Monday, March 21, 2011

NYSMEA featured in NY-NJ Harbor Estuary Program's newsletter

NYSMEA - what we strive to support, our mission, and what we provide - is on display in the New York - New Jersey Harbor Estuary Program's Spring 2011 issue of Tidal Exchange. The issue, devoted entirely to NY-NJ Harbor Estuary education, showcases a few of the many ongoing environmental education programs focusing on the NY-NJ Harbor Estuary in our unique coastal region.

As mentioned in the NYSMEA article, one of the Association's main events is its annual conference, which will be held this year on Saturday June 4, 2011 along the Brooklyn shoreline at Kingsborough Community College. The theme for this 35th annual conference is “Our Local Waterways: Resources, Restoration, and Citizen Science Activities” and will help to introduce teachers to environmental regulators and community activists to transform their lesson plans into site-based action plans for habitat restoration and environmental monitoring.

"Too often, students lack the necessary field skills needed for career opportunities in the environmental sciences," writes the article's author, Dr. Merryl Kafka, Ed.D. "This conference will present tools to address this gap, while providing a well-rounded, multi-disciplinary education, producing concrete improvements in our estuary environment."

To read the full article on NYSMEA, "Get Marinated with the New York State Marine Education Association," click here. Also, download and read the entire issue of Tidal Exchange, which is available in pdf format (see pages 12-13 in the print version for NYSMEA's article).

Thursday, March 17, 2011

News of Our Trip to Louisiana Coast Makes the Paper

The New York Marine Education Association and New York Sea Grant's trip to the Louisiana coast made the paper today. Check out the article, "Stewards of the habitat: 14-member team from NYSMEA gets knee-deep in plants in the Gulf of Mexico," in The Village Times Hearld (click here).

Monday, March 7, 2011

New York Educators Help Restore Habitats off Threatened Louisiana Coast

By Paul C. Focazio, Web Content Manager, New York Sea Grant

Over the course of four days in late February, a group of New York educators traveled to Louisiana to team up with staff from Louisiana Sea Grant and the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program to rebuild tidal wetlands and maritime forest communities devastated by recent natural and man-made events.

The New York group was organized by Larissa Graham, New York Sea Grant’s (NYSG) Long Island Sound Study (LISS) Outreach Coordinator and Meghan Marrero, the President of New York State Marine Education Association (NYSMEA) in response to the oil spill that occurred last spring. But, after talking to various experts and touring the Louisiana coast, the group quickly learned that the oil spill was only one of numerous problems that face the habitats along the Louisiana coast.

“Louisiana's wetlands are disappearing at an alarming rate,” said Mel Landry, Public Involvement Coordinator at the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program. “Our only chance of survival is with the support of the entire nation.”

Wetlands are an extremely important habitat as they serve as feeding, breeding, and nursery grounds for thousands of wild animals in the Gulf of Mexico region. Tidal wetlands are washing away due to the canals that have been dug for oil transportation, the floodwaters that have ripped through the area during hurricanes, and the damming and channelization of the Mississippi which used to supply sediment to replenish these vital areas.

To help rebuild wetland habitats, the group volunteered with Caitlin Reilly of Louisiana Sea Grant to plant more than 320 pots of smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) and propagated over 2,700 Gulf Bluestem (Schizachyrium maritimum), two native wetland plants that will be planted at various sites. “Native grasses are an important component of our coastal ecosystems. They hold together sediments and provide habitat for native wildlife.” Reilly said, “Propagating and planting grasses is an effective way of involving volunteers in an essential aspect of coastal restoration.”

The group also helped to restore a maritime forest—a crucial habitat that provides food and shelter for neotropical birds during their migration routes. Working with Landry and Matt Benoit from the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program the group planted 800 salt matrimony vines (Lycium carolinianum), a native shrubbery, in what will one day be a critical part of a maritime forest on a manmade ridge created from dredged spoil.

“The efforts of these volunteers not only helped create important habitat, but also helped to educate a new set of ambassadors for the restoration of this national treasure,” said Landry.

"Although our group was only in Louisiana for a relatively short time, our goal was to learn as much as we could about the various problems affecting the Louisiana coast," said Graham. "Now that we are home, we can use the information we learned to better inform others about how they can help."

Many of the New York educators were astounded by how much of the natural landscape was altered for human needs and the effect that it was having on the surrounding habitats. “To see the fragility of the coastline first hand was depressing, but then inspirational,” said Fran Moss, one participant on the trip. “If everyone would participate in programs such as this, there is hope for restoration and the resumption of bounty.”

Marrero and Graham hope that the participants will use the trip to encourage stewardship for New York’s coastline. "NYSMEA members are eager to assist in restoration efforts, and to raise awareness back in New York that there is plenty of work to be done in the Gulf and here at home," said Marrero. "NYSMEA is making a special effort this year to involve our members in stewardship activities. There are many local citizen science activities here in New York, and our annual conference held in June will focus on these and other stewardship opportunities."

For more on the trip, see the six posts below, between February 21 - March 2, 2011, on this blog.

You can learn more about wetland loss along the Louisiana coast, visit BTNEP's Web Site or the Gulf of Mexico Sea Grant Program's Oil Spill Web site or NYSG's Resource page, NOAA Sea Grant's Response to the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Building Maritime Forests and Barrier Islands in Port Fourchon and Grand Isle; More Oil Spill Clean-up on Elmer's Island

By Paul C. Focazio, Web Content Manager, New York Sea Grant

Our travels in our final days found us south of New Orleans, in the region around Port Fourchon (pictured above in 1), Louisiana’s southernmost port. This sea port shows significant petroleum industry traffic from offshore Gulf oil platforms and drilling rigs as well as the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port pipeline. With primary service markets in domestic deepwater oil and gas exploration, drilling, and production in the Gulf of Mexico, Fourchon has earned the tagline "The Gulf's Energy Connection" for several reasons: (a) it has over 600 oil platforms within a 40-mile radius, (b) it's port currently services over 90% of the Gulf's deepwater oil production, and (c) this area furnishes 16-18% of the U.S. oil supply.

Just a short boat ride from the Port Fourchon Marina (2, above) is where educators from New York State Marine Education Association (NYSMEA) and New York Sea Grant (NYSG) partook in an all-day volunteer activity. The group, under guidance from staff at the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program (BTNEP), docked at the Port Fourchon Maritime Forest Ridge (3-5, above) for a habitat restoration planting.

It was 2001 when BTNEP, along with the Greater Lafourche Port Commission, began their partnership with other organizations to re-establish this ridge. Why? While Louisiana’s unparalleled coastal wetlands loss has dire consequences for many species of fish and wildlife, the same can be said for ridges like this one. These ridge habitats are extremely important to many animals including the millions of migrating birds that cross the Gulf of Mexico in the spring each year on their way back to their breeding grounds in the eastern United States and Canada.

And while the Port Fourchon Maritime Forest Ridge appears rather bare in a vegetative sense, thanks to volunteer efforts like this one (during which around 800 new trees were planted), "it will hopefully one day be a full maritime forest," said Mel Landry, BTNEP's Public Involvement Coordinator.

Between 1986 and 2008 alone, nearly 120,000 acres in the Barataria-Terrebonne Estuary System have benefited from habitat projects made possible through several state and federal programs, including BTNEP. Most of these projects have focused on habitats with high rates of loss, such as the barrier islands, interior marshes, bays, and bayou shorelines of Plaquemines, Jefferson, Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes. Port Fourchon, where the maritime forest ridge in this volunteer effort is located, is on the southern tip of Louisiana's Lafourche parish.

Salt Matrimony Vine was the small tree/shrub of choice for the restoration effort, as it's a native evergreen with a high success rate in most soils that is also tolerant of salt spray and drought conditions. Other plants found on the ridge, including marsh hay, bitter panicum and Spartina patens, exhibit similar endurance qualities.

Prior to the planting, BTNEP's Plant Materials Coordinator, Matt Benoit, showed the educators how to prepare and plant the salt matrimony vine (pictured 6-8, above). After holes are drilled deep enough to support the roots, the plant's soil needs some loosening up before placing the shrub in the ground, filling in the dirt around it firmly, and adding a fertilizer tablet before patting down the dirt one final time.

The NYSMEA and NYSG educators helped drill the holes and plant the shrubs during the full day of restoration efforts on the Port Fourchon Maritime Forest Ridge (pictured 9-13, above; 14-15, below).

At the end of the day, after all of the nearly 800 salt matrimony vine trees were planted, BTNEP staff brought the NYSMEA and NYSG educators back to the Port Fourchon Marina for a much needed and well-deserved reprieve (pictured 16, above).

A good example of what these educators helped work towards in Port Fourchon - a more robust and, hopefully one day, full maritime forest ridge - is what you'll see on Grand Isle, a barrier island in Louisiana's Jefferson Parish located at the mouth of Barataria Bay where it meets the Gulf of Mexico. Throughout its history, Grand Isle has been repeatedly pummeled by hurricanes. On average, Grand Isle has been affected by tropical storms or hurricanes every 2.68 years since 1877, with hurricane direct hits on average every 7.88 years.

In 1860, a 6-foot storm surge and great winds resulted in the total devastation of the island. More recently, 2005's Hurricane Katrina hit Grand Isle very hard, destroying or damaging homes and camps along the entire island. Katrina's surge reached 5 ft at Grand Isle, with large waves severely damaging the only bridge linking Grand Isle to the mainland.

Luckily, a news report published less than two days after Katrina hit falsely noted that the area had been completely destroyed. Had this been true, it would have been even more devestating for the the skinny, seven-mile Grand Isle, Louisiana’s biggest and only inhabited barrier island that is also the only barrier island large enough to support “chenier” or live oak forests (pictured in 17, above). The forests, back barrier marshes, and sandy beaches of Grand Isle are considered one of the premiere birding destinations in North America.

In the spring, a redmulberry tree with ripe fruits (pictured in 18-19, above) may be filled with a kaleidoscope of migrating birds, including blood-red Summer Tanagers, velvety-red Scarlet Tanagers, orange Baltimore Orioles, burnt-orange Orchard Orioles,deep-blue Indigo Buntings, and multi-hued Painted Buntings.

"It's the diversity of habitat that makes this place so rich and unique," said BTNEP's Landry. In addition to live oak, this mature maritime forest (pictured in 20, below) is home to a variety of other plant species, including wax myrtle, black mangroves, native palm (palmeto, pictured in 21, below), and an array of salt tolerant grasses (22).

One of three types of mangrove plants that grow in the United States, black mangroves encompass a large community in both the Grand Isle and Port Fourchon areas. This community is at the northernmost edge of the black mangrove’s natural geographic range, so, because of cold stress, it only reaches shrub-size.

Overall this area's wetlands, including the mangroves, help to protect Louisiana's ports and infrastructure. They serve a vital purpose, both as physical habitat and nursery grounds for a wide variety of marine organisms as well as storm buffers by reducing wind and wave action in shallow shoreline areas. But, over the years, their presence in the Barataria-Terrebonne Estuary System (BTES) has declined, mostly due to subsidence, a complex process in which marsh sediments compact and sink under their own weight. Historically, annual floods over the banks of the Mississippi River provided freshwater and sediment inputs to BTES marshes and kept them above water. But, the levees that have been constructed to protect shoreline communities from these floods are also preventing water and sediment from reaching BTES marshes.

Over time, the process of subsidence drowns coastal marshes, causing chemical changes in wetland soils which, eventually, kill marsh vegetation. Without plant roots to hold it together, marsh soil breaks us and is carried away by wave action. The end result? Marsh is converted to open water. This additional volume of water causes an increase in the tidal prism, forcing passes to enlarge and reducing the lengths of barrier islands such as Grand Isle, which protect interior marshes from wave action and hurricanes.

BTNEP suggests that one of the most effective ways to supplement the Barataria-Terrebonne Estuary System is via a pipeline delivery that would go over the levees and pump in the sediment needed to replenish and build up BTES's wetlands.

It is volunteer and education efforts such as the one on display between staff of the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program and the Long Island Sound Study (pictured in 23, below) - two of the U.S.'s 28 estuaries deemed critically in peril and nationally significant - that make programs like these a success and the ideas therein thrive.

For more on the region, check out Louisiana Sea Grant's "Grand Isle Diaries," a sound scape that documents Grand Isle’s rich history and culture, as well as its environmental importance.

As a result of April 2010's Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Elmer’s Island is currently closed to public fishing and recreation. Elmer's Island Wildlife Refuge (EIWR), owned and maintained by the state of Louisiana, is a 230-acre tract of barrier beachfront located directly across Caminada Pass from Grand Isle on the southwestern tip of Jefferson Parish.

Following clearance from state police officials (who are on premises and constantly patrolling to be assured the area remains locked down during this period of testing) and under the supervision of Julia Lightener, Fisheries Biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and EIWR Manager, we were able to see some of the reasons for the closure.

Elmer's Island Wildlife Refuge is where egrets and herons visit, terns, gulls and pelicans nest and plovers will winter. In it's sands you'll see ghost crabs scurrying about (pictured in 28, above), as well as beach grasses such as bitter panicum, Spartina patens and "Ghost Rider" purple bluestem, a native warm-season, perennial bunch grass well adapted to the deep South (pictured in 24-26, above).

Also in the sands of EIWR, though, are broken up tar balls, an incredibly degraded state of oil that has washed ashore (pictured in 29-31, below).

Crews are out on the beaches, raking up the tar balls (32). There are also machines nicknamed "sandbonis" that remove the top half-inch of the sand and sifts out possible tar and oil (33).

According to a recent report by Daily Comet, one of the area's news sources, LDWF Secretary Robert Barham, said there’s “new oil” showing up on its beaches, including tar balls and a submerged mat” of crude. Federal law gives the state final say over when an area is determined “cleaned,” Barham said. “In that regard, I have some security,” Barham said. “But BP has sent some subtle messages that it wants to take the position that nature should takes its course at this point and that they have basically cleaned everything up. They think they’re on the backside of this. But we’re going to hold them accountable.”

Mike Utsler, COO of British Petroleum’s Gulf Coast Restoration Organization, told Daily Comet that the seasonal low tide of winter was expected to reveal tar mats near shore and tar balls are still washing up in “limited areas” across the coast. Utsler, who has hosted Facebook question sessions and is serving as the public face for BP’s clean up, contends BP’s efforts won’t stop when a beach is cleaned.

“BP is going to be in the communities of the Gulf Coast for the long-term, and part of our continuing job will be to closely monitor the shoreline for any signs of tarred material,” he said. “We have specially trained reconnaissance teams that patrol the shoreline looking for any signs of tar balls, and if we find any, we will still have locally based response teams and equipment ready to rapidly clean the area.” Initially, he said BP’s goal was to have all of the Gulf Coast’s “amenity beaches” cleaned up in time for spring break.

For updates on the status of Elmer's Island Wildlife Refuge, visit it's LDWF Web page.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Restoration and Revitalization Efforts in and around New Orleans

By Paul C. Focazio, Web Content Manager, New York Sea Grant

Last October, nearly two dozen Sea Grant communicators and colleagues from throughout the national network’s 32 programs participated in a habitat restoration planting effort in New Orleans' City Park. The National Sea Grant College Program engages this network of the nation’s top universities, which work with coastal communities and conduct scientific research, education, training, and extension projects designed to foster science-based decisions about the use and conservation of our aquatic resources.

The Sea Grant group planted Spartina grasses – a rather common perennial marsh grass with a very high salt tolerance – along 200 feet of shoreline in the brackish Big Lake, reinforcing the shore from erosion caused by wave action. The planting also created new fisheries habitat, maintained and stocked by the Louisiana State Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

“We have a lot of salinity issues in this part of the country, so we’re always trying to figure out what will stay in place once we get it in there,” says Caitlin Reilly (pictured below in 1), a Sea Grant extension specialist at Louisiana State University (LSU) who led the group. In addition to Spartina patens (or marsh hay, pictured in 2, below), 0ther commonly used plant species in and around New Orleans restoration sites include bitter panicum (3, below), Gulf bluestem, bullrush and oyster grass.

During this February 2011 visit with educators from the New York State Marine Education Association (NYSMEA) and some New York Sea Grant (NYSG) staff, Reilly discussed some of the other efforts of the LSU AgCenter's Wetland Plant Center (WPC) in City Park. Operated by the LSU AgCenter since the 2005 hurricane season (which included both Katrina and Rita), WPC has coordinated hundreds of volunteers to propagate and plant tens of thousands of native grasses and irises at restoration sites across southeastern Louisiana. In addition to providing plants for projects in City Park, WPC also has restoration sites in Bayou St. John, Grand Isle State Park and, until recent litigation over possible contaminated soils forced the State to place a moratorium on such activities, Elmer's Island Wildlife Management Area.

“In the face of land loss, we see a lot of need for restoration in Louisiana, especially after Hurricane Katrina," says Reilly, a native New Yorker and graduate of Manhattan College who has also coordinated the LSU AgCenter's Oil Spill Extension Response and Recovery Task Force since last June as a Louisiana Sea Grant Extension Associate.

This week, NYSMEA and NYSG staff volunteered with several dozen students from Andrew Jackson Middle School in nearby Chalmette, Louisiana (4, below) to propagate 2,700 strands of Gulf bluestem (a wetland plant) and re-pot 320 Spartina alterniflora (smooth cordgrass, a wetland plant), for future WPC restoration efforts. All weeds were removed from each Spartina plant (6-14, below), as the plants do not compete well once planted. Also, the plants were re-potted using a mixture of mostly sand with some mulch and peat moss (5, below).

Following the plant propagation project at WPC, Reilly toured around the greater New Orleans area with NYSMEA and NYSG folks, discussing some of the problems facing the region, including the effects of humans "altering the landscape" (15, below, as seen at Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge, NWR). Established in 1990, Bayou Sauvage NWR encompasses approximately 25,000 acres in New Orleans and is the largest urban wildlife refuge in the country. It is one of the last remaining marsh areas adjacent to Lakes Pontchartrain and Borgne.

Lake Pontchartrain is part of the area’s estuary system north of New Orleans, which also includes Lakes Borgne and Saint Catherine. These spots, along with the eastern side of the city of New Orleans, are where much of the storm surge swept into New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

“New Orleans is in a bowl, so the [Mississippi] River is actually where the high ground is,” says Reilly. “So, when Katrina was happening, you could actually still walk along the River. They called it ‘The Isle of Denial” or ‘The Sliver By the River.’ There are also some ridges near the bayou that are high ground that didn’t flood.”

Historically, it was flooding from the Mississippi River that was the issue of concern. But, with all the modifications to the River’s hydrology in the last 100 years, “it’s changed to where we don’t have as much protection against hurricane storm surges,” says Reilly.

In the French Quarter, you might have seen some short-term flooding of rainwater. But, all of that went down really fast. “The real problems came from sitting water over time,” says Reilly. “So, there was minimal damage to the French Quarter and right along the [Mississippi] River. It was in the areas closer to where the levees breached throughout southeast Louisiana and Mississippi that the main thrust of damage occurred.”

In this region, there are two levee systems – there is the system of levees that controls the Mississippi River and another for all the drainage systems that serve as a hurricane-protection measure. The levee system on the River is what built the foot of south Louisiana that sticks out into the Gulf (as Reilly explains in 17, below). Over the last 10,000 years or so, the River has moved back and forth, spreading out sediment and building land. “At this point, with all the modifications we made to the area’s hydrology, we really don’t see a lot of River flooding,” says Reilly. “And that’s considered to be part of the problem with sinking here. We have this long-term issue of sinking and then we have all these canals which have helped speed up the process of erosion.”

There is active building happening in some areas of southern Louisiana and subsidence in others. After the Great Mississippi River flood in 1927, legislation was passed that empowered the Army Corps of Engineers to levee the entire Mississippi River, which is basically the main drainage system for the entire United States. From the Colorado Rockies to the Appalachian Mountains, everything drains into the various rivers that then drain into the Mississippi River.

And, when you combine this shift in water diversion with both a system of up-river dams that prevent sediment from flowing down and cuts through the area’s hydrology due to canal explorations for oil and gas that are slowly filtering out salt, Reilly cautions, “all of a sudden, you have tidal motion in areas like swamps that should instead have a graduated salinity. So, we’re seeing large die-offs in our swamps which should be mostly freshwater.”

Perhaps the biggest and most costly challenge to date facing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers New Orleans District is a multi-billion dollar project being called the “Great Wall of Louisiana.” At around 20 feet high and almost two miles long, this barrier being built around the city of New Orleans is slated for completion this June. It is one of the key components in the Corps' Hurricane and Storm Risk Reduction System to defend against the effects of a 100-year storm.

One hundred year level of protection actually means reducing risk from a storm surge that has a 1% chance of being equaled or exceeded in any given year. The 1% chance is based on the combined chances of a storm of a certain size and intensity (pressure) following a certain track. Different combinations of size, intensity and track can result in a 100-year surge event.

According to the Corps' New Orleans District Web site: "What was once a patchwork of levees, floodwalls and pumps before the hurricanes is becoming a true System that will provide 100-year level perimeter protection against hurricane storm surge to greater New Orleans. Today, the area already has the best perimeter defense in its history, and work continues at a record pace. We are driving hard to have in place a system that can defend against a 100-year storm by June 2011."

Hurricane flooding in the modern era has been contributed to largely by die-offs of areas like the Cyprus Triangle, near the Ninth Ward, which is located in the easternmost downriver portion of the city of New Orleans. Such locales, including Bayou Bienvenue (18, above) never recovered after the opening of the Mississippi River limited sediment transport to keep plants and grasses in place. This move also prevented freshwater from flushing out the land after flooding from severe storms like 1965’s Hurricane Betsy, which left considerable salt staining. All this has caused not only more flooding, but sinking as well.

“This land has been sliced and diced, with nothing to help build the land back up,” says Reilly. “So, there are a good number of dedicated dredging and restoration projects that continue to this day to help combat these issues.”

Adding additional stress to already troubled areas such as the former cyprus forests of Bayou Bienvenue are non-native species such as nutria, a semi-aquatic rodent introduced from South America that has literally eaten up Louisiana's coastline (19, above). Nutria live in fresh, intermediate, and brackish marshes and wetlands and feed on vegetation that is vital to the area's coastline. Their "eat-outs" create opening in the marsh vegetation, and, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, they are currently affecting an estimated 100,000 acres of coastal wetlands.

With Louisiana's coastal wetlands converting to open water at an annual rate of 25-35 square miles, nutria are an additional burden to an already stressed ecosystem.

One of the areas in the New Orleans area hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina, which set down in late August 2005 (20, above), was the lower 9th Ward. Since then, help has come in the form of the Make It Right Foundation, among others. After touring the area post-Katrina and observing both the depth of flooding (21, above) and extent of damage done to the lower 9th Ward (22, above, and 24, below), Brad Pitt (23, below) established the Make It Right Foundation to build 150 green, affordable, high-quality design homes in the neighborhood closest to the levee breach.

During our visit to the lower 9th Ward, we came across a number of damaged homes (25, below), empty and abandoned house plots, and, at 1700 Deslonde Street (26, below), the first house gutted after Hurricane Katrina. We also saw a number of the homes built by Make It Right, included those pictured in (27) and (28), below.

A Make It Right Foundation display station in the lower 9th Ward illustrates the interior and exterior features included in all of the homes built and being built (29 and 30, below). These homes reflect the "green" ideals put forth by the Foundation, whose founders invited a group of high-profile and influential New Orleans, national and international architects to develop affordable, e-friendly, storm resistant housing for the community, incorporating the latest in innovative and sustainable design.

Additional post-Katrina assistance in the lower 9th Ward is offered by Common Ground Relief (CGR), whose volunteers we also visited with during our time in the area. CGR is a volunteer-run not-for-profit organization covering a diverse range of projects, ranging from new home construction and a free legal clinic, to wetlands restoration (31, below) and community gardening. CGR's volunteers, including those we met who opted for an alternative to their winter break vacation, can apply for short- or long-term housing while they pitch in with revitalization efforts in the lower 9th Ward.

Now, we're heading further south, to Louisiana's Grand Isle and Elmer's Island for some volunteer planting and a visit to a very unique maritime forest. We'll have a wrap-up from there early next week.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Louisiana's Working Coast: Resources and Restoration Efforts

By Paul C. Focazio, Web Content Manager, New York Sea Grant

"I'll share what I'm learning here with anyone who will listen," says Fran Moss, a retired nurse and member of the New York State Marine Education Association, a partnership with New York Sea Grant that promotes marine awareness and encourages the growth and exchange of instructional resources within the scientific, commercial, and educational communities.

Moss, a strong proponent of science education, resides in Long Beach, Long Island (a town known for it's coastlal living), and is in "a committed relationship with the ocean." Her interest and passion for such things is mirrored in the dozen or so other NYSMEA educators visiting southern Louisiana this week to learn about the hurricane prone area since last year's Gulf oil spill.

"I will share this trip with my students, of course, but I might also be able to give a presentation to the staff at my school, and I'll certainly share with everyone else in my life," says David Rosenfeld, a marine biology and marine science teacher at Rachel Carson High School for Coastal Studies in Coney Island.

Moss, Rosenfeld and the other educators began their experience volunteering at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Golden Meadow Plant Materials Center (GMPMC) in Galliano, Louisiana, a leader in coastal wetland ecosystem restoration. The Center develops plants and procedures to reverse the loss of coastal wetlands in the service areas of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. Golden Meadow is one in a network of 27 USDA Plant Materials Centers across the country under the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Plant Materials Program.

Also serving as a residence for the educators, GMPMC is located within the Barataria-Terrebonne Estuary, one of the largest and most productive estuarine systems in the United States. The Estuary spans a 4.2 million acre region between the Atchafalaya and Mississippi Rivers whose preservation and restoration has been the mission of the Barataria-Terrebonne Estuary Program (BTNEP) since 1991. BTNEP is one of 28 nationally-significant U.S. estuaries identified under the Clean Water Act (see for more).

During an introduction at GMPMC [see pics 1-4 below], the NYSMEA educators learned that plants developed by the Center for coastal wetland remediation, restoration, and enhancement - such as Gulf cordgrass, Pelican black mangrove, switchgrass, red mulberry, native bamboo and Gulf bluestem, the latter of which the educators planted [see pics 5-9 below] - have proven effective in converting open water to new marsh. These marshes reduce soil erosion and promote reestablishment of emergent and submerged aquatic vegetation. For more on plants for coastal restoration in the Gulf of Mexico, check out PMC's Web site.

According to information from BTNEP, coastal Louisiana has lost an average of 34 square miles of land, primarily marsh, per year for the last 50 years. From 1932 to 2000, 1,900 square miles have disappeared, roughly an area the size of the state of Delaware. Says a BTNEP spokesperson, "If nothing more is done to stop this land loss, Louisiana could potentially lose approximately 700 additional square miles of land, or an area about equal to the size of the greater Washington D.C.-Baltimore area, in the next 50 years." For more information about the land loss analysis or to see an animated time series of wetland change, visit

This is why, now more than ever, BTNEP and Golden Meadow Plant Materials Center emphasize the importance of coastal wetland ecosystem restoration using native plants. While preparing native plantings at GMPMC, the NYSMEA educators learned that Louisiana's once vast native habitats are not only disappearing due to the effects of land loss and urban and industrial development, but also because of the introduction of invasive species like the Chinese tallow tree. "The native plants around us define our 'sense of place,'" says GMPMC's Garret Thomassie. "They are the backdrop to our unique yet diverse cultural identity. How will our 'sense of place' be affected, though, if our coastal marshes vanish, or if our cypress forests turn to Chinese tallow?"

Even in more urban settings such as New Orleans, people are encouraged to help maintain Louisiana's ecological integrity and cultural heritage by planting native plants when gardening or landscaping. Compared to exotic plants, Louisiana's roughly 2,400 indigenous plant species are better adapted to the local climate, require less maintenance, are more likely to survive storms and seasonal extremes in temperature and rainfall, and make superior wildlife habitat.

Some suggested natives include large trees like bald cypress, red mulberry, southern magnolia, live oak, tulip poplar sassafras, sugarberry, eastern red cedar, catalpa and green ash. For small trees and shrubs, there's roughleaf dogwood, red buckeye, buttonbush, pawpaw, cherry laurel, spicebush and wax myrtle. And flowers and vines such as goldenrod, black-eyed susan, Louisiana iris, wild petunia, trumpet creeper and coral honeysuckle are ideal.

To date, the NRCS's Plant Materials Program has released over 600 conservation plants across the country, most being grown by commercial growers for use today.

For more ways you can get a bigger picture of the issues of land loss in Louisiana, check out these key resources:

  • Paradise Faded: The Fight for Louisiana (click here)
    A compelling look at the causes, effects, and solutions to the largest environmental disaster in American history; the loss of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands and the impact of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. (1 hour documentary)

  • The Rise and Disappearance of Southeast Louisiana (click here)
    A Times Picayune flash presentation on the building and erosion of Southeast LA. (10 min flash presentation)

The impacts of hurricanes like Katrina and Rita, as well as last year's oil spill in the Gulf, have certainly had considerable impact on the region as well. For more, see:

  • Geographic Impact of Hurricanes (click here)
    A video that presents a hurricane mapping activity designed to show the geographic reach of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The three and a half minute video shows how the relative area affected by the two hurricanes could impact other parts of the country if they were struck by a similar natural disaster.

  • Flash Flood (click here)
    A Times Picayune interactive Graphic on the flooding of New Orleasn in the wake of 2005's Hurricane Katrina

  • NOAA Sea Grant's Response to the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill (click here)