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A New York Times headline last month almost made me spill my coffee — the gusher in the Gulf might have been good for the U.S. economy.

How could that be? The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico put thousands out of work as fishing grounds were closed, tourists were scared off, and oil and gas development were put on hold.

Well, according to a JP Morgan forecast last June, all of those lost jobs could be more than offset by the jobs created to skim up oil, deploy oil booms, and sweep tar balls off of beaches. And all of those new jobs could actually boost the gross domestic product — a “good” thing according to conventional economic wisdom. 

Don’t get me wrong: The cleanup jobs were critical to the overall rapid response against the spill. But as an employment program and stimulus “package,” these jobs are clearly short-term fixes for the Gulf region.

Shouldn’t we now be moving to create a restoration economy in the Gulf of Mexico — employing thousands to rebuild marshes, oyster reefs, beaches and fish habitat that, in turn, create even more jobs in fishing and tourism?

Habitat restoration is a proven job-creator. Under the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) awarded $156 million in ARRA funding to 50 grantees for coastal habitat restoration around the country. Between February and June 2010, these restoration projects created 395 jobs. On a jobs-created-per-dollar-granted basis, these habitat restoration projects created five times as many jobs as the median ARRA stimulus grant.

A closer look at one of the Conservancy’s eight NOAA-funded restoration projects shows how the benefits of habitat restoration go beyond direct job creation. Near Grand Isle and Saint Bernard Parish, Louisiana, the Conservancy is using ARRA funding to rebuild 3.4 miles of oyster reefs by putting to work 57 engineers, biologists, specialized equipment operators, construction crews and other skilled laborers.

The reefs will protect vulnerable shorelines from erosion, improve water quality and provide important nursery habitat for the next generation of fish, crab and shellfish — which in turn will make the neighboring communities less vulnerable to damaging storms and contributing to even more jobs in fisheries and tourism.

Restoration jobs are the sort of jobs we could use more of. NOAA received more than 800 project proposals totaling more than $3 billion in habitat restoration need — almost 20 times the ARRA funding that they were able to distribute.

If all of those habitat restoration projects were funded, and created the same number of jobs per dollar as the Conservancy’s restoration projects have done, they could create more than 13,600 jobs. In Louisiana, where the state government has a $1 billion backlog of restoration projects, habitat restoration could put more than 4,500 people to work.

In other words, a restoration economy could rebuild the Gulf Coast and revitalize the local economy at the same time.

The win-win appeal of a restoration economy makes it a popular notion along the Gulf Coast. A recent poll conducted by the Walton Family Foundation found that more than 80% of likely voters in all five Gulf states considered the health of the environment to be very important to the health of their local economy. The Economic Development Administration has been talking with community groups about ways to develop centers of excellence in restoration technology that could diversify local economies and create an exportable expertise.

To make these hopes real, The Nature Conservancy is talking with humanitarian organizations like Oxfam America to understand how to mobilize positive public sentiment into sustained political support for large-scale habitat restoration.

And we are advocating that a portion of the damage assessments, fines and other money following from the oil spill get invested into restoration efforts that deliver long-lasting benefits to local communities. Our restoration projects along the Gulf Coast are showing how such investments can create jobs today and more resilient communities for the future.

The Conservancy and everyone else concerned about the Gulf’s long-term health — both environmental and economic, because those two things are inextricably tied — needs to turn the Gulf conversation around. Conservation and economic recovery are no longer in conflict. In the Gulf, they go hand in hand.

This blog was inspired by conversations at a recent event in New York City on Conservation in the 21st Century, sponsored by The Nature Conservancy’s New York chapter. I was joined by Dan Harris from ABC News and Eron Bloomgarden from Equator LLC for a panel discussion about how habitat restoration and economic recovery can go together in the Gulf.

— Text by Jonathan HoekstraCool Green Science Blog

The Gulf needs a restoration economy
Was the Gulf oil spill actually good for the region's economy? Maybe in the short-term—but the Gulf needs a long-term restoration economy, says Conservancy sc