by J.P. Leous
What a difference a year makes. Thirteen months on, the conversation has shifted from conservation to cutbacks. Political changes in Washington have prompted new calls for budget cuts at the federal level, putting initiatives that protect habitat on the chopping block. Rather than thinking of new environmental programs to implement, conservation advocates are trying to save existing ones from elimination.
What could this mean for the wetlands of Louisiana? We spoke recently with J.P. Leous, a blogger on climate change and land management at The Wilderness Society. In this post, he shares some of his thoughts on how these budget proposals could affect the wildlife of the Pelican State and the workers who depend on them.
If you like to fish, you might have caught part of the 2011 Bassmaster Classic last month on ESPN. For the fourth time in its 29-year history, the tournament was held in the Mississippi River Delta. Louisiana wasn’t chosen for this bass-fishing bonanza because of the charms of Bourbon Street. Instead, it was the waters of the Pelican State that attracted anglers to the event.
The burst of biological riches in these bays, rivers, and streams is largely due to the wetland ecosystems that emerge at the juncture of the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. This network of marshes and swamps provides important habitat for striped bass and other marine life. In turn, these organisms support a rich web of waterfowl and other wildlife that thrive in the “sportsman’s paradise” that is coastal Louisiana.
It’s a pity then that these wetlands, important as they are to the outdoor tourism economy of southern Louisiana, are vanishing. The Louisiana coast is disappearing fast due to land loss, a problem that could worsen due to sea level rise from climate change. Even in areas far removed from the shore, pollution and land-use policies threaten the long-term survival of wetlands critical to Louisiana’s native species.
The fate of coastal Louisiana will ultimately hinge on efforts to reconnect the Mississippi River with the delta that it built over thousands of years. The restoration of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands will in part be accomplished through the construction of river diversions and other large projects that would increase the rate of sedimentation and land accretion in the Mississippi River Delta. Past sessions of Congress have repeatedly failed to budget the funding needed to save this beleaguered environment. While Congress must still provide federal funding for Louisiana’s large-scale restoration program, critical projects could be expedited by Clean Water Act funding from oil spill penalties, which could yield billions of dollars for ecosystem restoration on the Gulf Coast.
Though the existing programs for wetland protection and wildlife conservation are far smaller in scope, they serve as important parallel projects to the ongoing effort to save southern Louisiana. In the short run, these initiatives provide employment for local people in invasive species control and other environmental fields, while in the long run, they act as useful ways to train people for the sorts of green jobs that will be required as habitats and wild spaces are restored across Louisiana’s coastal zone.
There’s no shortage of work needed if Louisiana’s treasured landscapes and communities are to remain resilient in a warming world. Taking on these short-term and long-term challenges would be a win-win for the economy and the environment, as investments in climate-smart conservation would create jobs today and protect valuable natural assets for tomorrow. Sound public policy on wetland restoration, wildlife protection, and land management is thus critical for the continued success of bass fishing, bird-watching, and other nature-dependent sectors in southern Louisiana.
Slash and Burn
That’s why the recent news from Washington on budget cuts for nature conservation should prompt concern in Louisiana. If the large cuts outlined in the House-passed appropriations bill (H.R. 1) were to pass in the Senate, much of this important work would take a huge step backward. H.R. 1 takes a meat cleaver to programs that most have never heard of, but from which almost all of us benefit. Such cuts are truly penny-wise and pound-foolish, because addressing environmental maintenance only gets more expensive the longer we wait.
Think of it this way: imagine trying to remove a few weeds from your garden when you see the first signs of trouble. Not too difficult, right? But it’s a different story if you wait until they take over. Now scale that up to hundreds of millions of acres and dozens of exotic and invasive species, and you are starting to get your head around what public land managers are facing.
And if you think these cuts won’t hit your favorite places, think again. If you’re from the Midwest, you’ve probably benefited directly from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. That program would take a $250 million cut, equivalent to 53% of its FY 2010 budget, in the proposed spending bill. Similar programs from San Francisco Bay to Long Island Sound would also face multi-million dollar cuts, resulting in fewer jobs dedicated to preserving these important areas. Other proposed cuts include slashing nearly $49 million from the Department of Interior’s programs to prepare for climate-driven disruptions, eliminating all funding for the Forest Legacy Program (crucial to restoring key forest ecosystems), and prohibiting NOAA from spending any funds to understand the science of climate change.
Oh, and the State and Tribal Wildlife Grant Program, which protects wild habitats and keeps threatened creatures off the endangered species list? Yeah, that was zeroed out in H.R. 1, as was the North American Wetlands Conservation Fund (NAWCF), which leverages federal and non-federal funds to preserve bird habitat.
Workers and Wildlands
Keep in mind that these cuts wouldn’t just hurt wildlife — they would also hit our wallets. Healthy wildlands contribute billions in valuable ecosystem services each year. Clean air is dependent on healthy forests, and clean water is dependent on healthy wetlands and headwater streams. These natural spaces also directly support active outdoor recreation, which generates 6.5 million jobs and contributes roughly $730 billion dollars to our national economy each year.
Over the past decade, Louisiana has been a direct beneficiary of several programs slated for cuts. For example, the Fish and Wildlife Service granted Ducks Unlimited $1 million in NAWCF grants last September to restore important wetlands on the Mississippi Flyway. This money created jobs for people in fifteen Louisiana parishes and was used to preserve critical habitats for migratory birds. If the North American Wetlands Conservation Fund was eliminated, this stream of funding and others like it would evaporate, along with employment opportunities for dozens of part-time and full-time workers in the coastal zone.
Considering the problems posed by climate change, the economic downturn, and last year’s oil spill, it seems wise to continue funding labor-intensive upgrades to Louisiana’s green infrastructure. Per dollar invested, conservation projects can create and protect more jobs than many other economic sectors while also helping to preserve the wetlands that are so important to Louisiana’s economy. From tackling invasive species to restoring cypress swamps, there are projects in communities across the Pelican State that we should implement as soon as possible. These projects create jobs for Louisiana residents, improve their public health, and buffer area communities against future climate disruptions. Taking on these challenges now will save money in the long run.
Think to yourself: Would Louisiana’s wetlands be the same without the wildlife that are integral to their health and well-being? Could the state remain a sportsman’s paradise if its habitat for waterfowl and fish disappeared due to neglect and lax oversight?
No one is doubting that America faces fiscal challenges, but it also has environmental and employment issues to deal with, too. Given the projected scale of climate disruptions and the fact that they don’t recognize land designations and property lines, landscape-level approaches will be necessary. Such initiatives, tailored to acknowledge the importance of economic development and environmental health, will also translate into employment growth. Private collaboration and commitment will be an important part of this process, but we still need public funding and support to ensure that these programs succeed.
All eyes are now focused on the fate of the Clean Water Act penalties, a potentially huge stream of money that would be transformative for wetland restoration efforts on the Gulf Coast. But at the same time, we shouldn’t lose sight of the smaller pools of conservation funding that are already being used to create jobs in the wetlands of coastal Louisiana.
Earlier this month, the Senate voted to reject the current version of the House-passed bill, giving Democrats and Republicans an opportunity to reexamine the proposed cuts to habitat protection and restoration initiatives. Thoughtfully pruning and paring down their budgets may be a necessary course of action in this time of fiscal austerity, but the wholesale weed-whacking of conservation programs that benefit Louisiana’s wildlife and workers would leave both worse off.
J.P. Leous is the Climate Change Policy Advisor at The Wilderness Society. In addition, he serves as a lecturer at The George Washington University’s School of Public Health and Health Services. J.P. focuses on natural resource adaptation and other issues related to climate and wildlands policy. An alumnus of the Peace Corps, J.P. graduated from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), where he co-founded the Award for Progressive Sustainability. Follow J.P. on Twitter @TWSjp.