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Surviving the Next Gulf Oil Spill
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Surviving the Next Gulf Oil Spill

DOWN here on the Gulf of Mexico, the air is heavy with expectation as we await the arrival of billions of dollars in fines from companies involved in the BP oil-well blowout, which spewed millions of gallons of oil into the gulf over three months in 2010.

The Restore Act, signed by President Obama last year, sets aside 80 percent of the civil fines assessed under the federal Clean Water Act for use in the five gulf states - Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. Politicians and environmentalists in each of those states have been busy concocting ways to spend the windfall - though it is unclear exactly how much it will be.

The money will mostly be split among the states and a new entity, the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, composed of state and federal officials. There are already plenty of ideas among the states for spending the cash, including constructing a sea wall around the city jail in Mobile, Ala., and deepening shipping channels. Biloxi, Miss., is using money already given to the state by BP to build a baseball stadium.

Here's another idea: the states and the council should require that a nickel of every dollar they control be used to buy and protect coastal marshes and wetlands. It is the most important thing they can do to help the gulf survive the next oil spill.

We have all seen the devastation wrought in coastal Louisiana - marshes that remain so contaminated with oil three years on that they can't support insect life, never mind sea creatures. Fortunately, marshes in coastal Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and Florida mostly escaped damage from the spill, protected by barrier islands and luck. Those marshes have continued their work powering the entire coastal ecosystem by nurturing the young of nearly everything that swims in the gulf. In fact, these marshes are the single biggest reason the gulf has rebounded as well as it has from the spill.

But the marshes are in decline across the gulf. They have been for decades, the result of levee construction, the channelization of rivers, dredging, erosion and development. It is estimated that more than 50 percent have already been lost. Louisiana has been the most severely affected - the state's coast has lost 1,900 square miles in the last 80 years - and even more will be lost, which makes the marshes in the surrounding states all the more important.

These marshes are our most valuable, and most vulnerable, coastal habitat. They can disappear beneath the developers' backhoes in the blink of an eye. The recession derailed a lot of planned coastal development, much of it in the marshland fringing the gulf's estuaries. As the economy ramps back up, those plans will be rekindled. Marshes will be turned into boat slips and condos, unless we protect them.

The Restore Act windfall represents a critical chance to grab up and safeguard some of the remaining marshes and coastal wetlands. If we don't use a nickel of every Restore Act dollar to buy coastal lands, it's a sure bet somebody will find another jail that needs a sea wall. Or, as happened in Alabama, a governor will propose building an $85 million hotel and conference center in a state park with money already provided by BP.

Conservation groups have a long wish list of areas that deserve special protection, from the Mexican border to the tip of the Florida Keys. Any new purchases would become public lands, managed by federal or state entities, or by coastal land trusts like Alabama's Weeks Bay Foundation, where I work.

The restoration council recently released a draft plan with a series of broad goals - including restoring and conserving habitat and replenishing and protecting coastal resources. The public comment period for the council's plan closes Monday. One of its goals should be to preserve as many hunks of undeveloped shoreline as possible, in as many locations as possible. That way, no matter where the next oil spill comes ashore, we'll have marshes, wetlands and maritime forests ready to restore the gulf.

Ben Raines is executive director of the Weeks Bay Foundation, a group dedicated to protecting coastal land.

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on June 19, 2013, on page A27 of the New York edition with the headline: Surviving the Next Gulf Oil Spill.

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