As the one–year anniversary of the onset of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill approaches, many eyes in the National Wildlife Refuge System are on the natural resources damage assessment and restoration (NRDAR) process. But, vital as it is to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the three dozen refuges on or near the Gulf of Mexico, NRDAR is just one part of a larger federal Gulf restoration effort.


The main driver is the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, which was established by President Obama in October 2010. Its mandate is to prepare, by October 2011, a restoration strategy to address decades of environmental degradation in the Gulf well beyond the spill damage.


NRDAR will be important to the overall restoration strategy—and the Clean Water Act will be, too, if Congress directs penalties toward the Gulf, as a September 2010 report by former Navy secretary Ray Mabus recommends.


Cindy Dohner, the Service´s Southeast Region director, spoke about the Gulf restoration effort during a panel discussion on Jan. 19 at the 11th National Conference on Science, Policy and the Environment in Washington, DC.


“It is a challenge,” Dohner said. “But I see it as an opportunity, too, because this unfortunate spill has brought a light to this region.”


The Gulf of Mexico is the world’s ninth–largest body of water. If the Gulf region were a nation, the annual $294 billion economy its oil and gas, seafood and tourism industries generate would rank it 29th. About 41 percent of the North American watershed drains into the Gulf via the Mississippi River. The Gulf is home to millions of people, countless marine and migratory bird species, unparalleled habitat and, of course, the three dozen refuges.


Oil landed directly on at least three refuges—Breton and Delta off the Louisiana coast, and Bon Secour on the Alabama coast. How the Gulf recovers from the massive spill that began on April 20, 2010, matters to the Refuge System.


“Our Gulf coast refuges provide vital habitat for migratory birds and 40 threatened and endangered species,” Dohner said. “Our employees continue to play an extraordinary role in the response to this disaster.”



“Pre–Spill Conditions”

Dohner, who is overseeing the NRDAR process for the Department of the Interior, is on the NRDAR trustee council. Its members are the five Gulf states (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Texas), DOI, NOAA, the Department of Defense and, should they come forward, federally recognized tribes with impacted trust resources.


What the NRDAR process “does is restore the natural resources that were impacted to pre–spill conditions,” Dohner said. “And it includes all types of resources as we’re going forward. So, you have impacts to the lands, impacts to the fish, to the wildlife, to the deepwater habitat, but you also have impacts that look at lost use, lost recreational use” on public lands.


Because NRDAR, which is authorized under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, is a legal process requiring the trustee council to assess the spill’s impact, document the oil release, demonstrate the oil’s pathway, calculate what the injuries are and figure out how to restore the impacted area, “we have to use sound science, the best science,” Dohner said.


In terms of working with the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force on the overall effort, Dohner said, “we don’t need to do a new plan. We need to figure out the best in those plans that are already developed by the states and the different entities that are out there … and figure out how we can combine all those and use the best of the best to complement each other.”


For more information about the overall effort, go to http://www.restorethegulf.gov/. For information about the Service effort, go to http://www.fws.gov/home/dhoilspill/.