Yesterday, the White House released a plan to restore Mississippi and Louisiana wetlands and barrier islands, which have been disappearing at a rapid clip for decades and continue to do so. Hurricane Katrina brought to the fore what many residents of these states already knew: federal, state, and local authorities were neither coordinated nor prepared to protect the Gulf Coast, its ecosystems, and its people from Mother Nature’s worst. (See CPR's report on Katrina).
The White House roadmap is designed to bring some much-needed order and leadership to Gulf Coast restoration efforts. It’s a strong sign from the Obama Administration that it is serious about protecting the Gulf Coast.
The roadmap also strives to put ecosystem restoration and sustainability “on a more equal footing with other priorities such as manmade navigation and structural approaches to flood protection and storm risk reduction.” It rightly notes that these priorities make up complex pieces of a larger whole: wetlands protect inland ecosystems and communities from dangerous storm surges, for example; bayous, bays, and estuaries produce much of the fish and wildlife that coastal fishermen and communities depend upon for their livelihoods. The elevation of these “ecosystem services” to having “value” on par with priorities such as river navigation is a heartening sign.
This effort is also worth following closely for the lessons it may teach us about ecosystem management across jurisdictions. It may seem obvious to say that nature organizes itself without taking political boundaries into account, but it’s a real problem, because many of the decisions we make – from funding to restoration to levee building – happen on a variety of local, state and federal levels, often with competing interests and with little consideration to how decisions will affect the larger ecosystem as a whole. At this point, it remains unclear what kind of governance structure will emerge from the White House’s effort. According to the roadmap, a proposal with recommendations for a government structure or entity to oversee Gulf Coast restoration efforts will be released in spring 2011. What this governance structure ultimately looks like will be critical. As we have often pointed out in the Chesapeake Bay and San Francisco Bay-Delta contexts, collaborative processes without accountability often result in lowest-common-denominator solutions. While these regions have much to teach the Gulf Coast about planning and accountability, the lessons learned aren’t always necessarily the ones to be repeated.
To conclude: The Obama roadmap is a big deal for a region that has desperately needed strong federal leadership for many years if its ecosystems are to be saved and sustained. Here’s to hoping the effort not only succeeds, but that it provides a roadmap for improving other regional restoration efforts as well.