Reconciling environment and economy

RECENTLY Gov. SONNY Perdue spoke about the importance of promoting tourism in Georgia -- in part to compensate for the state’s continued lackluster economic performance, now projected through 2005.

Yet recent actions of Georgia officials are a direct threat to tourism as a strong and growing economic force.

By our reckoning, at least $15 billion of the state’s annual tourism activity is directly attributable to healthy natural resources – especially water quality and fisheries, which here on the coast are known to contribute some $1 billion in tourism and outdoor recreation business revenues every year.

This means some 40,000 coastal jobs and as many as 600,000 jobs in Georgia that depend directly on a well protected environment. Even minor harm to natural resources could cause millions of lost annual revenues in nature-based business, severely curtailing Georgia’s potential for further tourism diversification.

In light of the Governor’s public commitment to boosting Georgia’s tourism efforts and overwhelming evidence of that sector’s growth potential, it is especially ironic that, by an 11 to 5 vote, the state’s Natural Resources Committee adopted an exemption that would abolish certain water quality safeguards.

By taking away buffers for streams that only flow during rainstorms, the Board of Natural Resources is exposing state waters to still more threats from non-point source pollution, blatantly at odds with Georgia’s tourism interests.

No matter how seldom a small stream or ditch may transport water, without natural buffers it is likely to convey contaminants, which can add substantially to the non-point source pollution of state waters – already a well-documented and serious water quality problem throughout Georgia.

Exposing hundreds if not thousands of such streams to these risks by adopting the proposed buffer exemption unjustifiably jeopardizes Georgia’s water quality and long-term economic interests through further impairment.

This unwise exemption adds more problems to a program already plagued by poor performance. By various estimates, the Environmental Protection Division is underfunded by 60-80 percent of what is needed to properly enforce existing point-source permitting regulations. State erosion and sedimentation regulations are also known for having chronic enforcement deficiencies, due at least in part to major funding and staffing shortages.

Local governments share in this default of public water protection responsibilities by often failing to adequately monitor and enforce erosion controls in land use decisions.

Beyond these concerns, but directly related to them, are national problems with marine habitat, as reported in two recent studies by highly reputable groups.

Both the Pew Ocean Commission and the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy emphasized the critical importance of reducing non-point source pollution of the nation’s rivers in order to improve and, if possible, recover degraded habitats and the living marine resources dependent on them.

Marine biologists estimate that water quality in coastal estuaries and near-shore waters is essential to the health of 75 to 80 percent of marine life, because of its importance to the food web and various habitat functions during the life-cycle of innumerable species.

Georgia is long overdue for an economic development strategy and budget that are reconciled with the state’s environmental laws and limits to achievable sustainable, responsible and consistent public policy.

Given the short-term, fragmented thinking that dominates most decisions affecting the condition of Georgia’s public trust resources such as air, water, habitat and wildlife, this is a formidable challenge.

We urge Governor Perdue to use his considerable authority to stop Georgia’s self-defeating history of robbing Peter to pay Paul by recognizing the vital functions of the natural environment when promoting the state’s economic development.

This objective should be at the very heart of the Governor’s efforts to achieve greater fiscal responsibility, because our natural resources are among Georgia’s most valued forms of wealth – and essential to the shared future prosperity of all our citizens.


David Kyler is executive director of the Center for a Sustainable Coast. To comment on this article, e-mail us at


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