“Operation 111” Aims to Ensure Gulf Restoration Money Will Actually Help the Gulf

Honey, as we all know, attracts bears. But it also attracts flies, ants, roaches and plenty of other things we don’t really want around.

Money for conservation efforts has a similar problem. It can attract serious conservation entities that will do great work for fish and wildlife habitat. But it can also attract unscrupulous developers, dissemblers and politically-connected hustlers who will take that money and use it for projects that have nothing to do with improving an ecosystem–except the one in their wallets.

All of which brings us to the RESTORE Act, the law passed last year that earmarks 80 percent of the Clean Water Act fines BP and its co-polluters will have to pay for their environmental mugging of the Gulf of Mexico. Normally, CWA fines go to the federal treasury, but in a rare bi-partisan moment, Congress decided the fines should go to help restore the damage done by the spill to the already staggering Gulf ecosystem.

The amount of that fine is still being decided in a federal court battle, but some experts say it could come in as high as $17 billion.

That’s a lot of honey, and from the beginning, groups in those five Gulf coast states more interested in concrete and steel than wetlands have been angling to start feeding on that money for projects other than ecosystem restoration.

Supporters realized the only way to get the bill passed was to cut in some economic restoration–a compromise written into the title of the bill: “Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability TouristOpportunities and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States.”

The money will first flow to the Gulf of Mexico Ecosystem Restoration Council, whose voting members include representatives of the governor of the five Gulf states, plus the Secretary of Commerce.

The act directs the money to be divided into five accounts, or “pots.” About the only real concession to “coastal” restoration was that all projects must take place within 25 miles of the Gulf.

As you read the definition you can see why conservationist groups are concerned some of the fine print in the bill is vague enough to allow even more millions to be siphoned away from restoring fish and wildlife habitats in coastal estuaries and into things like casinos, commercial docks, convention centers and resorts.

Pot 1: The Direct Component

This takes 35 percent of the fine and divides it equally among the five Gulf states, which can use it for “ecosystem restoration, economic development or tourism promotion.” There will be little federal control over this pot. Although the projects must fit into one of 12 activities outlined in the law, they are very broad.

Pot 2: Council-Selected Restoration Component

This reserves 30 percent of all fines for “ecosystem restoration projects.” The money does not have to be split evenly among the five states. Projects can take place anywhere along the Gulf and will be chosen by a vote of the Council based on the guidelines set out in Section IV of the Comprehensive Plan.

Pot 3: Spill Impact Component

This dedicates another 30 percent of the fine to state projects that benefit the environment or the economy. This is another pot that does not have to be divided evenly among the states.

The Council will select projects submitted by the states based on the list of eligible activities set out in the law. They will also consider how much a state was impacted by the spill, using a formula based on three major criteria:

1. The proximity of the state to the site of the spill

2. The population of coastal counties (or parishes)

3. How many miles of shoreline suffered direct impacts

Pot 4: Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Science Program

This will send 2.5 percent plus interest to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to guide research, including monitoring the health of the Gulf. The agency will work through other federal and state agencies, as well as with nongovernmental groups.

Pot 5: Centers or Excellence Research Grants Programs

This sends 2.5 percent of the fines to each state to establish research centers.

It’s a complicated procedure with enough vague language for groups such as the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and the National Wildlife Federation to APPOINT staffers to protect the interests of fish, wildlife–and, ultimately, sportsmen.

The motto for conservation groups is simple: Since much of the regional economy depends on a healthy Gulf, economic restoration depends on ecosystem restoration. In other words: Don’t let business interests tell you protecting and restoring estuaries and wetlands isn’t good for the economy.

And that’s where Operation111.com comes in. The “1-1-1” stands for “One Cause, One Coastline, One Chance.” It’s a comprehensive educational effort that will give sportsmen the facts as well as action alerts to make sure this money is used properly.

It is funded by the Walton Family Foundation and supported by the wide range of conservation groups–including sportsmen organizations–that helped push RESTORE through congress.

Hunters and anglers won’t regret spending a few minutes learning how they can take action to prevent this very rare conservation opportunity from being nibbled away by the unsavory critters big money always attracts.