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The anniversary of the catastrophic BP Deep Horizon blowout did not go unnoticed by Yellowstone Valley Audubon Society members, at its regular chapter meeting April 18 in Billings.

National Audubon Society prepared a packet of materials for its member chapters to make sure the anniversary of the spill would be remembered as part of its nationwide “collective work to mark the event in order to ensure the lesson’s learned mean it can never happen again.”

National Audubon’s concerns include “citizen action at all levels” and requests that members send letters to their congressional lawmakers “to get the resources together the region needs to help heal and ultimately thrive” adding, “both birds and people will benefit.”

YVAS members reviewed NAS video and commentary and photography provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology of birds, landscapes, pristine marshlands, sea views and beaches, before and after the spill. They concluded that the spill “probably could have been prevented,” that “another spill could happen again and the ramifications of the undersea oil gusher will be felt for years to come with yet to be understood consequences to the Gulf ecosystem.”

Gulf wetlands support 100 million birds of 325 species and countless fish,turtles, plants and last, a lot of humans. The wetlands serve as nurseries for important maritime organisms, commercial seafood species—oysters, shrimp— and for humans food, energy, transportation, recreation and protection from hurricanes and flooding.

BP’s “negligence” — how did the explosion at the 5,000-foot deep sea level occur and why — is still not completely understood but its results are still being unraveled: The spill had catastrophic consequences for birds, wildlife, the coast itself and vital irreplaceable wetland habitat. Worse yet, the oil washed ashore at the height of the breeding season!

Vanishing marshland

The Gulf’s rich and productive ecosystem was hovering on the edge of a kind of collapse even before oil spewed uncontrolled and unstopped from BP’s broken well.

Since the 1930s more than 2,300 square miles of vital Gulf marshland has disappeared through natural causes from storms and hurricanes, sea caused natural erosion and through man-made changes to accommodate exploration for and refining of oil to fuel the country’s insistent need for transportation fuel.

The hidden issue of the Gulf highlighted by the BP oil spill is this: The disaster stands as the latest assault on a region suffering decades of environmental degradation and reputable scientific studies bring into focus that for decades, the Gulf’s wetlands and the economic and ecosystem resources they represent are vanishing.

Chapter members, several of whom have made birding trips to view the Gulf’s teeming birdlife, agreed with the NAS assumptions that critical safeguards must be developed to prevent future disasters and that the U.S. Congress should establish a strong Gulf restoration authority with the as yet to be determined BP penalty money (according to news reports now worth nearly $21 billion) dedicated toward Gulf ecosystem restoration.

Long-term recovery

President Obama has created a long term Gulf Coast Recovery Plan that recommends Congress dedicate a significant amount of any Clean Water Act penalties to the Gulf’s recovery. The penalty is an assessment based on the number of barrels spilled and comes under the Clean Water Act. BP and other responsible parties (for causing the spill) will be required to pay fines for damages to the environment.

Even though the oil has stopped flowing, its impacts could be lasting with its ramifications revealed only over time.

Robert Lubbers of Billings serves on the board of the Yellowstone Valley Audubon Society.