By Paul C. Focazio, Web Content Manager, New York Sea Grant
Louisiana is where you'll find 30% of the lower contiguous U.S.'s coastal wetlands. This translates to about 7,000 square miles of some of the most diverse habitats in the world and constitutes the largest adjoining wetland system in the lower 48 states.
Coastal wetlands like these are vital, protecting against storm surge, or the rise of water associated with a hurricane or other storm, plus tide, wave run-up and flooding. They also help maintain water quality and provide habitat for wildlife. These and other coastal environments generate billions of dollars annually through such industries as commercial fisheries and tourism.
So, it should come as no surprise that there's considerable concern over these fragile environments disappearing at an alarming rate. Louisiana marsh loss accounts for over 90% of the nation's total. According to data provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), Louisiana loses an average of 25-30 square miles of coastal marsh each year. Since the mid-1950's, nearly 1 million acres of coastal marsh have been lost, most of which has been converted to open water. And, if the current rate of loss isn't slowed, an additional 800,000 acres of wetlands will disappear by 2040, and the Louisiana shoreline will advance inland as much as 33 miles in some areas.
That's why places like the Golden Meadow Plant Materials Center (GMPMC) in Galliano, Louisiana are so important. GMPMC is 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 NRCS's Plant Materials Program. These centers serve as learning sites to stimulate and foster an understanding of the importance of plants in the environment and their role in conservation programs.
In New York, there's Big Flats Plant Materials Center located in Corning (about an hour south of Cornell University in Ithaca), which provides plants in the Northeast region - New York, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. These plants include ‘Niagara’ big bluestem, ‘Glacial Lake’ butterfly weed, ‘Keystone’ buttonbush, Glacial Lake Albany Germplasm wild lupine and ‘Golden Jubilee black-eyed Susan.
During their five-day trip in southern Louisiana with NYSMEA and NYSG, the educators stayed and volunteering at GMPMC [see pics 1-3 below], which 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 National Estuary Program (BTNEP) since 1991.
BTNEP is one of 28 nationally-significant U.S. estuaries identified under the Clean Water Act. In New York, there are several nationally-recognized estuaries, including the New York-New Jersey Harbor & Estuary, Peconic Estuary, and the Long Island Sound (LIS), the latter of which is supported by NYSG via its LIS Study (LISS) Educator Larissa Graham. See NYSG's LISS news archive for some recent initiatives and, for more on estuaries, see the Environmental Protection Agencies' National Estuary Programs Web site.
"Our main objective is providing habitat restoration plants to reduce coastal erosion," says GMPMC's Garret Thomassie [pictured in (4) above]. As Thomassie explained to the educators, the Center develops a variety of plants for coastal wetland remediation, restoration, and enhancement - such as inland saltgrass (5), Pelican black mangrove (6), seashore paspalum (7), Gulf cordgrass (8), switchgrass, red mulberry and Gulf bluestem, Gulf Coast marsh hay cord grass, among others.
The reason for the Center's plant varieties [some more of which are seen in pics (9) - (11)] is that each of the grasses, trees and shrubs have different salinity tolerance levels to accommodate the different sands and soils found in the surrounding environments, which include salt marsh, brackish marsh, tidal freshwater marsh and swamp, mangrove swamp, beaches and dunes.
"We try to make these plants more easily available so that people aren't going into these fragile environments to harvest plants for restoration efforts," said Thomassie.
Part of the process in cultivating plants at the Center involves harvesting seeds [see pics (12) and (13)], which are then planted in trays with soil for germination using, among other equipment, a needle seeder [pictured in (14)]. After these trays have grown the intended plants [such as Gulf bluestem, pictured in (15) - (18)], they are then clipped and propagated to increase their amounts. A full table of Gulf bluestem [as pictured in the Center's greenhouse, (16) - (18) will be enough to satisfy the approximately 20 commercial growers who have requested about 100 plants each for this spring.
As Thomassie showed the educators [as seen in pics (19) - (23)], propagating these restoration plants involved clipping them, placing several in each of the tray's sections and then trimming the clippings to spur additional growth and increase their chances for survival.
After an afternoon of working on the Gulf bluestem propagation project, numerous trays were filled by the educators [as pictured in (24)], which greatly helped the Center to fulfill the upcoming requests of commercial growers.
For more on plants for coastal restoration in the Gulf Coast region, check out NRCS's Web site. And for wetland loss and restoration efforts in southern Louisiana, visit www.lacoast.gov/landloss. Click over to see how you can "Get Involved," either in southern Louisiana or in your area, and check out the "Education" section for teacher and student resources and wetlands videos.