To Help Compensate for Oil Disaster Losses, Create New Recreation Areas

“It is impossible to replace those lost opportunities. The time is over. But you could take your child to go fish at the new pier that wasn’t there before."

12-14-2010 // Craig Guillot
Oil Spill BP Protest Sign

During the height of the Gulf oil disaster in the summer of 2010, outdoor recreation on parts of the Gulf Coast ground to a halt. Waters were declared unsafe for swimming, fishing was shut down east of the Mississippi River and the beach at one of Louisiana’s most popular parks was closed. While nothing can be done to replace a summer of outdoor fun, some wildlife advocates say that reparation and restoration funds could eventually be used to boost recreational areas.

With an estimated 400,000 recreational anglers, Louisiana is a fisherman’s paradise. When NOAA closed recreational and commercial fishing in early-May from Louisiana to Pensacola, Florida, it took away one of the state’s favorite past times. With all coastal fishing shut down from the east of the mouth of the Mississippi River, charter fishing companies were put out of business and residents, who have for generations, made fishing a family affair, were stuck on land with their poles high and dry.

“You have thousands of people that fish and crab almost every weekend during the summer, and all of that was just lost. Fishing from the Atchafalaya Delta to Mobile Bay was totally shut down from May through August,” said Randy Lanctot, executive director of the Louisiana Wildlife Federation.

Nowhere was that impact more apparent than in costal Louisiana at Grand Isle State Park. When heavy oil started washing shore on late-May, officials were forced to shut down the beach, which remains closed to this day. The park remained open but because most people come to Grand Isle for the sole purpose of fishing and swimming, visitors are few and far between. Nearby Elmer’s Island was shut down completely and has yet to reopen.

Stuart Johnson, assistant secretary for the Louisiana Office of State Parks, said that when visitation drops, so too does park revenues which are mainly derived from visitor fees. That eats at the park budget for maintenance and supervision and can cause problems on many fronts.

“We don’t have numbers yet. The park has been open but with the beach being closed and fishing being shut down, use was greatly diminished,” said Johnson.

Fishing in the area has since reopened but with the beach still closed, there’s little to do at the park other than hike a short trail or camp for the night. BP is also leasing out a part of the area and while that might be unsightly to visitors, Johnson said has helped bring in some much needed revenues.

More than 100 miles away in St. Bernard Parish, Fort Pike State Historic Site has also been closed since the start of the spill. It was shut down in May and leased to BP and the National Guard as a staging area for booming, clean-up and wildlife rescue operations. The site never reopened when those operations ended, although Johnson said that was due to a lack of state funding and unrelated to the oil spill. In neighboring Mississippi, the coastal recreation area of Ship Island remains open but is still being hit with tar balls on a daily basis.

Lanctot said that restoration and possible reparation funds on the horizon could be used to restore and even create new natural areas. He and the Louisiana Wildlife Federation have long advocated for the creation of a Louisiana State Seashore, an extension of the organization’s successful campaign to restore access to Elmer’s Island. With few beaches on the state’s coast, such a designation could be vital in bringing visitors to Louisiana’s coast to not only enjoy recreational opportunities but see first-hand why coastal restoration is important. Lanctot said in comparison to the funds that BP will likely have to spend on restoration projects, the cost of establishing such a seashore is minimal.

Oil Spill Beach Closure Sign

“They are anticipated to have about $300 million to spend out there and the cost of creating a state seashore might only be a couple hundred thousand. You could also set up a trust fund to draw interest for operating expenses,” he said.

Lanctot said funds could also be used to improve existing parks and to help heal areas that have suffered so much from the spill. One example he pointed to would be to improve the old wooden bridge near Caminada Pass and refurbishing it into a fishing pier.

“It is impossible to replace those lost opportunities. The time is over. But you could take your child to go fish at the new pier that wasn’t there before. That, along with time, is the only way you can heal some of these losses,” said Lanctot.

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