WASHINGTON — Oil was still gushing from BP’s Macondo well in 2010 when a little-known nonprofit rushed to establish a new resting area for more than 1 billion migratory birds that stop each year at the Gulf of Mexico.
The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, a government-chartered charity, realized it could pay rice farmers in adjacent areas of Louisiana and Texas to flood their lands, creating instant, faux wetlands for the birds to rest and feed. All in all, it spent more than $22 million on that and similar Gulf projects, much of it funded by the sale of BP’s recovered oil.
Now it has a mission far greater: administering projects to restore the Gulf with $2.4 billion from the settlement last week between BP and the Department of Justice. The group, which typically operates out of the spotlight, now takes a primary role as it gets the largest share of the $4.5 billion criminal settlement.
“When something breaks and somebody needs to pay for it, you’ll normally see that we’re the fiduciary," Jeff Trandahl, the Washington-based foundation’s president, said in an interview, referring to environmental crimes.
The foundation was formed in 1984 as Republican senators tried to counter President Ronald Reagan’s funding cuts for conservation with a way to augment private contributions, Trandahl said. The foundation doesn’t do the conservation work itself; it administers grants to national nonprofits, such as the National Audubon Society or Ducks Unlimited, or to local conservation groups.
The settlement includes details on how the group must spend the money. About half of it will go to Louisiana, to help the state government restore barrier islands or for river diversion projects. The other half will be divvied up among projects in Texas, Alabama, Florida and Mississippi.
In each case, the states will identify projects they want funded, and the foundation will issue requests for proposals or similar processes to figure out which groups can best do the work.