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Audubon View

It’s been almost two months since the horrific explosion of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon claimed 11 human lives and became a far-reaching environmental disaster. It continues to unfold in slow motion, its full magnitude yet unknown and its lessons still to be learned.

From the start we worried that birds and marine life would suffer and die; that fragile barrier islands, wetlands, and marshes would be soiled; and that coastal industries, communities, livelihoods, and families would suffer. Regrettably, all have come true. And, as is so often the case, the plight of birds reflects the broader damage to the environment they share with all of us.

Even as oil began to stream to the surface, vital Gulf habitats teemed with coastal species, such as graceful terns, gangly pelicans, and peaceful plovers. Many were at the height of their breeding seasons. Initially, some people downplayed the severity of the crisis because oiled birds did not immediately appear in numbers reminiscent of the Exxon Valdez disaster.

As the spill spread, more and more oiled birds turned up. Some suffered terribly from oil-induced poisoning or loss of their natural buoyancy and temperature regulation. Valiant rescue and cleaning efforts—some aided by Audubon volunteers—saved a fraction of the victims. Countless others died in oily habitats or slipped unseen beneath fouled waters. Much of this crisis, like the damage to the marine food chain, remains invisible.

We can see soiled coastlines and tainted marshes. We know that several Audubon-designated Important Bird Areas are affected, and that more will be. Yet it is too early to tell how much damage has been done or how it will affect the birds and other species for which IBAs serve as last refuges within fast-disappearing coastal ecosystems. 

Audubon quickly combined its long-term Gulf restoration agenda with an emergency response that recruited and coordinated thousands of volunteers moved by the disaster. Many have been put to work in roles ranging from wildlife transport and support of rehabilitation centers to bird monitoring that gauges spill impacts and helps guide future restoration efforts.

But despite the inspiring response, there can be no easy answers and no quick fixes. Cleanup will cost billions and take months or even years. Long-term recovery will demand difficult and time-consuming work to rebuild and revitalize resources that have long been abused and undervalued. Audubon has worked to restore and rebuild healthy coastal ecosystems for decades. We’re there now, and we’ll remain long after the headlines fade.

Audubon is intent on spurring the nation to embrace the painful lesson that it’s time to pause and reassess what places can truly be considered “safe” for oil drilling. Areas such as the Arctic Ocean—given a temporary reprieve after the spill—involve risks that are simply too great and resources too precious to spoil. Our elected representatives must remember this catastrophe as they consider our energy future. Clearly, we must redouble our efforts to move toward a future powered by cleaner, renewable energy that can help stabilize our climate while avoiding our oil addiction’s disastrous impact.

The heartbreaking images and stories of the spill contained in this issue and in the next, as well as on Audubon.org, will make these lessons hard to ignore. Together we must demand answers and accountability. And we must learn the crucial lessons to ensure that this tragedy is never repeated—for the good of our precious Gulf Coast and for all the people and wildlife of tomorrow. 

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