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Coastal Refuges Face Destruction

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As I've watched the growing environmental catastrophe in the aftermath of the tragic explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig, with the resulting ever-expanding oil slick now infiltrating Louisiana's marshes and bayous, I've come to one devastating conclusion: we may be looking at the destruction of some of our most iconic and important coastal wildlife refuges.

I worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for many years, culminating in the four years I served as Director of the Service during the Clinton administration. We saw plenty of challenges during those years. But we've never seen anything like this.

Right now, the managers of national wildlife refuges in Louisiana and throughout the Gulf Coast are facing the unimaginable possibility that the very wildlife and habitat these refuges were established to safeguard - brown pelicans, black skimmers, royal and Caspian terns, nesting sea turtles and American alligators, coastal marshes, critical wetlands, and estuaries - could be so damaged they may never fully recover.

I'm talking about places like Breton National Wildlife Refuge off Louisiana's coast. Breton, the second oldest refuge in the National Wildlife Refuge System, was established in 1904 after President Teddy Roosevelt learned of the rampant destruction of nesting birds and their eggs on Chandeleur and Breton Islands. Teddy Roosevelt actually visited Breton Island himself in June of 1915, making Breton NWR the only refuge he actually ever visited.

Teddy Roosevelt wouldn't recognize Breton NWR today. In 2005, Tropical Storm Arlene and Hurricane Katrina delivered a one-two punch to the barrier islands that eroded miles of beach and sand dunes, and stripped away the vegetation that helped stabilize the islands and provide critical wildlife habitat. The refuge lost 80 percent of its land, including three entire islands out of the refuge's original eight. Yet refuge personnel have been unrelentingly doing all they can to help revegetate the remaining islands, with good results: brown pelicans and other birds have returned to nest successfully in recent years.

All this the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has done with entirely inadequate resources - too few staff and too little money - to safeguard the wildlife and other natural resources under its stewardship. Just one refuge manager, Jack Bohannan, has the responsibility of caring for both Breton and Delta NWRs - covering nearly 56,000 acres and featuring miles and miles of shoreline now in the path of the encroaching oil- along with Bayou Savage NWR, whose 23,000 acres of marshes within the New Orleans city limits make it the nation's largest urban wildlife refuge.

And Delta NWR was already coping with the impacts of a recent far-smaller oil spill, caused by a break in a section of pipeline connecting an offshore rig to onshore facilities. Some 18,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into Delta and the surrounding waters during that incident.

There are 39 national wildlife refuges along the Gulf Coast. The combined impacts of hurricanes and smaller spills have left these refuges overwhelmingly vulnerable to the impacts of the disaster now spreading across Gulf waters. This week, I'll be visiting some of the refuges around Mobile Bay, where oil could make landfall later this week.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is rushing personnel to the Gulf Coast in anticipation of the immediate cleanup needs, as are many other federal agencies. But the Fish and Wildlife Service is drawing on already depleted ranks caused by years of multi-million dollar budget shortfalls. And the cleanup, wildlife rescue and rehabilitation, and habitat restoration will take many months and years. It's a real possibility that our wildlife, multi-million dollar fisheries, and coastal communities may be so badly damaged by this disaster that they may never fully recover.

In addition to the dozens of refuges at risk, many other vital areas are in the oil's potential path, including Sanibel Island, Everglades National Park, the Florida Keys, and Biscayne National Park. Worth billions of dollars in tourism, seafood production, and vital wetlands, America's coastline is just too valuable for risky offshore drilling.

It's time to move beyond oil to cleaner safer forms of energy our country can count on. This latest spill is a wake up call to the White House, Congress and frankly all Americans. President Obama and Congress must not expand offshore drilling operations and we should enact new and tougher safeguards on existing drilling operations. Oil companies have proven once again they cannot effectively eliminate the threats that drilling off of U.S. shores pose to the health of marine wildlife, fisheries and coastal economies.

President Obama has already put a stop to the opening of new areas for drilling, but he needs to reinstate the moratorium on all offshore drilling. Clearly, promises from the oil companies that drilling off of our coast is safe are empty promises. We need to ensure that a preventable disaster like this one will never happen again.

Jamie Rappaport Clark is executive vice president at Defenders of Wildlife. She served as director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from 1997 to 2001.