"There are more hopeful signs every day that those responsible for deciding the future of this special and unique region are headed in the right direction."
Bob Bendick is The Nature Conservancy's Gulf of Mexico Program Director. He previously served as the Director of U.S. Government Relations. Read Bob's Conservancy Talk blog posts.
This blog series features the latest doings in the Gulf as reported by our scientists and staff. View the whole series.
The Nature Conservancy supports the ongoing evaluation of oil spill damages as an important step in designing the needed remedies and in assessing the financial liability of the responsible parties, and ultimately contributing to the much-needed restoration of the Gulf. But no matter what amount of money BP is ultimately required to pay, it will not be sufficient to solve all of the ongoing problems of the Gulf of Mexico.
Part of the importance of the spill was better focusing the attention of the Gulf States and the nation on those ongoing problems. There is now a broader understanding of the Gulf’s remarkable environmental assets, of the real economic value of those assets, and of the many threats to the Gulf’s future. Local, state and federal agencies are in the midst of planning for the expenditure of BP-related funds. In the process of that planning, important principles are emerging that we believe should guide Gulf restoration over the long run:
- Use natural features to make communities more resilient. Natural features and functional natural systems have clear and quantifiable value as tools for protecting communities from storms while improving wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities. Barrier islands, marshes, and oyster reefs can be used in and of themselves, and in combination with engineered systems, to produce cost effective risk reduction along with other benefits.
- Use Deepwater Horizon money to build the foundation for long term restoration. Restoration and management of the Gulf will take more money than is conceivably available from the Deepwater Horizon spill. The spill money should be seen in a larger context and be used for projects that relate to and create the platform for long term Gulf restoration. Used in this way, spill money should leverage other state and federal programs and initiatives.
- Focus restoration on repairing functional ecosystems. The Gulf of Mexico is one connected natural system, within which are nested other functional ecosystems. Estuaries are particularly important to the overall health of the Gulf. Restoration projects should contribute directly to the health of the Gulf as a whole and to restoring and conserving important subsystems. This means recognizing the interconnectedness of these places and functions and working in complex partnerships that cross agency and political boundaries.
- Respect past science, planning and community input. A vast amount of good planning, science, and restoration work has been done in the Gulf, much of which has engaged citizens, scientists and government officials. We should not start over as a result of the spill, but build on, where appropriate, the plans that have emerged from these significant endeavors.
- Incorporate risk assessment and adaptive management tools in planning. Understanding concepts of risk and adaptive management are inherent in restoring the functionality of natural systems to achieve goals in the face of a changing world. Successes will only come along with some failures. We should be willing to take reasonable risks with new techniques and strategies, and adapt management and restoration plans to account for lessons learned along the way. We can accelerate the learning curve by investing in state of the art engineering design, modeling and simulation tools such as TNC’s Coastal Resilience Tool 2.0, a web-based decision support tool which enables communities to evaluate their vulnerability to hazards and potential restoration actions they can take to reduce them.
- Share the costs and responsibility for investing in Gulf restoration. The Federal government can help, particularly in times of disaster, and we can make the best of one-time opportunities like the Deepwater Horizon spill, but ultimately every segment of the Gulf community (state and local governments, business and non-profits) must assume more responsibility for the ongoing stewardship of the resources that directly benefit the whole Gulf community.
- Fully engage stakeholders in every aspect of Gulf restoration. Taken together, the actions required to make the Gulf more resilient to change go beyond simple restoration and conservation to shaping a new future for the Gulf. Therefore it is particularly important to involve citizens and a wide range of organizations and business in planning for actions that affect their lives and livelihoods.
- Recognize and invest in the conservation values of private land. The vast majority of land in the Gulf watershed is privately owned. Therefore the effective use of private land conservation programs, such as those enabled by the 2014 Farm Bill, is essential to restoration success. This should complement strong investments in public land conservation, such as the expansion of state wildlife management areas and Federal wildlife refuges, which are important to the future of the Gulf.
- Ensure that disadvantaged communities share in the benefits of restoration. While the Gulf region pumps hundreds of billions of dollars into the world’s economy, it also contains many low income and historically under-served communities where citizens struggle to make ends meet. The restoration process should have an explicit goal of benefiting these communities not just with short term jobs, but also with better prospects for the future.
- Use the “mitigation hierarchy” at the ecosystem scale to reduce the impacts of infrastructure investment. Use of the mitigation hierarchy (avoid, minimize, compensate) when siting infrastructure in the Gulf may seem like a technical detail, but, employed in an ecosystem framework this approach can have profound impacts in reducing the impacts of new development or compensating in a meaningful way for those impacts that cannot be avoided.
- Maintain continuity of purpose and action. Restoring large and complex natural systems where human and environmental values are so intertwined takes decades. We need to secure both long-term funding for Gulf restoration (beyond oil spill penalties) and put in place the administrative and legal systems that will be needed to maintain continuity of action over the time required to produce lasting results.
- Don’t forget the intangible values of the Gulf. Finally, I hope we can recognize that the Gulf is a remarkably beautiful and biologically and culturally rich and diverse region—these less tangible assets should be protected and enhanced in the process of shaping the future.
Simultaneously employing these principles in a project the size of Gulf of Mexico restoration is no small task, but, despite the obstacles, there are more hopeful signs every day that those responsible for deciding the future of this special and unique region are headed in the right direction.