Inside Report for July 17, 2013

Restoring Gulf Coast ecosystems is not just good for birds, fish and other wildlife, but it’s also good for the economy, says the Environmental Defense Fund.

Wildlife tourism in the five states bordering the Gulf of Mexico — from Texas to Florida — provides 2.6 million jobs and brings in $19 billion a year from people who visit to watch wildlife, fish or hunt, according to an Environmental Defense Fund report. In addition, wildlife tourism brings in $5.3 billion a year in federal and state revenue.

“It really put a fine point on the observation I’ve tried to make over the past few years,” Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne said of the EDF report. “This is an industry that creates jobs for Louisiana.”

The RESTORE Act requires that 80 percent of the federal fines from the 2010 BP/Deepwater Horizon disaster go to the five Gulf Coast states for ecosystem and economic restoration. The EDF report is intended to point out how the two are linked.

“Because wildlife needs healthy habitat to thrive, Gulf Coast guide and outfitting entities depend on healthy coastal environments for their business,” the report says. “This in turn makes a healthy environment crucial to the lodging and dining entities where wildlife tourists eat and sleep. Together these businesses are an important driver of the regional economy, so coastal restoration is an economic priority.”

In addition to the RESTORE Act money, there will be criminal liability funding, administered by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, as well as additional money to repair damage determined under the federal Natural Resource Damage Assessment process.

“Combined, these new revenue sources provide an unprecedented opportunity to reverse decades of harm to the Gulf Coast and to begin restoring the environment to a healthy and resilient condition,” EDF says.

The report looks at not only the more than 1,100 direct services provided by wildlife tourism, such as fishing guides, but also the 11,000 related businesses, such as those providing eco-tourists a place to sleep and a place to eat while they’re visiting.

“We are a state that is heavily dependent on wildlife tourism,” Dardenne said. The industry provides 82,000 Louisiana jobs and creates $2 billion in spending in the state every year. “When we restore the coast and rebuild the coastline, we are supporting the fact that the coast itself creates jobs and drives the economy,” Dardenne said.

After several years of damaging hurricanes and the impact of the 2010 BP/Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, tourism in the state is recovering, Dardenne said.

One area that still needs help is recreational fishing along the coast. The oil spill had an impact on the guide services and lodges that serve visitors because of the perception there were no more fish to be caught and because of concerns about whether the fish are safe to eat.

“It’s one of the lingering effects of the spill,” Dardenne said. Those negative perceptions are changing, but the businesses are still not back to the state they were before the leak, he said.

“Many guide and outfitter business owners interviewed for this study expressed that a healthy coastal environment is essential for their very existence,” the report says. “Hospitality industry leaders similarly emphasized the importance of wildlife tourism to their business. Where ecosystems can no longer support wildlife, their clients have no reason to come.”

Amy Wold, who covers the environment for The Advocate, can be reached at awold@theadvocate.com or follow her at @awold10.