After oil spill, Alabama, Mississippi landowners paid to create artificial marshes


WASHINGTON — Alabama and Mississippi are paying landowners $6.75 million in total to create artificial marshes, typically by flooding farm fields, for birds deprived of natural marshland by the oil spill, according to government information.

Top conservation officials in both states said that the decision to launch the federal program, dubbed the Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative, was made in the early stages of the spill, when no one knew how much oil would gush or for how long.

Although the surface of Gulf waters and shores appears to have escaped a worst-case scenario, they say the program is still doing good.

“Had we done nothing and then the worst would have happened, where would we be?” said Alabama State Conservationist William Puckett.

In total, officials have contracted to spend more than $37.3 million in federal money across eight states along the Gulf or north of the Gulf in the path of migratory birds. The states are: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas.

Alabama has doled out $1.59 million, and Mississippi, $5.15 million, according to Puckett.

The program, run out of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is funded with money from the 2008 federal farm bill.

“The funds that were used for the program were already in the system. It wasn’t new money,” Puckett said.

Homer Wilkes, state conservationist for Mississippi, said that the “ounce of prevention” represented by the program is far better than the “pound of cure” that would have been required had birds been limited to oiled marshes.

Information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicates that instances of oiled marsh are few and far between along Alabama and Mississippi shorelines.

With the exception of Mississippi barrier islands, where officials recently observed “light oiling,” most of shores have no visible oil, or have only tarballs, according to the agency.

Last month, government spill response leaders announced that all of the oil containment boom, totaling more than 1.6 million feet, had been removed from Mississippi, Alabama and Florida waters.

The barriers were taken up “due to the fact that no visible oil has been spotted on the surface of the Gulf in these areas recently,” said the Sept. 7 news release from the Mobile Joint Information Center.

Louisiana, the state located closest to the well that leaked from late April through mid-July, now has the most visible shoreline oil, according to NOAA maps. That state also received the most money for the migratory bird program: $14.83 million. Florida, at less than $138,700, received the least.

Wilkes said the program’s goal was to slow down birds heading south by providing them with good habitats well away from a potentially oiled coast. The fact that natural marshes are now clear of oil means that the effort succeeded, he said.

“If you’ve got a good place that you’re laying your head, you’ll stay there,” Wilkes said. “Had those birds got down there earlier than they did, I think that it would have had much more impact.”

Puckett said that regardless of the program’s initial spill-related mission, new places for migratory birds to rest are beneficial. “The positive is, we did create thousands and thousands of acres of additional bird habitat,” he said.

In south Baldwin County, John Foley said he signed up about 10 acres of his family farm for the program. He would not say how much money officials gave him, but he estimated that it paid for only 50 percent to 60 percent of what it cost to create the artificial marshland.

Still, Foley said he believes that the program was worthwhile because it helped restore natural habitats that people took over long ago.

“I guess maybe we’re undoing some of the things that we did wrong before,” Foley said.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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