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Task Force Tackles Gulf Restoration

By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

When the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force met in Mobile last week, Gov. Robert Bentley took a short break from overseeing recovery from the devastating tornadoes that ravaged northern Alabama recently to express his encouragement to those tasked with making coastal Alabama whole again after last year’s oil spill disaster.

“We’ve had devastations that have affected our state,” Gov. Bentley said. “I’ve only been governor for three months. It seems like a long time. But, we have this task force the president has set up to evaluate this ecosystem in our beautiful state and all the beautiful states that touch the Gulf of Mexico. What I would like to commend to members of this task force or people who are related to this problem – that we all need to work together and we can do this right if we work together as states. As Governor of Alabama, I want to give my assurance that that is my goal.

“It is so vital that we restore the ecological system of our beautiful beaches and marshes so that our waters will be clean, so that people who collect our oysters and shrimp can be guaranteed that the seafood is safe. And also, that those who partake of that wonderful seafood will know it’s safe.”

Gov. Bentley obviously has been preoccupied for the last two weeks with what he called the greatest natural disaster to hit the state of Alabama with about 30 or so long-track tornadoes that ripped their way across central and north Alabama.

“If you have not been involved in it, you do not understand the devastation that I have seen as I have crossed this state,” he said. “Our first responders have done a tremendous job in helping us in this tragedy.”

Gov. Bentley praised the efforts of FEMA and said he appreciated the visit from President Barack Obama in the aftermath of the tornadoes.

“I believe the way we respond in disasters will be the way we are judged, whether it’s as governors or presidents,” Gov. Bentley said. “I am so proud to be governor of a state that reacts the way we react in times of tragedy.”

The governor then turned his attention to “another great tragedy” that occurred a year ago in the Deepwater Horizon spill.

“In this part of the state, we have had a tremendous amount of two types of devastation – not only ecologically but economically,” he said. “Ecologically, (the task force) will be dealing with this. But economically, as far as tourism and the loss of dollars, I do not believe that any state – now I’m talking as the Governor of Alabama – that any state has been hit as hard as Alabama has been hit. We were damaged to the extent that our budgets in Montgomery were devastated.”

Gov. Bentley noted the proration cuts to the General Fund and Education budgets he has had to make because of a decline in tax revenues, some directly related to the oil spill.

 “Twenty-one percent of all the dollars that come to our state (budget) come from the two counties (Baldwin and Mobile) that have been devastated by the economic damage that has occurred,” he told the task force. “The 32 miles of beaches we have are vital to this state.

“It was so important for me to come today to talk with you, because I want you to understand how important Alabama is in this scheme of the five states involved. As the Governor, I love this state and we want the best for this state. But, as I said, we must all work together. I think the perception is changing. I think as we let people know that the beaches are clean and the seafood is safe that they will begin to come back. I think this summer we are going to see an uptick in the number of people coming, and I do believe our economy is going to improve this summer.”

Bentley cited N. Gunter Guy Jr., Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and Cooper Shattuck, the Governor’s top legal advisor, as the leaders of the Alabama team to mitigate the oil spill disaster.

Shattuck said a great deal has been accomplished in a short period of time by the task force, which is chaired by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. BP has agreed to provide $1 billion to the five states and two federal agencies affected by the spill. Shattuck expects BP to be surprised by the level of cooperation displayed by the different entities.

“The unprecedented cooperation exhibited by all the states and all the trustees to reach this agreement is exactly what we’re going to need to carry this process through,” said Shattuck, who said  the five states and two federal agencies will get $100 million each. “Not only did we reach an agreement to obtain the billion dollars, but we’re going to have to work together to implement the projects. We also reached an agreement as to how we would allocate that money amongst ourselves.

“So, I think BP probably thought they didn’t have anything to worry about because the states and trustees would not be able to get their act together. But we did. And now we’ve challenged them. Now they’re going to have to put their money where their mouth is, and we’ll see these projects done.”

Shattuck said the goal is to have several projects selected within the next 60 days to begin the work of restoring the Gulf Coast affected by the spill.

“I think we’ve got some great projects that have been discussed and submitted,” he said. “We’ve had lots of studies of our ecosystem down here. I think the work that’s been done to clean the beaches has enticed tourists back. I think the important thing to remember is that the NRDA (Natural Resource Damage Assessment) process not only deals with the natural resources that are damaged, but also the loss of use of those resources. And that’s exactly what Alabama had. We had the loss of our beaches, which are incredible natural resources. So we’re going to have to identify projects that restore that loss of use, and I think we can do that.”

Commissioner Guy pointed out the diversity and importance of habitat on the Alabama Coast from the vast Mobile-Tensaw Delta, down through Mobile Bay to the sugary sand of the beaches on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico.

“We’re excited about the opportunity to share with you the attributes that make coastal Alabama a unique and diverse landscape – a place that provides a great quality of life to its residents,” Guy said. “We want you to leave here with a greater understanding of the challenges faced by our citizens concerning our natural resources and communities and some insight of restoration opportunities. There are numerous resources and habitats in coastal Alabama. All of these habitats support incredible natural resource complexes and vibrant local economies.”

Guy noted the recreational opportunities, such as birding, canoeing, kayaking, hunting and fishing, available in coastal Alabama, as well as the economic importance of the Port of Mobile and the beaches, not to mention the ecological contributions of the Delta and Mobile Bay.

“In coastal Alabama, we’ve identified four umbrella ecosystem issues that are critical and will play a role in our restoration – water quality, shoreline stabilization, habitat protection and community resilience,” Guy said.

“People come to the Alabama Gulf Coast to sit on our beaches, eat our seafood, paddle our bayous and to watch our wildlife. We want the communities that support these activities to be resilient. We continue to recognize and promote the direct relationship between a healthy ecosystem and a healthy economy. The two items are linked. Our Gulf Coast communities depend on healthy ecosystems to drive their economies and give them the resiliency to quickly recover from natural and man-made disasters, as well as economic downturns.”

PHOTOS: (By David Rainer) Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, left, discusses the effect of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the Alabama Gulf Coast with Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft, right, and Dauphin Island Mayor Jeff Collier during the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force meeting recently in Mobile. The task force was commissioned to help the Gulf states recover from the impact of the oil spill, including coordinating ongoing clean-up and restoration efforts.

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