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)

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