ARANSAS PASS, Texas – An eroding Texas island where more than 20,000 birds nest in scraggly trees and on a narrow patch of sand will be built back up thanks to a partnership between the Nature Conservancy of Texas and Shell Oil that was announced Tuesday.
Oil companies and other heavy industries often blamed for environmental damage have a long history of funding restoration work. But partnerships like this one between the Nature Conservancy and Shell have become more common as state and federal funding dries up following the worst recession since World War II.
The Nature Conservancy tried for months to get money to restore Shamrock Island, preserving it as habitat for more than a dozen species of birds, some of them threatened or just off the endangered list, but federal and state grants for the $2.3 million project were denied. Private donations had shrunk. Only Shell's $500,000 donation will allow the first phase of the work to begin.
"The federal government has reduced spending in most areas that have to do with conservation," said Laura Huffman, director of the Nature Conservancy in Texas, who was active in trying to get federal grants for the Shamrock Island project. "You don't get awards every time you apply ... but now there are even fewer dollars out there."
One issue is that federal budget cuts have made less money available to agencies that usually make some of the biggest conservation grants. For example, the North American Wetlands Conservation Fund saw its budget drop from about $48 million in fiscal year 2010 to about $36 million in 2012. The Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program, a part of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, lost three-fourths of its budget, which was $20 million in 2010 but just $5 million this year. And the Fish and Wildlife Service State and Tribal Wildlife Grants saw its funds decline in that time from $90 million to about $61 million.
At the same time, increasing public awareness of environmental issues has made large corporations and heavy industries interested in investing in these programs, which could improve their image in communities that might otherwise be wary of their sometimes-damaging operations.
Foundations, nonprofits and state agencies say private businesses haven't filled the gap created by shrinking public dollars, but opportunities are growing. Susan Baggett, state resource conservationist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, estimates her agency has seen a 20 percent increase in such partnerships since 2005.
For example, she said, her agency is working with DuPont Chemical, Dow Chemicals, private foundations and a university to combat an invasive plant that threatens grazing lands, with nearly half the cost, $20,000, coming from the two corporations.
"I'm seeing partnerships that I never dreamed of before," Baggett said.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department saw its funding drop from about $469 million in 2010 to just more than $332 million this year. Meanwhile, a withering drought and unusually high temperatures cut into fees the agency gets from hunters, anglers and park visitors.
It has partnered with Exxon Mobil and Encana Corporation, a pipeline company. Exxon Mobil made a $250,000 to the department's foundation, enough to cover a project to get TPWD's magazine into state schools. During the past four years, Encana has donated about $980,000 to a variety of projects, including research on an aquatic invasive species and conservation projects at schools.
"We're living in a reality in which funding for these kinds of programs from federal and state programs is going to be less," said Carter Smith, executive director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. "It's incumbent on us to go out and look for creative funding opportunities and partnerships and I think that's becoming more the norm than the anomaly."
The cash-strapped state has encouraged private fundraising. Realizing there were obstacles, the Legislature gave TPWD broader entrepreneurial authority last year. Now, it's seeking a corporate sponsor, and partnerships with outdoor companies Whole Earth Provision Company and REI, as well as La Quinta hotels, said Lydia Saldana, a TPWD spokeswoman who oversees these efforts.
Shell Oil has long made community investment part of its business model, said Derek Newberry, business opportunity manager for Mars B, its deep water project in the Gulf of Mexico. From the get-go, Shell allocated $5 million of the project's budget to environmental, educational and community causes. Newberry wouldn't say how much the whole project cost but said Shell has become more interested in conservation programs.
Its work on Shamrock Island is part of its expanding efforts.
The 74-acre island lost 17 acres between 1950 and 1997 and has since seen erosion accelerate. In 1970, powerful Hurricane Celia turned the island into a refuge for birds when its powerful storm surge destroyed the 300-yard sandbar that connected Shamrock to Mustang Island, near Corpus Christi, and was the only way in for predators.
The island still has the remains of storage tanks and docks that tell the story of its connections to the oil industry. In the 1950s, dredging materials were dumped on the eastern part of the island and storage facilities were built. The oil industry's activities created a u-shaped island and a northern island within Shamrock's boundaries.
In 1992, an Exxon-owned pipeline ruptured, dumping more than 100,000 gallons of oil nearby. That spill ultimately paved the way for the Nature Conservancy to declare the island a preserve.
Yet when the Nature Conservancy came up with the complex plan a few years ago to bring in sand to rebuilt the island's beach, replant grasses that protect it and build up its boundaries, it didn't immediately expect an oil company to be a backer.
Now, though, it's less of a surprise.
"The idea of valuing nature as part of your business model is gaining ground," said Huffman, the Nature Conservancy's director. "It's important to consumers."
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