The foundation’s executive director, Jeff Trandahl, usually spends his time defending federal funding from the budget ax and cajoling corporate titans into making contributions. On Friday, he was fielding a slew of calls as people asked him how he might start spending millions of dollars.
“In conservation, everyone’s been waiting for this day,” he said. “This is the first step forward toward restoration and recovery. Now, the question is how do the troops start moving forward.”
The decision to steer so much to a single group sparked questions from some invested in the settlement’s outcome, including Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and a few environmentalists.
Landrieu praised that the money was being used “in a creative way to leverage it with private dollars” but expressed concern that the foundation’s board “includes only one person from the Gulf of Mexico. I would have liked to have seen a little more representation from the Gulf Coast, but at least the work they’ve done along the Gulf Coast has been very good.”
The foundation — created in 1984 by Senate Republicans seeking new ways to muster conservation funding in the face of Reagan administration budget cuts — is not an environmental advocacy organization. It receives an annual appropriation of about $15 million from the government, along with other federal grants totaling as much as $45 million, and solicits donations of about $16 million a year from private donors and corporations including Wal-Mart, Shell, Southern Co. and the American Petroleum Institute.
In its 28-year history, it has been responsible for $2.1 billion in conservation projects around the country, from acoustic monitoring of marine mammals in the Arctic to restoring fish habitat in the Ozarks. The next five years will more than double that figure.
Still, few other groups were as well-positioned to dole out the massive funds BP has agreed to hand over as part of its agreement with federal officials. The foundation oversees environmental grants and contracts totaling $75 million to $100 million a year, working with state and federal agencies as well as scientists, environmental groups and landowners to address threats to fish, wildlife and the habitat on which these animals depend.
“We are somebody who brings together all the experts to identify a strategy, and are focused on outcomes,” said Thomas Kelsch, the group’s vice president for conservation programs.
And it is a group trusted by BP, which already gave it $22 million in profits that BP got for selling recovered oil from the 2010 spill.
That money has funded 77 projects in five states, including saving 80,000 to 100,000 sea turtle hatchlings annually and protecting bird nesting sites on 30 islands and beaches.