Months after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, what’s next for the national parks along the Gulf of Mexico?
By Scott Kirkwood
It’s been called the biggest environmental disaster in our nation’s history. In case you somehow missed the nonstop media coverage, a rundown of the critical details: In April, an oil rig perched 50 miles off the Louisiana coast exploded, killing 11 workers and spewing as much as 200 millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, 20 times the amount spilled by the Exxon Valdez in 1989. Oil flowed from BP’s Deepwater Horizon for nearly two months, and the recovery could last for decades, if the Valdez disaster is a guide. The media have focused plenty of attention on the broader environmental impacts and the damage to the commercial fishing industry, but little attention has been focused on the national parks along the coast, ranging from Padre Island National Seashore in Texas all the way to Biscayne National Park in Florida.
As details of the spill’s enormity were first revealed, park biologists feared critical damage to wildlife, coastal habitat, and cultural resources, like sea grass beds that serve as important nursery habitat for sea turtles, young fish, crabs, shrimp, and other crustaceans to salt marshes, which offer refuge for birds and buffer the mainland during storm events. Shipwrecks, archeological sites, Civil War defenses, and other historic structures were also in the path of the dark plume spreading through the Gulf.
Fortunately, the worst-case scenario didn’t emerge. But it’s not over yet. So far, Gulf Islands National Seashore in Mississippi and Florida has been the most obvious victim. The collection of barrier islands is home to great blue herons, loons, sea turtles, and even armadillos. In June, NPCA President Tom Kiernan was invited to tour the park and view the impact from a helicopter, along with Executive Vice President Theresa Pierno and Sun Coast Regional Director John Adornato III.
“I was definitely expecting to see significant amounts of oil in the water, tar balls, tar sheets, horrible expanses of tar all over the beaches, and dead animals, but thankfully, we didn’t see that,” says Adornato. “Still, I was hit by the reality of the situation: seeing the surf crashing on the beach, with a pinkish-brown color due to the hundreds of thousands of gallons of dispersant that had been dumped into the ocean. There’s no question the use of those chemicals lessened the visual impact of the spill, and gave the impression that BP and the government were taking immediate action, but no one knows what the long-term impact will be. This disaster is essentially a large-scale unplanned experiment in the use of dispersants at such large volumes, and it’s a case where the federal government fell down on its responsibilities. If we’re going to allow drilling off our shores, emergency-response situations need to be addressed before the emergency happens, not as it’s unfolding. We’ve got to use this as a learning opportunity and institute some serious changes.”
For now, the Park Service is working with several state and federal agencies to focus on the immediate impacts on Gulf Islands while continuing to craft long-term recovery and monitoring plans for all of the parks in the affected area.
“One of the first key decisions we made involved reviewing when and where to allow mechanized equipment for beach clean-up,” says Rick Clark, chief of science and resource management at Gulf Islands. That was especially important with respect to Horn and Petit Bois Islands in Mississippi, which are designated as wilderness (restricting the use of modern equipment for any purposes). Both areas had significant damage, and hand crews alone just weren’t able to remove the oil before it retreated into the sand’s subsurface, at which point it’s nearly impossible to extract. “We moved ahead with a controlled approach to allow mechanized equipment—basically large-scale sand sifters that remove tar balls—with very tight restrictions between the waterline and the dune ridge, away from documented sea turtle nests and sensitive vegetation,” says Clark.
“We’ve also been closely involved in the relocation of established sea-turtle nests that are threatened by the oil spill,” he says. “The consensus of biologists from the federal and state agencies is that we would be putting turtle hatchlings into harm’s way if we let them hatch naturally and emerge into the Gulf waters in this region, so at about 50 days into gestation, or 75 percent of the way, confirmed sea-turtle nests are relocated to an area near Cape Canaveral, Florida, and, upon hatching, they’re to be released in a refuge or Park Service site on the Atlantic Coast to minimize the risk of oiling that could otherwise be fatal.” Three nests from Gulf Islands had been relocated as this issue went to press, and a dozen remaining nests were slated for removal at the appropriate time, ensuring the safety of loggerheads, Kemp’s ridley, green, and leatherback turtles that call the park home for brief spells.
Adornato applauds these early efforts, but believes the Park Service needs more staff devoted to the work of recovery and restoration. So far, its employees have simply been reassigned to new tasks, but as 20 years of recovery in Alaska have shown, this work is far from over; simple monitoring and data collection will pose a huge challenge for years to come. The $20-billion fund already established by BP is dedicated to individuals and businesses and doesn’t aim to address natural-resource damage in the parks, so Adornato believes BP should compensate Gulf Islands and other park units for the additional staff time devoted to the spill, and fund the hiring of experienced natural-resource professionals who can plan the park’s regional recovery efforts.
“There’s no question that the impacts of this oil spill could have been far worse, so in some ways we can breathe a little sigh of relief,” says Adornato, “but it’s only a little sigh, and it can’t last very long. There are still some very serious negative effects that could come to pass, and we really don’t know much about how those will play out. In learning from this disaster, the federal government needs to make sure it is appropriately locating off-shore oil rigs and developing adequate emergency- response plans. And the Park Service needs to have its own emergency-response plan or be a leading voice in the broader plan, because it’s very clear that national park beaches, wildlife, wilderness, and marine areas require a higher standard of care.” The disaster has also rekindled interest in a nearly forgotten mechanism designed to fund conservation efforts all across the country: In 1965, Congress established the Land & Water Conservation Fund as a way to invest in conservation using revenues generated by the corporations drilling in our waters. Each year, the fund accumulated $900 million that was to be spent on state parks, city parks, and, yes, national parks, primarily to buy up land from willing sellers. But it didn’t quite turn out that way.
“When Congress allowed companies to withdraw America’s natural resources at a profit, legislators required those companies to give back to Americans in some way, by ensuring that other natural resources were protected in perpetuity,” says Adornato. “So the Land and Water Conservation Fund was created 45 years ago to set aside a small percentage of those revenues to help pay for big land-acquisition strategies in national parks as well as smaller local projects like the park at the end of your street, that swing set in your local recreational area, and the lights for the football field in your subdivision. But other than a few exceptions, it was never funded at the levels Congress had intended. NPCA is working hard to ensure that promise is kept.”
As a result of NPCA’s efforts, in conjunction with several other conservation groups, the House of Representatives passed legislation that would guarantee the fund is authorized at its highest level. The Senate is expected to take up similar legislation this fall.
“The devastation brought about by this oil spill is overwhelming—it’s the worst environmental disaster in our history and there’s absolutely nothing we can do to reverse it, which is unbelievably frustrating,” says Adornato. “It makes me sad, it makes me angry, it makes me want to stand up and scream that we’ve got to stop drilling right now, but that’s obviously not a reasonable response, and it won’t help the current problem. But what will really upset me is if we fail to take this opportunity to change things, to make sure this doesn’t happen again. We’re a really innovative country and we should be able to find a better way.”