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Gulf needs federal restoration

So bountiful were birds of all kinds in the Gulf region swamps that James Audubon is said to have done over a thousand of his famous “Birds of America” paintings there during the early 1820s.
Louisiana especially, which Theodore Roosevelt averred to be the great ornithologist’s real home state was so rich in “heirloom” bird treasures that its Breton Island sanctuary became one of the first of these in the National Wildlife Refuge system initiated during Roosevelt’s presidency.
Marking World Wetlands Day on Feb. 2, the Ducks Unlimited conservation group affirmed the exceptional importance of the Gulf coast marshes still, as “mainstay for wintering waterfowl [that] traditionally supports more than 13 million ducks and geese.” It noted the ongoing loss of shoreline wetland habitat, though, “the size of a football field every 30 minutes.”
When hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf five years ago, the coastal wetlands loss, averaging 16,000 acres per year over many decades, greatly exacerbated its waves- and-storm surge destructive power. Every 2.7-mile swath of wetlands, with their muck and maze of vegetation, buffers and dampens storm surges by one foot, Audubon Magazine reported that year. For a full decade pre-Katrina, Louisiana officials had appealed to Washington for help to stem the loss of the buffering — and fisheries supporting — coastal wetlands shield, requesting $14 billion for restoration. The appeal having mostly fallen on deaf ears, as the magazine noted, the Congress passed an allocation of just $540 million for the effort, over four years, three weeks before Katrina hit.
For the birds, shrimp and other fisheries, tourism and related industries, the BP oil spill last year came as another disaster. For the region’s tourism, lost-revenue impact of $22.7 billion over three years was estimated in a recently released study; for Louisiana alone, losses in fishing revenue could reach from nearly $300 to $428 million, in full-time-equivalent jobs up to 4,000 and in lost employee earnings up to $103 million.
The Clean Water Act, and an Oil Pollution Act put into place after the Exxon Valdez spill provide for assessment of penalties when the nation’s water resources have been harmed through violation of the laws. Monies thus recovered are to assure availability of funds for restoration efforts and prevention of future damages. But a problem for securing allocations specific to these purposes remains in that, absent congressional action, Clean Water Act fines are automatically deposited in the general federal treasury.
Two national commissions established in the wake of the BP disaster are urging, as key recommendation, that most (80 percent) of the assessed penalties be dedicated to long-term restoration — prioritizing coastal wetlands and barrier islands — of the Gulf. A bill in the U.S. House (“Gulf Restoration Act,” H.R. 56) seeks the same.
This recommendation should be heeded, being fair and essential if the national environmental treasure that is the Gulf, and its fisheries that supply a third of our seafood, are to regain and maintain their health.