Unconventional Wisdom in Washington

By Scott Burns
Published in The Miami Herald, July 5, 2012

On Friday, overwhelming bipartisan majorities in both chambers of Congress passed the Surface Transportation Act, which provides badly needed funding to rebuild America’s highways, railways and transit systems. 

But this transportation package is doubly worthy of celebration because it contains the RESTORE Act, common sense legislation that will dedicate 80 percent of the fines paid as a result of the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to restore the ecosystems and economies of the Gulf Coast. 

Passage of the RESTORE Act defies conventional wisdom on two fronts. First, it demonstrates that economic recovery and environmental restoration are two sides of the same coin, not polar opposites. And second, it shows that even in these polarized times, Congress can come together across the aisle to back a good idea.

Conservationists, business and industry leaders, sportsmen, faith communities and strong majorities of voters across the political spectrum around the country support efforts to use oil spill fines to repair environmental damage from the spill. They all understand that especially in the Gulf, the strength of the economy is driven by the strength of the local environment. 

The latest economic research backs them up – a report released in June by Greater New Orleans, Inc., in partnership with The Walton Family Foundation and Mather Economics found that wetlands restoration projects along the Gulf Coast would create on average 29.54 jobs per million dollars, adding as many as 57,697 new jobs across the region within the first 10 years, and in turn, contributing significantly to the economic growth and stability of the Gulf Coast region.

In my early career as a commercial fisherman, I learned just how interconnected economies and environments are. While my success was determined by the number of fish I caught, unless I harvested them responsibly, the fish populations would dwindle and leave me out of a job.

My work with conservationists and business interests around the globe has shown me that the goals of environmental activists and the business community are often more closely aligned than you might expect. And unless economic and environmental interests work together, we will never find the solutions to our environmental crises that will work and last.

Our nation needs a healthy Gulf region. The Gulf produces nearly 40 percent of all commercial seafood in the lower 48 states and supports a $34 billion per year tourism industry. In the wake of the spill, the Gulf, its coasts and its wildlife were damaged—and so were the businesses and communities that depend on them. The region is still struggling to recover from the impact of the 2010 disaster.

Fishermen who catch oysters, shrimp and crabs can only make a living if the Gulf is healthy enough to sustain thriving seafood populations. Restaurants, hotels and stores that serve Gulf tourists can only keep their doors open if the beaches are clean. In the Gulf, environmental and economic interests are aligned toward a common goal: a restored, resilient coast.

The wisdom of these lessons reaches far beyond the Gulf. People who care about passing a healthy environment on to their kids also need jobs to provide for their families. The fact is, a thriving economy isn’t sustainable if it undermines our healthy environment – just as effective environmental protection is more likely to last when it works with local economic forces.

Environmental and economic interests must cast conventional wisdom aside and meet at the same table if we hope to find the solutions that will create lasting protections for our nation’s precious resources. Our conservation efforts cannot simply seek to preserve our environment, but must take into account the needs of the real people and communities that live and work there. On Friday, Congress embraced some real wisdom, as unconventional as it may seem: the conservation solutions that make economic sense are the ones that last. 

Scott Burns is director of the Walton Family Foundation’s Environment Focus Area, overseeing work in both the marine and freshwater conservation initiatives. 

Scott Burns
Environment Program Director
Walton Family Foundation