Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Gulf Coast, Here I Come!

Brown Pelican
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
(Transcript for For the Birds, 12 July 2010)

Gulf Coast, Here I Come
In 1970, America faced a lot of disasters at once—the Cuyahoga River was literally on fire; Lake Erie was declared dead; a 1969 oil spill from an offshore well released about 100,000 barrels of oil into California’s Santa Barbara Channel, killing well over 10,000 birds and fouling a long swath of coastline and all four northern Channel Islands; Whooping Cranes were hanging on by a thread with just two dozen remaining in the world; and Peregrine Falcons had been extirpated from all of eastern North America.
But 1970 was also an optimistic time in America. A man had walked on the moon less than a year before, within the same decade that John Kennedy imagined such a thing was even a possibility. Most people still had personal memories of triumphing on two huge fronts in World War II in less than four years. There was no question in people’s minds that America was a place of achievement. Even though the nation was virulently partisan, divided on the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, the Equal Rights Amendment, and other issues, we set aside our differences to clean up the air and water and save charismatic species that we all shared.
Sure enough, less than three years after the first Earth Day in 1970, Congress and an extremely conservative administration had passed and signed into law a host of meaningful environmental legislation including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act, strengthened the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, established the Environmental Protection Agency, banned DDT, and lowered the speed limit to 55. These led to real, measurable, and palpable improvements in environmental quality in short order.
Four decades later, we’re facing another environmental catastrophe of national proportions. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has already killed far more animals than is possible to quantify—as of July 12, people have collected almost two thousand dead oiled birds, almost 500 dead sea turtles, and 59 dead dolphins and other mammals. This doesn’t count dead animals people have seen but not been able to pick up, such as the thousands of dead birds in huge nesting colonies, nor the vast number mired in the muck that will never be acknowledged.
I’m headed down to the Gulf next week to see for myself what is happening to the habitat and the birds that I love. I don’t know that my heart can stand to be there more than a couple of weeks at a time, so I’ll return again on and off throughout migration, winter, spring, and next year’s breeding season. Now that my rehab license is expired, bearing witness is the only way I can help at all. This catastrophe is bad enough on its own, but unlike past disasters, this one’s insidious stain seems to have seeped into the very soul of America, paralyzing us with despair and cynicism. Can we trust the government? The media? BP, Halliburton, or Transocean? Non-profits? Federal judges? Anyone? I no longer know who to believe, so I’m headed down there to see for myself. I’m hoping against hope to prove that we Americans have not become apathetic and helpless under corporate rule the way the Soviet people became under their totalitarian regime. I’m hoping against hope that with sound information, people are willing to rise to this occasion and save our imperiled natural world once again. Apathy is not my forte. So Gulf Coast, here I come.

(This trip will begin on July 24.)