is home to millions of people who live and work in coastal economies that support the rest of the nation. Gulf ports, among the largest in the country, are critical to shipping networks for consumer goods. It is one of the nation’s top outdoor vacation destinations for fishing, birding, hunting and water sports.

And its coastal areas are critical to the survival of tens of millions of birds that migrate to the United States from the northern tundra or from South America.

Federal and state officials need to be responsible stewards of the conservation money coming into the Gulf and stay laser-focused on putting that money where the best chances of success are.

The challenges are huge. The consequences of failure are dire. We’ve got to get this one right.

David Yarnold is president and CEO of National Audubon Society. Follow his on Twitter at @david_yarnold.