Gulf Oil Spill: What's the Impact on National Parks?

By Spotts, Pete | The Christian Science Monitor, June 15, 2010 | Go to article overview

Gulf Oil Spill: What's the Impact on National Parks?


Spotts, Pete, The Christian Science Monitor


So far, only the Gulf Coast National Seashore has seen oil on its barrier islands. But park officials from Louisiana for Florida's space coast are bracing for more oil.

From Louisiana's Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Reserve to the Canaveral National Seashore on Florida's space coast, the region's national parks and marine sanctuaries are preparing for the possible arrival of oil from the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout and Gulf oil spill, now into its eighth week.

So far, the the Gulf Coast National Seashore - a string of barrier islands and submerged ecosystems off Mississippi and the western shores of Florida's panhandle - appears to be the only National Park Service location in the Gulf region to take a direct hit from the burgeoning oil spill.

Even there, the oil's arrival has been patchy. The seashore's website proclaims that the park is still open to visitors. Where oil is coming ashore on the beaches, it arrives with the tide and ebbs with the tide, leaving residual oil that's fairly easy to clean up.

IN PICTURES: Places where the Gulf oil spill has made landfall

But with their legal mandate to preserve plants, animals, and marine life, as well as sites of historical value within their boundaries, park officials aren't waiting until oil laps at their beaches, marshes, and mangrove forests to lay plans for dealing with it.

Parks in the region "have done a fantastic job" gearing up for the the oil's possible arrival, says John Adornato, who heads the National Parks Conservation Association's "Sun Coast" regional office in Hollywood, Fla.

Yet, he acknowledges, preparations represent "a huge balancing act." Officials must weigh the use of skimmers, front-end loaders, and booms with the type ecosystems they oversee as well as the range of historical assets - from coastal forts and shipwrecks to archaeological sites - that could be damaged or destroyed by a well- meaning cleanup crew.

Lessons from the Exxon Valdez

The response represents a sea change compared with the National Park Service's response to the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound in 1989. These days, responders have better communications tools, better data on the range and location of key habitats and cultural sites, and have worked out kinks in coordination among agencies involved in dealing with oil encroaching on parks.

One of the critical lessons: Time and distance may not protect parks "all that much," says John Quinley, an associate administrator in the park service regional office in Anchorage. Mr. Quinley currently is working out of the unified command joint information center office in Robert, La.

Initial relief that the Exxon Valdez spill occurred some 100 miles from Kenai Fjords National Park quickly evaporated once it became clear that the spill had defied efforts to keep the oil in the general area where the tanker ran aground. Eventually, the oil fouled coastal portions of three national park-related areas stretching some 400 miles from the spill, according to a report by then-park service historian Rick Kurtz. …

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