Getting Gulf restoration right: Economics and environment can’t be separated

The BP well that became a geyser of oil and fire also stands to spread money across Gulf coastlines.

U.S. Coast Guard

The BP well that became a geyser of oil and fire also stands to spread money across Gulf coastlines.

Protecting the environment is good business. That simple truth was clear to me in my early career as a commercial fisherman and has been reinforced repeatedly through decades working on harnessing market forces to preserve fragile marine environments. In my previous life, healthy, clean waters meant more fish in my net. Now in my work as the environment director at one of the country’s most prominent family foundations, I see that across the world strong ecosystems contribute to booming economies and prosperous communities.

As I think about the billions of dollars that the Gulf coast stands to receive in the coming months and years from fines related to the 2010 oil spill, the same rule applies. The Gulf ecosystems and the economy that depends on them are interconnected, and the efforts to restore the Gulf must take into account the environmental and economic health of the region.

This approach to restoration – conserving and repairing natural resources as well as the industries and communities that depend on them – is the best way to create resilient, lasting local economies. In my work, we call it “conservationomics” – the idea that the conservation solutions that make economic sense are the ones that work best.

This focus is the heart and soul of a new campaign called Operation 1-1-1 – which stands for “One Cause, One Coastline, One Chance.” Stretching across five Gulf Coast states, the campaign helps the people most directly impacted by restoration decisions weigh in on how restoration dollars are spent. Backed by our foundation, Operation 1-1-1 will help amplify the voices of Gulf residents, including fishermen, restaurant owners and community leaders, so they can make sure their states’ policymakers get restoration right.

Getting it right means building oyster reefs that protect the coast from storm damage and contribute to healthier fish populations. It means investing in living shorelines that protect coastal ecosystems while creating jobs. It means making sure Gulf fisheries are well managed so that the livelihoods of fishermen, seafood retailers and restaurant owners thrive.

Committing to common-sense restoration in Louisiana and across the Gulf region is critical because these funds are a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a stronger, more resilient Gulf. In Louisiana alone, a $4.8 billion per year fishing industry and a $9.3 billion tourism industry rely on the state’s environmental health. And coastal restoration efforts stand to create over 57,000 jobs over the next 10 years.

Common sense tells us there’s more at stake than just the jobs that will be directly created or preserved by restoration efforts. No jobs can be created and businesses can’t expand without a restored coast that protects the region from flooding. We need leaders to make smart decisions that restore our natural resources to protect this region from the storms that can, and will, shut us all down.

It’s not enough to believe that the Gulf’s environment and economy are connected. Individuals across Louisiana and the other Gulf states have to let decision makers know that they must take this chance to repair, restore and replenish the Gulf Coast.

Gov. Bobby Jindal deserves our thanks for his leadership on the development of the State Master Plan to restore the Louisiana coast. But we also need to make sure that Jindal, and every state leader, follows through on the plan and works with fishermen and other business leaders to move restoration efforts forward quickly. We don’t have time to lose. Environmental restoration is economic restoration, and the best way to secure our state’s future is to invest in restoring the Gulf today.

I know that, like me, residents and workers across Louisiana’s Gulf coast see firsthand every day how a healthy Gulf contributes to their businesses’ bottom lines and their families’ well-being. The five Gulf states have an unprecedented chance to strengthen the Gulf for the long term by investing in common-sense restoration projects that will protect our natural resources. It is up to the people who have spent their lives on the Gulf Coast and will be most impacted by these decisions to raise their voices and make sure we take this opportunity to protect our Gulf Coast for years to come.

Scott Burns

Scott Burns is the director of the Environment Focus Area at the Walton Family Foundation. The Walton Family Foundation promotes environmental solutions for the Gulf Coast that make economic sense for local communities.

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  • Chris McLindon

    Mr. Burns comment “No jobs can be created and businesses can’t expand without a restored coast that protects the region from flooding” makes the unstated assumption that we have the ability to restore the coast to some previous condition that would provide protection from flooding. This is a assumption that has been stated over and over again so many times that it is now taken as the de facto truth. The problem is that there is absolutely no evidence to support this assumption, and there is a strong body of evidence that refutes it. Coastal restoration projects have been in operation in south Louisiana for over 20 years. Not a single one of the has had any measurable effect that could said to have reduced the effect of flooding. No new marshland of any significance has been created, and there are a growing number of scientists that believe that introducing Mississippi River water into the salt marsh is actually damaging the marsh and reducing its ability to buffer a storm surge. The stark reality is that the combined effects of subsidence of the coastal wetlands and the rate of sea level rise are several orders of magnitude greater than what any amount of coastal restoration could be capable of offsetting. It is true that we have one chance to use available funds to help protect residents of coastal communities from flooding – buyout offers that would allow people to move out of the flood zones to areas behind protective levees or on higher ground. If we waste this money on restoration projects that are proven not to work we will have blown that chance.