"Good Queen Bess" (a.k.a. Queen Elizabeth) is credited with putting an end to a period of instability in mid-16th century England. Unfortunately, the tiny scrap of land in Louisiana that bears her name, Queen Bess Island, has been anything but stable. The island, located about two-and-a-half miles north of Grand Isle in Barataria Bay, has been sinking and eroding into the Gulf of Mexico. This is a matter of grave concern, as Queen Bess Island supports the third largest brown pelican rookery in Louisiana.
Less than five acres of suitable nesting and brood-rearing bird habitat remain on Queen Bess Island, so immediate action is needed to stop the erosion and build back what has been lost. Using $18.7 million of Deepwater Horizon Natural Resource Damage Assessment (DWH NRDA) settlement funds from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, a restoration effort aimed at adding 37 acres of prime nesting habitat will start this October. If not for a remarkable regulatory feat, project managers would have had to wait until next year to start the project. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS’) streamlining of the environmental compliance process led to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps) being able to issue a permit for the project in only two days.
A regulatory process and the issuance of a permit by the Corps must be completed before a project can be implemented on the ground. Erin Chandler, an environmental compliance coordinator for USFWS’s Deepwater Horizon Gulf Restoration Office (DWH GRO), explains that DWH NRDA projects are designed to restore the fish, wildlife and habitats injured by the DWH tragedy. “But we still must ensure that potential incidental impacts to the environment and cultural resources have been assessed, understood, and clearly outlined.”
USFWS streamlined the regulatory process for the Queen Bess project by taking on some of the compliance review the Corps would have had to cover in their analysis of the permit application. “This greatly simplified the process for them. It reduced their workload, led to a faster permit authorization,” Chandler says. “We effectively front-loaded regulatory compliance and made it easier for the Corps to conduct their permit application review.”
Brad LaBorde from the Corps of Engineers New Orleans District Regulatory Branch agrees. “For a project like Queen Bess Island, completing Endangered Species Act (ESA) and Essential Fish Habitat (EFH) consultations can take six months to a year due to the information that's required by the applicant and the need for coordination between federal agencies,” LaBorde says. Since USFWS undertook the EFH/ESA consultations and provided an Environmental Information Document that answered many of the Corps' typical questions, LaBorde continues, “I only had to complete a couple internal coordinations before making the permit decision. For the Corps, it saved man-hours -- not days, but months -- and for [USFWS] it resulted in a timely permit decision.”
“Often perception is that the permit process is a lengthy and cumbersome process,” LaBorde adds, “but my job is made easier when an applicant is motivated, understands our process, and is willing to provide the concise and complete material that's needed to make a timely permit decision.”
John Tirpak, a wildlife biologist at USFWS, says people can’t engage in restoration efforts on Queen Bess Island while birds are nesting, which leaves only a six-month window (October through March) to get work done. “This is a reason why a speedy compliance review was so important. If the restoration work is not started before nesting begins, we would have to wait and we’d lose more of the island -- and without restoration, we will lose that nesting colony within the next decade.”
In addition to being the third largest nesting colony of brown pelicans in Louisiana, Queen Bess Island is the only colony for the birds in Barataria Bay. “We need to make sure to have brown pelicans in all locations where they were historically,” Tirpak says. “So if, God forbid, a hurricane knocked out a colony, there would still be others.” He notes that Queen Bess Island was the first spot where brown pelicans were returned to Louisiana after the pesticide DDT had wiped them out in the early 1960s.
“The Deepwater Horizon GRO is constantly looking for ways to maximize efficiency while still fully meeting all of our regulatory requirements,” Chandler says. “In Gulf Restoration we have an opportunity to look at environmental compliance in a new way. Since we sit side by side at the conference tables with the implementing agencies, we can have candid and open dialogues about mutually acceptable compliance timelines and outcomes. Those conversations are generating some unique approaches that we are excited to continue.”