Oil Spill Live: What About the Rest of Us?

"What about the rest of us" is a question that keeps ringing in my mind as I watch governments and BP move to compensate people suffering economic hardship due to the oil company's disastrous mistake in the Gulf of Mexico. A dominant theme in the reporting and commentary (including mine) has concerned the terrible economic impact on the commercial fishing community, charter boat operators, and beach tourism, and how the responsible parties should--and are--paying the bill.

That's all proper. But what about the rest of us?

What about you and me, the sportsmen, and the rest of the citizen-owners of these resources? We don't depend on these public properties to make our livings, but we do depend on them to make our lives better. And our claims are as just and valid as any others--and money might not heal the wounds.

How are we going to be compensated for our losses? Who will mitigate the lost hours and days we would have spent in our wetlands and on the Gulf of Mexico enjoying land and water that also belongs to us, properties we have paid to maintain, manage, and protect for more than a century? Who will make good those lost moments spent fishing, hunting, boating--or just sitting and watching--not for a paycheck, but for their restorative value to our sense of peace, for the opportunities they offer us to re-create ourselves and re-charge our emotional batteries?

Who makes up for the loss of precious time with family and friends in places that move our imaginations and souls like no others? Who pays the bill for the loss of confidence in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the seafood we consume?

These are some of the intrinsic societal values of a clean and healthy environment that helped spur the nation to set aside portions of our land, water, fish, and wildlife in the public trust. And our community--hunters and anglers, campers and hikers--has always been the largest users of these properties, as well as their most responsible custodians. We pay into management far more than we ever take out.

But over the last few decades our position of authority in public resource management has been lost. The word "value" has no meaning in those decisions today unless there is a monetary definition attached. Recreational owners--and the rest of the citizenry at large who deserve and want a clean, safe environment--have been put at the back of the bus because we don't wear dollar signs.

Congress has decided the Gulf and coastal ecosystems are only "valuable" where economists can estimate their impact in the billions of dollars. Using that formula, commercial fishing operations now must be compensated. Likewise, that formula excuses the enormous risks the energy industry poses to the entire system. Indeed, groups representing you and me--recreational users-- now use the same arguments, quantifying the "value" of a healthy functioning ecosystem not for its role in the quality of our lives, but for its economic impact. You could hear and read it last week. Reporters dutifully relayed the figures: Louisiana's recreational coastal fishery, which is worth $757 million annually to the state's economy, faces a serious threat. Those specks and reds, ducks and geese, bayous, swamps and marshes require the use of boats, motors, kayaks, camps, rods, reels, leases, fuel, overnight stays, guides, marinas.

But they are not talking about us. They are talking about people who make a living off us as we pursue those other values, the ones most precious to us.

The truth is sportsmen and other outdoors lovers never try to monetize their pastimes because they know the result would be embarrassing.

How much did I pay for those four specks (despite Louisiana's 25 fish daily limit, that was the average harvest per trip in 2009)? Let's see: the boat cost $30,000; the tackle another $500; the fuel for this trip was $80; the bait another $30; lunch $15; insurance $750 a year; maintenance another $400.

My expenses for two duck hunting trips sound like something out of the housing bubble. I'll take the Sportsman's Fifth: I refuse to answer on grounds it will humiliate me.

But as that famous TV commercial points out: Some things are priceless.

How do you put a dollar figure on what it means to sit with your children and watch dawn cast a rosy glow on a long string of white pelicans soaring over your boat on a crisp fall morning? Or the magical beauty of that purple-blue shine a big speckled trout carries on its wide sides during the summer spawning season? Or the pure thrill of carrying on a conversation with a flight of widgeons circling your decoys? Or the sight of yellowfin tuna the size of 50-gallon drums free-jumping from the cobalt blue Gulf? Or the sense of every muscle relaxing as your kayak slips past the front wall of the cypress swamp that swallows the noise of the life behind you, replacing it with a stillness as soothing as a two-hour massage? Or the deep brotherhood you feel with hunting and fishing friends who speak a language that often uses no words?

Or waking up each day confident the air and water you breathe, as well as the swamps and marshes and open Gulf you may never see, is protected from harm and functioning as it should to provide you and yours with a healthy, safe environment?

The people we trust with protecting our interests allowed BP to drill a well that had the potential to put all that at risk. And now it has. The keepers of the public trusts are now scrambling to repair the monetary damages that terrible mistake has caused commercial fishers, charter boat operators, marina owners and other who can show a dollar value for their losses.

That's as it should be.

But what about us? - Bob Marshall