by Shawn Stokes
While the global financial crisis has taken a toll on almost every industry, it has affected some more than others. The recession hit the construction equipment manufacturing sector particularly hard, causing an industry loss of 30 to 50 percent between 2008 and 2009. It should not be surprising, then, to find that equipment manufacturers are looking for new opportunities to build revenue. What most people may not realize is that these firms are discovering such opportunities in restoration work, particularly in the Mississippi River Delta and other areas along the Gulf Coast.
As part of our research for a Duke University study on Gulf Coast restoration, we met the founders of several small, family-owned businesses, including Marsh Buggies, Inc. and Wilco Manufacturing. These two companies manufacture marsh buggies and cargo buggies – amphibious transport and excavating machines designed specifically for wetland environments like coastal Louisiana. Originally developed to dig trenches in the marsh, they played an integral role during the post-World War II construction boom for oil and gas pipelines. Marsh Buggies, Inc. and Wilco Manufacturing provided the machines and the trench digging services necessary to put the pipelines in place.
After almost three decades of blistering growth, U.S. oil production slowed substantially during the 1970s, and in the years that followed, pipeline construction and repair work declined as well. In search of other applications for their equipment and services, the owners of trench digging companies found that their marsh buggies were also ideally suited to the work of restoring wetlands. These firms now serve a growing share of customers involved in coastal restoration.
Marsh buggies are used to build rock walls to control erosion, tear down levees to divert sediment, construct terraces to protect barrier islands, assemble dikes to contain sediment for marsh creation and move existing oil and gas pipelines. Cargo buggies transport materials to project sites and carry equipment, including soil boring tools used by geological teams during project design and evaluation. Since the financial crisis, this work has become vitally important, at times representing up to 25% of these firms’ construction services.
Throughout our research, we learned that these stories are not unique. Many of the businesses hit hardest by the financial crisis are those that were established to support growth industries of the 20th century – extractive industries, shipbuilding and industrial civil construction. Firms in each of these sectors have the capacity and capabilities to diversify and provide 21st century solutions to help restore the Gulf Coast and Mississippi River Delta. Interviews with industry leaders consistently revealed that coastal restoration presents an opportunity to grow an important segment of their industry at a time when their traditional markets are declining or undependable. Increased funding streams for Gulf Coast environmental restoration – such as the RESTORE Act – would also benefit these companies and encourage job growth.
Our research concluded that restoring coastal wetlands can provide an alternative for well-established firms, including many small businesses, to save and create jobs by diversifying into an activity that protects the environment, benefits other industries, and represents a critical investment in the future.
Shawn Stokes is a research analyst at the Center on Globalization, Governance, and Competitiveness at Duke University. Prior to joining the CGGC, Shawn worked as a data analyst at FINCA International, served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador, and conducted policy analysis for USAID Panama. His current work focuses on food, agriculture and environmental global value chains, including a series on coastal restoration and management along the Gulf Coast.
RESTORE Act fines could provide job opportunities in Gulf Coast, 32 other states [Delta Dispatches]
Restoring the Gulf Coast: New Markets for Established Firms [Duke University Center on Globalization, Governance, and Competitiveness]
The big footprint of small business in Gulf Coast restoration [Restoration and Resilience]
Who pays to repair Louisiana’s wetlands? [National Public Radio]