By Audubon President, David Yarnold
Is this too much to ask of the Senate? To hold polluters like BP accountable for their catastrophes and make funds available for restoration efforts in the Gulf of Mexico - many of which are already planned, signed into law, and ready to roll out? To create strong new safety measures for offshore oil and gas drilling? To find the money to continue to respond to the environmental and economic effects of the worst oil spill in America's history? And to do what's right - to ensure fair compensation to families of those killed or injured by the Deepwater Horizon disaster?
The House acted to address both short- and long-term threats on July 30, around two weeks after oil stopped flowing into the Gulf of Mexico from the blown-out Macondo well. The Obama administration has also begun taking steps to live up to its commitment to making the Gulf Coast healthier than it was before the disaster. But the Senate now has only weeks to get the job done. And the people, wildlife and wetlands of the Gulf Coast cannot afford to wait.
From my new vantage point at Audubon - one of the nation's oldest and most respected conservation organizations - I look back on the Summer of Crude and on my own trip to the region during the height of the crisis. I can't shake the images of oil-coated brown pelicans or of gulls and terns perched on the oily ribbons of mop-up boom that washed ashore.
I wish every senator could have seen those innocent victims - and talked to the people, too. From the fishermen to the rig operators to the restaurant owners whose livelihoods came to a halt in the sludge of the Macondo spill, they all told me they believe in the need to restore Louisiana's fractured wetlands. We understand instinctively that birds are indicators of environmental health. Their fate is linked to the air, water, and landscapes that sustain us all. If they are in trouble, so are we.
But the BP disaster was just the latest insult to the vast Mississippi River Delta, a region long under assault from environmental mismanagement. On average, 25 square miles of vital wetlands disappear each year thanks to the misguided re-engineering of the Mississippi River. For decades, our elected leaders chose short-term transportation projects and industrial and commercial development over the natural systems that replenish coastal marshlands and sustain long-term ecological health. With each disappearing acre, the region loses essential natural storm protection, vital habitat for birds and other wildlife and marine species, and the foundation of vibrant coastal economies and cultures.
The administration and the House have planted the seeds of a response that can combine the immediate cleanup with longer-term efforts to stop and ultimately reverse long-term degradation of this globally significant ecosystem.
But it won't be enough to pass legislation full of good intentions. What's needed is a guaranteed source of funding. The House took an important step by passing the CLEAR Act, which included an amendment offered by Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-La., that directs civil penalties from the BP spill to coastal restoration. That means an immediate $1.2 billion for efforts to reverse the loss of storm protection and habitat across the Gulf Coast. The amendment was so uncontroversial that it passed the House in a voice vote.
Now it's up to the Senate. The two-week clock starts ticking on Sept. 13. An American treasure - its largest wetlands region - can and must be restored. For the sake of the people and wildlife of coastal Louisiana, is this too much to ask?
ABOUT THE WRITER
David Yarnold is president and CEO of the National Audubon Society www.audubon.org. Yarnold was executive director of the Environmental Defense Fund and a Pulitzer Prize-winning editor at the San Jose Mercury News.
This article first appeared in The Miami Herald and other McClatchy-Tribune publications around the country September 8, 2010