Six Months Later, a Unique Opportunity Emerges for Gulf Refuges

On the six month anniversary of the Gulf oil spill, let's honor the region by committing ourselves to action. The Gulf, one of America's true natural treasures, is worth it.
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It's been six hard months for the Gulf region. And the tar balls that continue to wash up on the former white sandy beaches serve as a constant reminder that coastal communities are still struggling to regain economic footing, wildlife losses are climbing higher and higher and we still don't know the ultimate extent to which oil and chemical dispersants will affect the fragile Gulf ecosystem. The long journey of restoration and recovery of this sensitive region has only just begun.

But here's something to think about: there are going to be substantial funds coming in as BP is held liable for the damage it inflicted on the Gulf region. The wheels of a process called the Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA) have been in motion since the catastrophe began, with state and federal agency representatives identifying damages to natural resources in the Gulf and determining how to rehabilitate, restore and compensate for them. As the responsible party, BP will provide the funding to restore the region. Much of that funding will be used throughout the Gulf to fix damage that has been done -- reseeding oyster beds, cleaning and replanting oiled salt marshes, protecting sea turtle nests so that more endangered baby turtles successfully make it to the sea next year than did in 2010. The National Wildlife Refuge System is another perfect and critical place to invest.

Along the Gulf coast alone, there are 38 national wildlife refuges, protecting some of America's most extensive coastal salt marshes, barrier islands, mangrove swamps and pristine beaches. These habitats support a wide range of animals, from tens of thousands of nesting shorebirds, seabirds, and pelicans to endangered sea turtles who come by the hundreds to lay their eggs each year on these protected beaches. These refuges were on the front lines as oil came ashore and it makes sense to prioritize their repair.

Now, funding available in the wake of this disaster provides us with a unique opportunity to do something more than just fix those damages -- government agencies also have the opportunity to look forward and use some of this money to acquire lands and expand wildlife refuges to protect even more coastal resources for future generations. They should do so now.

By expanding the existing network of refuges along the Gulf coast, we can increase our protection of fragile, coastal habitats and provide new homes for the myriad of wildlife displaced by the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion. Numerous currently unprotected pieces of land have already been identified by Gulf states and federal agencies as having valuable habitat for wildlife severely impacted by oil. They provide extensive coastal marine habitats important to recreational and commercial fish species, nesting habitat for sea turtles and terns, breeding and foraging sites for threatened piping plovers and other shorebirds and nesting and rookery habitats for waders and waterbirds affected by the spill. Ideal for wildlife, the areas also begin to compensate for damage done to existing valuable public lands. Our lands.

The NRDA process should yield billions of dollars from BP. Directing funds to wildlife refuges along the Gulf will ensure long-term restoration and rehabilitation from the oil spill but will also provide the much needed support to allow our protected lands to be rebuilt stronger than they've been in decades, fortified against future environmental disasters.

On this six month anniversary, let's honor those eleven lives lost and a region dealt the heaviest of blows with a commitment to action. The Gulf, one of America's true natural treasures, is worth it.

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