OCEANS:

NOAA grant proposal could launch marine zoning

The Obama administration is proposing a grant program that could start zoning marine areas for offshore projects.

The White House released a fiscal 2011 budget proposal this week that includes $20 million in grants for regional ocean partnerships. The competitive grants would support planning for marine zoning.

Advocates of the zoning effort say the proposal -- a small part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's $5.55 billion annual budget -- would be a big step toward helping improving the marine management.

"This is a substantial investment," said Emily Woglom of the Nature Conservancy. "It would make it possible for regions to start marine spatial planning frameworks."

The new program is being proposed at a time when the administration says it is attempting to hold down agency spending. The overall budget proposal for NOAA is 15 percent higher than last year's funding levels, but almost all new money would go to purchase new satellites.

The administration's proposal would reduce overall funding for NOAA's operations and research account, which pays for all programs and functions beyond purchasing. The administration is proposing $3.4 billion for operations and research, a cut of $5 million from fiscal 2010 levels.

NOAA is directing proposed funding increases toward what the administration considers its most important initiatives, which include the regional ocean partnerships that aim to advance draft recommendations from President Obama's interagency ocean task force.

The task force -- comprising two-dozen top administration officials charged with drafting national ocean policy and developing a framework for marine planning -- has recommended making ocean conservation a national priority and creating a council to oversee marine issues.

The group also laid out plans for marine planning and zoning to overhaul how agencies address new projects. The task force's final recommendations are expected later this month, and environmentalists are hoping Obama will issue an executive order in March to give more force to the plans.

The marine planning system is intended to help the government address growing demands on oceans and coasts. It would clarify which agencies oversee permitting for marine development, address conflicts between shipping and marine mammal protection and decide in cases involving proposed energy projects and recreational areas.

The task force's draft recommendations map out processes for regional intergovernmental co-operation over ocean development over the next five years. They call for scientific data to be a foundation for regional planning.

The regional planning system in NOAA's budget would be the first step. The Obama budget proposal says competitive grants should be delivered to entities doing "marine spatial planning" -- identifying areas most suitable for certain types of projects.

"This is ... the first time that we've seen this kind of funding requested by the administration," said Matt Tinning of the Ocean Conservancy. "The ocean policy task force has finally stepped up on this important issue, and ensuring adequate funding to support the work that they have done and are calling for going forward is critical."

'A real urgency'

Recognizing that marine issues are not confined by state or federal boundaries, ocean experts have for years recommended regional, intergovernmental planning efforts. The Pew Oceans Commission, the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy and the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative all called for regional ocean governance.

Under the current system, a state manages marine waters within 3 miles of its coast, and the federal government oversees waters between 3 and 200 nautical miles offshore.

"There is a real urgency. It is not just something nice to do because it brings order," said Lynne Zeitlin Hale, director of the Nature Conservancy's global marine initiative. "The systems of the oceans are in decline; something has got to give."

NOAA developed a small grant program two years ago that focused on planning for the Gulf of Mexico. The Obama budget proposes to expand that program nationwide and focus the funding on the new initiative for marine spatial planning.

The money could go to help the groups gather data or maps to develop the plans or to fund grants for needed restoration projects that are identified in the process.

There are already six regional groups, mostly formed by coastal states' initiatives: the Gulf of Mexico Alliance, Northeast Regional Ocean Council, Great Lakes Regional Collaboration, West Coast Governors' Agreement on Ocean Health, Mid-Atlantic Regional Council on the Ocean and South Atlantic Alliance.

The competitive grants would go to those groups and others for Alaska and Hawaii, according to budget documents NOAA released this week.