In this season of New Year’s resolutions, we all look to the year ahead and think about what we can do better. As we enter 2015, my mind is on a few important dates – including the five-year anniversary of the BP oil spill on April 20th – and how Mississippi leaders, communities, and businesses must continue to work together to repair the damage that disaster caused to our coastal environment and economy.
In the aftermath of the 2010 tragedy, it became immediately apparent that no other region of Mississippi’s economy is as intricately linked to natural resources as that of the Gulf Coast. The long-term effects on wildlife and habitats along the coast are still unknown. Mississippians’ resilience and resolve have put us back on track, but we must continue that effort in order to re-establish a thriving coastal economy that creates jobs, sustains industries and makes our coast a great place to live.
Mississippi is expected to receive more than $1 billion in Clean Water Act fines through the RESTORE Act. These funds will provide our state with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to repair and restore our natural resources and the businesses that depend on them. It is crucial that money received from RESTORE Act fines be used to restore and enhance our coastal natural resources in a long-term and sustainable manner.
The RESTORE Act is an unusual law. Normally, Clean Water Act fines resulting from an oil spill are put in a federal trust fund. But the Deepwater Horizon was an unprecedented disaster, and in a rare, strong bipartisan vote, Congress agreed the response should be too. Enacted in 2012, the RESTORE Act will direct 80 percent of the Clean Water Act fines paid by BP and other responsible parties to the Gulf states to support restoration efforts.
This is not an option, but an imperative; RESTORE Act funds will be our best opportunity to not only address the damage from the spill but to help repair a half century’s worth of ecological degradation from human impacts and natural disasters. Given that the foundations of our coastal economy are healthy natural resources, these funds also represent the best chance we will have in our lifetime to boost Mississippi’s economy, not just for the next ten or twenty years but for generations to come.
I’ve been working for the past few years with an informal coalition of environmental and conservation organizations committed to ensuring that Mississippi invests these funds in projects that restore our waters, wetlands, and fisheries while supporting businesses that depend on a healthy coast. Our message to decision makers has been to identify and fund projects that support the fish and wildlife habitat that fuels our tourism and seafood industries, the wetlands that protect our communities from storms, the natural resources that provide an array of recreational opportunities, and the Gulf waters that sustain our way of life.
To understand why restoration is important and how a healthy coastal environment is directly related to a healthy economy, look at the numbers:
» Nearly one in five jobs on the coast is tied to tourism, which depends on a clean, beautiful coast.
» Wildlife tourism generates almost $2 billion in tourist spending in Mississippi every year and supports 26,000 jobs.
» The Gulf Islands National Seashore units in Mississippi draw nearly 1 million visitors each year, generating over $39 million for the local economy.
» Mississippi’s commercial and recreational fishing-related activity brings in over $700 million in sales each year.
Major industries that make up our coastal economy — tourism, shipping, and seafood — all rely on a healthy coast. In the coming months, I’ll use this column to share information about how restoration will benefit specific industries along the coast, and provide a glimpse of how coastal restoration projects can make a lasting contribution to some of the most important and unique elements of Mississippi’s economy.
All Mississippians have something to gain through the restoration of our coast’s natural resources: more jobs, protection of homes and businesses from future disasters, more recreational opportunities, and a chance to ensure that we are building a better economy and environment for our children. As we look ahead to 2015, I hope we all resolve to become involved in the process and do what we can to make sure our coastal environment and coastal economy is restored and protected in a way that will sustain a healthy and thriving coast.
» Elizabeth Barber, Vice President of Barber and Mann, Inc., is a certified wildlife biologist. She coordinates the MS Environment Focus Group, a grassroots coalition of 18 non-government conservation and community organizations working together in Mississippi for meaningful, science-based Gulf ecosystem restoration in order to achieve a vibrant environment and economy. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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