Blogging for a Healthy Gulf

 

“I am sorry Universe but I just can’t take these Humans a moment longer.” Sad, but the book The Suicidal Planet makes one ponder such things. Though it sells itself as a book about preventing global catastrophe, the major focus is on the science, consequences, and lack of commitment to fixing the problem. Written by Mayer Hillman, Tina Fawcett, and Sudhir Chella Rajan, the Suicidal Planet is well organized and voraciously researched.

The book is split into three parts: The Problem, Current Strategies, and the Solution. The first and second sections are disturbing, in-your-face facts with a heavy dose of pessimism. The major “Problem”, clarified in chapter three, titled “Eyes Wide Shut, The Response of the General Public”, is us. And, it is hard to argue this point. The authors tell us that we are using energy “as if there’s no tomorrow” and have been hoodwinked by the powerful and rich fossil fuel industry into questioning the science. That leads right into part two, Current Strategies.

In this section we learn that our government is “fiddling while Rome burns”. To carry home the point the authors mention President Bush’s State of the Union address in January 2006. The President announced that we need to end our addiction to oil by promoting ethanol use. Unfortunately, the very next week, the agency that would have been responsible for implementing this policy, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, lost $10 million in federal budget cuts and was forced to lay off 40 workers. In this section we also get a warning that an over reliance on technology to save us is just “wishful thinking”.

The book takes a positive turn in part three: The Solution, where Hillman outlines his plan for decreasing carbon emissions. It is called “The Carbon Allowance Card”; each person would receive an electronic card containing one year’s worth of carbon credits. It would work much like a debit card in that every time you made an energy purchase, credits would be deducted from your smart card. At the end of each year we could sell unused credits. The amount of credits decreases each year until we reach a near zero emissions society and a stable climate.

The authors promote this type of cap-and-trade system versus a carbon tax system mainly due to ethical issues regarding poverty and the burden a new tax would place on lower income families. People in the lower income brackets tend to use less energy at home, travel less, and use public transportation more. Hence, lower income families would be able to supplement their incomes by selling carbon credits to those people who fly, live in large homes, and commute to work. A tax, on the other hand, would make essentials like heating/cooling and transportation much more expensive.

Suicidal Planet lays out an interesting solution though I wonder if some Americans may view actual suicide a better alternative than having to curb trips to Aruba and ride the bus. Nevertheless, this well thought out plan has merit and the planet needs creative solutions. Otherwise, Earth’s suicide note could say “If I am going down, I am taking those humans with me!” Hopefully the next book will not be titled “The Homicidal Planet”.

Casey DeMoss Roberts is the Special Projects Coordinator for the Gulf Restoration Network.

 


Friday 5:00pm, the parades are lining up and the city becomes un-navigable.

Of course, this is the time for our local and regional interns and student activists to coalesce at TulaneUniversity to begin a weekend of grassroots organizing training. The local interns, Laney White, Mallory Domingue, and Megan Milliken, make it there along with a big crowd of interested students and our Tulane service learners. With traffic and transportation difficulties, we had yet to see a regional intern. By 6:00pm, the last of the regional interns finally arrives. In spite of everything working against them to get there, everyone is rearing to get started on their environmental advocacy education.

The Students United for a Healthy Gulf Conference brought together students from all over the Gulf to learn about the pressing environmental issues facing the Gulf and how students have the power to affect positive change. The weekend was a great success, and all the students gained the skills and knowledge they will need for a successful semester working with the GRN, and it started them down the path of a lifetime of civic engagement.

Once everyone arrives, I rush off to grab some dinner to bring back while Cyn Sarthou, GRN’s executive director, introduces the organization. As I come back in with po-boys and French fries, Aaron Viles, GRN’s campaign director, is briefing students on the situation facing the coastal wetlands and the Flood Washington campaign he crafted in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Next up, Casey Mintzer, a GRN fall semester intern, does a quick intro to the basic principles and tips for public speaking because being able to present your message to large groups of people is a key component of environmental advocacy campaigns. Afterwards, all the students dig into the food before heading off to enjoy a Mardi Gras parade.

Bringing young Gulf conservationists together helps build the sense of community across the region and it creates a movement of engaged and concerned young citizens. With the locals hosting the regional interns, we helped create something that weekend that transcended any one person present, student or GRN staffer.

The next morning we come back together in the same place to begin a full day of training. But first off, we enjoy a delicious breakfast and coffee generously donated by Whole Foods Market. Thanks Whole Foods! In the first briefing of the day, Dan elaborates on the knowledge the students gained the night before by giving a presentation on the Save Our Cypress Campaign, effective campaign strategies, and the campaign’s relevance to wetland restoration and environmental change. After he finishes up, Anat Belasen, a GRN fall intern, discusses the grassroots organizing tool of postcarding and how we utilize postcards to show Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, and Home Depot that there is public support against their sale of cypress mulch. She goes over the keys to successful postcarding and then has the students pair up and practice doing the rap with each other. Due to bad weather, they unfortunately don’t get to take their new skills to the street.

When lunch is done, Sarah Helm, our intern from Texas A&M, bravely stands up and delivers an example of the class rap Casey had demonstrated the night before. Stephanie Powell, GRN Outreach Associate for the Healthy Waters Program, and I begin a skills training on volunteer recruitment and management because engaging volunteers is the best way to build the environmental movement. Our high school volunteer, Sophie Giberga, had really awesome ideas for what makes a good leader. The students all participated in role-playing how to train volunteers to postcard and how to lead an individual meeting with a volunteer. Megan did a great job encouraging her group to get over their initial discomfort. As we wrapped up, Matt Rota, director of the Water Resources Program, came in to talk to students about the pollution that causes a huge part of the Gulf of Mexico to be completely devoid of life every summer and what we can do about it. The training day ends with a briefing on internet organizing. Dan discusses the opportunity the internet provides to educate and activate people and lays out ways the students can raise the visibility of the GRN and its campaign on the web.

The ability to recruit, train, and manage volunteers; talk to community and campus groups and classes; and educate people and advocate for a healthy coast are all essential skills for organizing to protect cypress forests and the Gulf of Mexico. The Students United for a Healthy Gulf Conference did a great job of training young students and activists that they are capable of great things. Each and every one of the participants has now become part of a new generation of environmental activists. You all rock!

The next morning, we all come together again at Tulane to enjoy a tasty free breakfast compliments of Whole Foods and see some of the ecosystem we are all pumped to save. We drive out to Manchac to go on a boat tour with Professor Rob Moreau of SELU. When we arrive, Rob gives us a wetlands presentation specific to Turtle Cove and the Manchac area. It’s a chilly day so all of us bundle up as we head onto the boat. Rob shows us the areas devastated by logging and the loss that continues to take place as a legacy to the logging. As we head back to our cars, we leave with a vision of what could happen to all of the wetlands if people don’t act now.

We encourage you to get engaged. Sign up for our email list, take our e-actions, and join us as a member. Take a line from these students and help us fight for the coast every day.

United for a Healthy Gulf!


Amy Medtlie is an Outreach Associate for the Gulf Restoration Network.

 

February 1 brought some great news - The Environmental Protection Agency is initiating a veto of the Yazoo Pumps project. There are countless individuals and organizations that have worked to stop this project for too many years to count, and it has been a major campaign of the GRN. The Pumps project is unlikely to go away without a fight, and there will be much more work to do yet, but EPA's action is a major, positive step in the right direction.

The Yazoo Pumps project is a major boondoggle that would drain over 200,000 acres of wetlands (roughly the size of New York City including all five boroughs). As the EPA wrote in its letter to the Corps, "The Yazoo Backwater Area contains some of the richest wetland and aquatic resources in the nation, including highly productive fisheries, a highly productive yet increasingly rare bottomland hardwood forest ecosystem, hemispherically important migratory bird foraging grounds, habitat for endangered species, and wetlands providing a suite of important ecological support functions."

The last time the EPA exercised its veto authority to stop a project was in 1989, and George H.W. Bush was president. Of course, the Yazoo Pumps project would destroy 25 times more wetlands than all the projects combined that the EPA has vetoed in the past. We should all be thankful that in this case, the EPA has lived up to its responsibility to protect the environment.

Jeff Grimes is Assistant Director of Water Resources for the GRN

 

Of the hundreds of projects we have come across, the Yazoo Pumps stands out as one of the most (if not the most) environmentally damaging. This winter over 1,700 GRN members sent comments to the Corps opposing the pumps.

Wednesday the Vicksburg Post ran an article, where the Corps suggested that comments from people outside the Mississippi Delta carried less weight. It’s disconcerting that an official from a federal agency would hint, as he did, that voices from people throughout the country are somehow less valid.

We have joined with many organizations and citizens to voice our concern not only about the incredible threat to wetlands, but also the amount of federal tax payer money going to fund the project. Yes, some of these groups are national, but many are regional as well as local, and all have members that are impacted by the Yazoo Pumps project in one way or another.

When a national treasure is at risk, people from across the nation deserve the opportunity to speak their voices (and over 20,000 did). There’s also the issue of federal tax money. Typically locals have to pay a percentage of the project costs, but Thad Cochran removed that requirement the for Yazoo Pumps Project in 1996 legislation. That means that the cost, over $220 million, is on the shoulders of the federal tax payer. Is the Corps arguing that your voice counts less even though your tax dollars are going to fund the project?

It’s also disturbing that the Corps would say that this project is “environmentally friendly.” As the article noted, “Benjamin Grumbles, the EPA's assistant administrator for water, said in a statement the project as proposed would affect 67,000 acres of ‘some of the richest wetland and aquatic resources in the nation’ and the Corps has not exhausted other methods for flood control in the Delta.”

I am a downstream resident and a federal taxpayer. As someone who gets her drinking water from the Mississippi and loves shrimp and seafood caught in the Gulf of Mexico, I worry about the degradation of over 67,000 acres of water absorbing, pollution filtering wetlands upstream. The Yazoo project impacts anyone downstream and anyone who pays taxes—our voices count.

Dump the Pumps!

Stephanie Powell is the Outreach Associate for the GRN's Healthy Waters Program

 

Wind power is supposed to be good, allegedly a no brainer for environmentalists. The main reason for this support is wind energy has a very small carbon footprint which helps solve the global warming crisis. Currently scientists report that if we do nothing to slow global warming 50% of all species on the planet could perish by the year 2100. So, it may be confusing when people hear that environmentalists are disputing a wind project. How can this happen?

General consensus agrees that the controversy over wind power started with the ill placed wind project at Altamont Pass, CA in the 1970’s. The turbines were small, very fast, and placed in the worst location possible: a migratory bird path and home to prey animals for raptors. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimated that the Altamont Pass Wind Farm is the deadliest wind farm in the country responsible for approximately 1000 bird collision deaths each year.

The problem persisted for more than 20 years before a reasonable solution was adopted in 2005 by the Alameda County Board of Supervisors. They passed a well developed bird management plan demanding that the 100-200 oldest and deadliest turbines be replaced with more technologically advanced turbines that were higher off the ground, very slow, and easier for the birds to avoid. The design of turbine towers have been made more bird friendly by exchanging the latticed towers with smooth ones that the birds can not perch on. In addition, half the turbines must be switched off during migration periods to allow spaces between the turbines.

Many hard lessons were learned from Altamont pass, aka do not create a solid wall of turbine blades and avoid high migratory bird routes. Other advancements include electromagnetic devices which warn bats away from the turbines. The photo above contains not a broken wind turbine but a unique solution to migratory birds. When migration begins a switch allows the turbine to bend down, minimizing the potential for collisions. The blades of the wind turbines on the Galapagos Islands are painted bright colors to increase the contrast from the background. These are all steps in the right direction. After all, we are switching to clean renewable energy to save species, not sacrifice them.

 

Casey DeMoss Roberts is the Special Projects Coordinator for the Gulf Restoration Network.

 

The New Year brings with it ample opportunities to make resolutions and to ponder the road less traveled. There are the traditional resolutions to lose weight, get in shape, get more organized, and to manage time more effectively (all of which I have made for 2008 as well by the way). I want to propose, both to myself and to those reading this, that this year another resolution be considered and adopted. This year resolve to make 2008 a Florida Year.

And what is this “Florida Year” you ask? I propose that 2008 be a year in which all of us fall in love with, or renew our passion for, Florida. Florida history, Florida culture, Florida’s odd and eccentric ways and people, and most of all Florida’s great outdoors and wild places all offer opportunities to connect to the place that we live in and discover more about the world around us.

A sense of place grounds us to our communities, our families, and our region. Whether you’re a fifth generation Floridian as my wife is, or you just rolled across the Georgia border in search of sunshine and the Florida Dream, connecting to Florida offers adventure and an opportunity to find magic in what others merely see as backdrop or scenery.

In 2008 get out there. Get out on the rivers and bays, get out on the trails and dirt roads. Look for where the paved road ends and seek out places where you need a map or a trail guide to find your way home. There is something intoxicating about seeking out that next bend in the river, that next curve of the trail and seeing something new and never known to you before. When the road shifts from paved to dirt you are heading in the right direction.

We are blessed in the Tampa Bay region with numerous places to, from the pocket parks in Tampa along the Hillsborough River to the backcountry of Colt Creek State Park in Polk County, get out there and reconnect with Florida and with nature. Public lands are sacred treasures and they provide places of sanctuary for wildlife to live and places for us to nourish our souls. Open spots on the map, those amazing greenspaces devoid of roads, houses, malls, and development, should serve to draw us in to learn what is there and what we have been missing.

A Florida Year is a year of exploring, enjoying, and protecting all things Florida. Once you get out there and see the woods, the rivers, and the Gulf of Mexico the next step is to spend some time being a voice for places that have given so freely to those who seek them out. Naturalist and writer John Muir realized in 1892 that to get Californians to fall in love with the Sierra Nevada range he needed to get folks out there to climb the mountains and swim the creeks. Once they tasted the earth and saw the sunsets they would be connected to preserving those places. That realization led to the founding of the Sierra Club.

I hope to lose some weight this year, and I surely could be better organized. With that said my strongest and most important resolution is to fall in love again with Florida and the Gulf of Mexico, and to share this love and passion with others. We love what we know, and we work to protect what we love.

So, make 2008 a “Florida Year” and think about connections and place. Ponder the wonders of the Gulf of Mexico, and the magic of all things wild and free in Florida. Get out there and find the pathways that are in your heart, and under your feet. That is a resolution worth keeping.

Joe Murphy is the Florida Programs Coordinator for the Gulf Restoration Network.

 

The other day, I was looking through the New Orleans Corps of Engineers Website, exploring their Regulatory Department. This is the department that is supposed to enforce the Clean Water Act by making sure our nation's waters and wetlands are not unnecessarily harmed by those that want to dredge, fill, or develop them. However, it becomes very obvious that the Corps thinks that it their primary role is to grant permits, not necessarily protect our wetlands. This is made obvious by their permitting FAQ, that states:

 

Q. Why should I waste my time and yours by applying for a permit when you probably won't let me do the work anyway?

A. Nationwide, only  three percent of all requests for permits are denied. Those few applicants who have been denied permits usually have refused to change the design, timing, or location of the proposed activity. When a permit is denied, an applicant may redesign the project and submit a new application. To avoid unnecessary delays pre-application conferences, particularly for applications for major activities, are recommended. The Corps will endeavor to give you helpful information, including factors which will be considered during the public interest review, and alternatives to consider that may prove to be useful in designing a project.

So, the Corps approves 97% of all of the permits that they see! And they seem very proud of this fact. Under the Clean Water Act, the Corps is supposed to first, and foremost, avoid unnecessary wetland impacts, and I don't see how a 97% permit approval rate reflects this. This demonstrates that the Corps is in serious need of reform--the agency that is in charge of repairing our disappearing Gulf Coast wetlands is at the same time facilitating their destruction, one permit at a time.

Matt Rota is the GRN Water Resources Program Director

 

I recently received a great email from Tim at DWY Landscape Architects, and I wanted to share it with y'all. It's an auspicious way to start off the new year, and this shows that the message and practice of cypress sustainability is becoming commonplace throughout the Gulf.

"Dan, was just listening to Joe Murphy on WSLR and found your website. I wanted to give you some good news, as it may be few and far between now-a-days. I work at a small landscape architecture firm, and one of my roles is to enforce and modify the landscape guidelines for a large upscale community in Manatee county called The Concession. We have devised an extremely florida friendly palate of plants as well as mulch types that can be used by developers. We are eliminating Cypress mulch completely. Much of what we have enforced was the use of pine straw mulch in all buffer areas. We are talking about very large lots and tons of mulch per home. Some homeowners are complaining that the pine straw is fading in just a couple of months and needs to be replaced frequently, so I have looked at some alternates that have a darker richer color, lasting longer, which will appeal to this type of clientele. We have found some nice blends at Forestry Resources in Ft Myers (www.gomulch.com). I would be open to any suggestions. Our firm is also responsible for the guidelines at The Founder’s Club here in Sarasota which has developed a similar sustainable approach to landscape design.

So some good news! I wish you all luck on your mission, it’s a noble effort."

Thanks Tim! It's exciting to see that people are truly exploring sustainable alternatives to cypress mulch, and this shows that different mulching needs can be met with various options, none of which deplete our natural wetlands. Cypress swamps provide valuable habitat for wildlife, important water filtration, and protection from storms and flooding.

As gardening season starts up again here in the Gulf South, it's important that landscape architects, landscapers, homeowners, gardeners, and consumers everywhere avoid cypress mulch. The quickest way to accomplish that goal nationwide will be to convince Lowe's, Home Depot, and Wal-Mart to stop selling unsustainable cypress mulch. The best place to start making a difference is in your own yard. So, if anyone has suggestions about good alternatives to cypress, great mulching advice, or anything else you'd like to share, please leave us a comment.

Dan Favre is the GRN Campaign Organizer.

 

I just came across this study released last November by the University of Illinois on corn-based ethanol in Illinois and the United States. Some of the components of the report are quite wonky, but the section on ethanol politics and policy was very interesting.

As the author of the report, David Bullock, writes:

“This irreversibility of bringing factors into ethanol production causes the subsidy policy to act like a political ratchet. It is easy enough politically to cause the subsidy to go up: corn farmers and ethanol producers influence their congressional representatives, and everyone refers to energy self-sufficiency and rural job creation. But once in place, it may well become politically infeasible to bring the subsidy back down. For, after the economy is finished building new ethanol factories, in response to the subsidy, what then? We’ve already argued that when the building process is through, many ethanol factories will not be making large profits.”


He later states:

“By supporting the ethanol industry, are federal and state governments promoting a policy—indeed creating an entitlement—that will be later politically impossible to rescind?”

If Bullock is correct, we may be creating an entire new political entitlement that has very negative implications for our nation's rivers and oceans.

I am very concerned with corn-ethanol subsidies due to the water impacts of ethanol. The Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico is caused largely by nitrogen runoff from farm fields. Increased corn production to feed the ethanol boom will require the application of large quantities of fertilizer - some of which ends up in the Mississppi River and causes the Dead Zone when the nitrogen pollution reaches the Gulf.

While there are many legitimate questions about whether corn ethanol is even a wise alternative fuel, any solution should solve a problem, not simply shift a problem elsewhere. It seems that corn ethanol subsidies may be shifting a problem onto the people of the Gulf of Mexico in the form of the Dead Zone.

Jeff Grimes is Assistant Director of Water Resources

 

Our members who took action on the recent Yazoo Pumps alert have all received a surprise in the mail. It seems that the Army Corps of Engineers in Vicksburg is sending a response letter to everyone who took action, stating that "project opponents" have been publishing misleading information about the project, and that the Yazoo Pumps project will actually improve the environment and lead to increased wetlands.

Unfortunately, the true impact of the Yazoo Pumps is anything but positive and the Corps has been trying to put an upbeat spin on one of the greatest boondoggles ever conceived. Independent government agencies that have reviewed the Yazoo Pumps project have concurred with our assessment that the project would destroy a staggering amount of wetlands and important wildlife habitat. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently stated very diplomatically, "We're concerned that the negative impacts of this project on fish and wildlife is larger than the Corps acknowledges."

Over 540 independent wetland and aquatic scientists from throughout the country have also determined that the Yazoo Pumps would lead to tremendous wetland loss and that the Corps will be unable to mitigate for that loss. In a recent letter in The New York Times, the former Director of the EPA Wetlands Division wrote, "Over the course of my 24 years at the Environmental Protection Agency, I never reviewed a proposal that would do more damage to the environment than the Yazoo Pumps project in the Mississippi Delta."

It is unfortunate that the Army Corps is taking this unusual step of trying to promote this project that would destroy more wetlands than are lost to development in the entire country in one year. It is important that we keep the pressure up to stop this project and fight the misleading spin coming out of the Corps of Engineers public relations office. If you have already taken action, please take a moment to forward the alert on to five friends, family, or colleagues who care about the health of our Gulf as well.

Jeff Grimes is Assistant Director of Water Resources for the Gulf Restoration Network

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