NWF Attends the First Meeting of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force
The November 8 meeting of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force — created under an October 4 Presidential Executive Order to help the Gulf region address both damage from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the region’s longer term ecological decline — left me with two major impressions.
First, the people involved get the urgency of post-oil spill ecosystem restoration. The Task Force had a chair (EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson), an Executive Director (former EPA Regional Administrator John Hankinson) and all of its members (including a Governor-recommended representative from the five Gulf States), and was holding its first public meeting in Pensacola, Florida a mere 35 days after the executive order was issued.
By government standards, that’s fast work. And no wonder. The Task Force has less than 11 months to propose a Gulf of Mexico Regional Ecosystem Restoration Strategy that includes a restoration agenda and how to implement it.
Second, the people of the Gulf region are paying attention and want to be involved.
With less than two weeks notice, more than 300 people showed up, representing businesses, community groups, NGO’s, local governments, state agencies and assorted others – all anxious to hear how the federal government can help a storm- and spill-battered region get back on its feet.
At stake, of course, could be the disposition of billions in fines and penalties that BP will inevitably pay as a result of the spill. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus recommended that a “substantial amount” of fines and penalties be dedicated to restoration, rather than be deposited in the Treasury or the Oil Spill Trust Fund. This dedication may take Congressional action, but the Task Force recommendations are expected to shape both the “what” and the “how” of that restoration agenda. So yes, it was standing room only.
All that said, it was a fairly ceremonial meeting. Administrator Jackson opened with a passionate statement of her commitment to the health and vitality of the Gulf Region. Federal agency members solemnly affirmed their commitments to conservation and restoration as well as to cooperation and coordination. State actors gently laid down their markers—Florida wants to restore confidence in tourism and seafood; Alabama, with its tiny coastline, is more concerned about economic recovery than environmental restoration; Louisiana reminded everyone of its pre-spill problem of massive coastal land loss. Then we all went to lunch.
Upon our return we organized into breakout sessions offering suggestions about how the Task Force should solicit input, communicate its findings and about what constitutes the substance of restoration.
Despite its 30,000-foot elevation, I think the meeting sent a good message.
There is broad consensus that the ecological and economic health of the Gulf region are intertwined, that the region contributes significantly to the national economy, and that the whole country has reason to invest in its recovery.
As Administrator Jackson said in her opening remarks, “This summer, during the spill, for a number of weeks, we lost the Gulf coast. It made us all realize how valuable it is.” Now it’s time to make sure we don’t lose it for good.