Blogging for a Healthy Gulf

 

Ok….I admit it. I’m the world’s most reluctant flyer. I’m a man of the earth and the rivers. I leave the sky to the birds. I usually find a reason to drive across the great state I call home, and across the Gulf region for meetings and gatherings. My GRN compatriots are well aware of my reluctance to enter the big metal tubes that shoot across the sky that fly from one uncomfortable airport to another.

With that said, I was intrigued when Southwings offered to take me up over the Nature Coast of Florida to see some the wild and special sections of the region. Protecting Florida’s Nature Coast is one of the top priorities for the GRN. Having the view of the swallow tail kite or the osprey seemed invaluable. With great reluctance, and not a little fear, I agreed to go up with Southwings and put flight to our conservation agenda.

I met Caroline Douglas and Hume Davenport of Southwings at the Gainesville Airport on a crisp, clear day. A good day for flying if there is such a thing. I got to the airport earlier and learned that pilots like to tell a lot of jokes about crashing planes, particularly to folks like me who clearly were out of their element.

Not only am I not the most eager flyer, I’m also not the smallest guy in the world so I was not looking forward to 3-4 hours in a small plane. Caroline and Hume did a great job putting me at ease, and as we pulled out the maps and started charting our trip I began to feel a little excitement as it displaced the raw terror of leaving the earth and challenging gravity.

As soon as we zoomed into the sky I was a new man. I have never seen Florida from a small plane flying at a low altitude. It was transcendent. Now I know why people love to fly small planes. Seeing the braided rivers, the vast coastal plains, the pine and cypress, and the transitions from upland to coast all at once in one visual moment was incredible. There is true magic where the land meets the sea. To see it from the air……truly uplifting.

We flew from the Hernando/Citrus region all the way to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. We saw the best and the worst of the Nature Coast. The vastness and the shear wilderness along that coast is truly magnificent. The threats are daunting, but the opportunities for conservation and restoration are incredible. Seeing it all from a small plane is truly an effective way to see the story unfold below you.

We saw loggers clear cutting cypress for mulch below us. We saw the stagnant and polluted pools of effluent leaving the Buckeye pulp and paper mill as the Fenholloway River suffered through another day of slow death below us. And yet we saw miles and miles of endless and undeveloped coastlines, and thousands of acres of wild places still untouched and pristine. Tragedy and hope laid out in a vast mosaic below us in every direction.

I’m not rushing to the airport anytime soon, but I will gladly fly with Southwings again and we are honored to have them as a partner in our efforts to protect Florida’s Nature Coast. I look up to the sky and envy the swallow tail kite and the osprey, and know now why they float majestically across a sun swept sky.

Stay tuned for more blogs and updates about future and upcoming adventures of GRN as we take to the ground, the rivers, and now the sky to protect and preserve one of Florida’s last great frontiers.

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

 

Unless you're a frequent reader of this blog, or read about pogies in this recent coverage or editorial on the issue in the Galveston Daily News, you've probably never heard of menhaden, but this small, oily fish is one of the most critical components of the Gulf's marine foodweb. Some call them shad, or pogies, and if you're a fisherman you've probably called them bait.

Whatever the name, menhaden school in huge numbers in Gulf coastal waters, filter feeding on algae and providing food for brown pelicans, dolphins, sharks, red drum and lots of other marine wildlife.

Gulf menhaden is also big business for two companies. Omega Protein and Daybrook Inc. spot the schools of menhaden with planes, and send their boats to encircle entire, massive schools with purse seines - catching the menhaden and whatever is feeding on the school.

Despite the huge volume of menhaden coming out of the water, that billion pounds doesn't really turn into much economic activity. Omega had gross revenues of only $157 million in 2007 from their roughly 750 million pounds of our common resource.

Meanwhile, the industry hides behind a relatively low estimate of bycatch PERCENTAGE of one percent. Of course one percent of one billion is still ten million pounds of gulf marine life that's being wasted. Basically everything that eats menhaden could be getting caught up with the pogies: red drum, specks, tarpon, tuna, swordfish, and all the non-game species, brown pelican, dolphin, sea turtles, etc.

One marine scientist estimates the menhaden fleet catches close to one million sharks a year! Check out this article on shark bycatch which hints at the trouble this industry could be causing. In addition, every shark population in the Gulf is currently overfished, such as black tips and spinners, and one species, dusky, is a candidate species of the endangered species act.

Gulf menhaden is the second largest fishery by weight in the country, and unbelievably, operates without any catch limits - whatever the planes can spot, and the boats can catch within their 6 month season, will be turned into chicken feed and a host of other industrial products.

As a comparison, the largest fishery by weight in the country, Alaskan pollock, has its own federal law that lays out all sorts of controls, the North Pacific Council sets an annual catch limit based on an annual stock assessment, pretty much the entire fleet caries observers on board to watch the industry's bycatch, and they can't use airplanes.

TOMORROW, Texas is considering a catch limit for this fleet. Please take a moment and tell the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission 'good job,' and ask them to take a few more steps to save the bait. http://action.healthygulf.org/campaign.jsp?campaign_KEY=23018

Aaron Viles is GRN's Campaign Director

 

Since its creation in 1775, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has constructed 11,000 miles of navigation channels, built 8,500 miles of levees and floodwalls, raised 500 dams, and deepened more than 140 ports and harbors. As is the case for most Americans, my very life depends on the abilities of the Corps. In a recent editorial in The New York Times, Alex Prud’homme wrote about how over a year ago the Corps admitted that 122 levees around the country are at risk of failure. Prud’homme says, “These levees were designed poorly and built of whatever material was close at hand — clay, soft soil, sand mixed with seashells. Tree roots, shifting stones and rodents weaken them further. The land the berms are built on often subsides, while the waters they restrain constantly probe for weak spots.” That’s exactly what happened in New Orleans, where the commander of the Corps admitted a “design failure” led to the breach of the 17th Street Canal. Still vulnerable to a heavy rain, we are all more than eager to support measures to repair these levees as quickly and safely as possible.

 

To accommodate the urgency of our situation, federal, state and local agencies have created an alternative process to the normal NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act). Unfortunately, these alternatives to the law that requires federal agencies to study the environmental effects of their actions through an interdisciplinary environmental planning process are not all New Orleans needs. To repair these levees, the city requires enough dirt to fill 20 Superdomes (for those of you not familiar with the Saints’ home—that’s 30,590 Olympic-size pools of clay)! One GRN member at the recent New Orleans Home and Garden Show suggested that the Corps go into the Dome after a monster truck rally and get the dirt. Unfortunately, it does not appear as if the Corps has any connections with the Monster Truck circuit, and is instead, entering devastated communities like St. Bernard Parish to dig 20-foot deep “borrow” pits. A St. Bernard resident asked that the Corps devise an alternative that does not call for “cannibalizing the very land the levees are to protect.”

At the Gulf Restoration Network, we are working very hard to ensure that neither sound science nor real public participation are sacrificed within this process. Matt Rota, Director of our Water Resources Program, has endured countless Corps’ meetings, while other staff and interns have tracked the process extensively. Yesterday, along with other environmental group representatives, we spoke with Horst Greczmiel, the Associate Director for NEPA Oversight from the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality about some of our concerns. Today, at 4:30 pm, we will meet with Mr. Greczmiel and representatives from the Corps at the USACE New Orleans district headquarters at 7400 Leake Avenue. This meeting is open to the public, so although this is short notice, we ask that GRN members attend and participate. We are dedicated to protecting our best natural storm defenses—our wetlands—and will seek a commitment that neither the Corps nor contractors hired by the Corps will enter wetlands for borrow. We represent concerned citizens of the Gulf Coast and will work to ensure their meaningful involvement in the hurricane protection planning process. And finally we are devoted to a healthy Gulf and ensuring that the agency responsible for its protection and restoration is more relevant, ready, responsive, and reliable.

Megan Milliken is a Natural Storm Defenses Intern for the Gulf Restoration Network.

 


We had an awesome weekend of outreach and advocacy on the Save Our Cypress Campaign, February 28-March 2, at the New Orleans Home and Garden Show. The Gulf Restoration Network is still working hard to stop Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, and Home Depot from selling this precious natural resource. You might ask yourself, why is an environmental advocacy organization that works to protect the coast going to a home and garden show? I know I did, at first. And then I realized there’s no better way to reach the people who are the most crucial in shaping corporate behavior: the consumers.

So many of the gardeners we spoke to use cypress mulch because they were not aware of its impact on one of our best natural storm defenses. They also didn’t realize that the majority of cypress mulch is no longer a byproduct of lumber production but now comes from large cypress clear-cuts of undersized cypress trees. We were able to demonstrate several of the sustainable alternatives to cypress mulch with our new educational resource, the Mulch Matters kit, featured above. The volunteers who came out to table got almost 450 postcards signed to ask Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, and Home Depot not to sell cypress mulch, and educated even more people on why they shouldn’t garden with it. They did an amazing job of getting the word out. Here are a few of their reactions to their experience at the Home and Garden Show:

I really enjoyed tabling at the Home and Garden Show. I believe that those are the people that we need to target. I would reach out by asking if anyone used mulch in their garden and many of them would enthusiastically respond "Yes! Cypress mulch" and then I would explain why that is a bad choice and demonstrate the alternatives. Dan's idea of having the pine and eucalyptus bark displayed worked great! Many of them vowed to reconsider the next time that they decided to buy mulch and to alert their local stores to the problem. Thanks for the chance to make a difference.

-Alyssa Denny

This was my first experience volunteering with the GRN and it was very positive. Although I am somewhat shy, I was able to get over it and attract people to the table, just by smiling and asking them if they knew about cypress mulch. Once I got their attention, most people were interested to learn about our project and supported it. Nearly everyone can accept that the cypress forests are critical to wetland habitat and protection of the gulf coast from flooding and loss of land.

I think it's just as important to educate people not to use cypress mulch as it is to get stores not to sell it. Many folks had no idea that the mulch comes from whole trees and forests. Most believe the myth that the cypress will not attract termites - that is why they want to use it. Hopefully we can continue this education at future events.

Sincerely,

Zé daLuz


If you’re interested in teaching people about the sustainable alternatives to cypress mulch, whether you’re a gardener or a concerned citizen, contact Amy Medtlie at amy@healthygulf.org to find out how you can get your hands on a Mulch Matters kit.


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

 

Ahh, pine straw in the flower beds. I knew I certainly wouldn’t find cypress mulch at Vivian Todd’s house, but it’s still nice to see sustainable alternatives to cypress mulch actually in use. Mrs. Todd is the incoming-president of the Magnolia Garden Club in Beaumont, TX, and she has been an outspoken opponent of unsustainable cypress mulch since she first started learning about it through the Garden Club of America and our emails.

I was pulling up to Mrs. Todd’s house at the end of my week long tour through Texas to inform folks about the destruction caused by cypress mulch, about the sustainable mulch alternatives that exist, and about how they can get involved by calling on Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Wal-Mart to stop selling cypress mulch. Last week, I spoke with native plant lovers, student activists, reporters, a building contractor, and gardeners, and all of them understood how important and easy it is to save cypress forests of the Gulf.

As I was setting up the Mulch Matters Kit in the dining room, members of the garden club started pouring. Eventually, around 20 ladies settled in the living room to hear more about the cypress forests of the Gulf. When I got to talking about mulch and sustainable alternatives to cypress, other folks started to chime in as well. It turns out that most of them had been using sustainable alternatives all along, often even before they knew about the dangers of cypress mulch. Here are a few of the options that came:

Pine Straw- Stays in place well, very attractive, and renewable. You can rake pine needles from your yard, or buy them at a store after they’ve been raked up from the floor of a pine plantation.

Pine Bark Mulch- Lasts a long time, comes in nuggets or shredded form, and is a by-product of timber milling. Pine bark is made from the scraps of trees that are turned into lumber, turning a waste product in a beneficial mulch.

Eucalyptus Mulch- Farmed for mulch, very aromatic, insect resistant, and looks similar to cypress. If it’s the aesthetics of cypress you like, this is your substitute! Plus, it helps keeps bugs and weeds away very well.

Melaleuca Mulch- Made from an invasive species that is being removed from Southern Florida swamps and the mulch least favored by termites. Melaleuca trees are overtaking swamps in Florida and massive removal efforts are underway. One great way to dispose of the trees is to heat treat them to kill any seeds and grind them up for mulch.

Recycled Yard Waste- Free and easily available! Don’t throw away those leaves and then go buy mulch at the store. Some of the best mulch out there is right in your backyard, you just have to collect it.

Other creative choices include: sugarcane bagasse, recycled pecan shells, gravel and rocks, recycled newspapers, and many more!

The women in the Magnolia Garden Club aren’t just good gardeners though, they also understand strategy and what it takes to make an even larger impact. Members of the conservation committee had already participated in the Save Our Cypress Day of Action in November 2007, and after hearing the talk, they were fired up for more.

Everyone in the room signed postcards to Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Wal-Mart asking them to stop selling cypress mulch. The Magnolia Garden Club is taking the message to all of their members and also enlisting other garden clubs in the area to join the cause. They’re speaking with their local nurseries and the managers of the local Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Wal-Mart outlets. Some folks were especially excited when I told them that I had the emails and insider phone numbers for the CEO’s of the big companies!

Please join the Magnolia Garden Club, gardeners throughout Texas, and the countless other students, moms, activists, conservationists, hunters, and others who care about cypress in calling for an end to the destruction caused by cypress mulch being sold at Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Wal-Mart.

To get started, you can send an email, make a phone call, or deliver a letter to your local manager. Also, make sure to tell your friends! If you’d like to use a Mulch Matters Kit to educate your club and inspire action, or if you have any other ideas you’d like help implementing, please contact me at dan@healthygulf.org.

To convince these giant companies to take the steps necessary for protecting the Gulf’s cypress, a huge coalition of diverse individuals and groups must call on them with one voice: Save Our Cypress!! After traveling last week in Texas, I’m more confident than ever. Join us!

Dan Favre is the Campaign Organizer at the Gulf Restoration Network.

 

Over 40 organizations in Florida have already signed on to the greater Save Our Cypress Coalition. Now we are making sure that Lowe's, Home Depot, and Wal-Mart hear specifically from organizations in one of the states most effected by cypress mulch production. The pictures and the open letter to the retailers tell the story. If you'd like add your organization's good name to this letter, please send me an email at joe@healthygulf.org.

Robert Niblock, CEO
Lowe’s Companies, Inc.
1000 Lowe’s Boulevard
Mooresville, NC 28117

H. Lee Scott, CEO
Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.
702 S.W. 8th Street
Bentonville, AR 72716

Frank Blake, CEO
The Home Depot, Inc.
2455 Paces Ferry Rd. NW
Atlanta, GA 30339

Dear Sirs,

We, the undersigned, are greatly concerned about The Home Depot, Inc., Wal-Mart Stores Inc., and Lowe’s Inc. contributing to the destruction of cypress forests and wetlands in Florida, the Gulf Coast and throughout the country. Cypress deforestation for mulch is compromising the sustainability of our wetlands, coastal areas, and our natural systems. As Floridians, and Florida organizations we formally request that your stores immediately cease all sales of cypress mulch.

Cypress forests, wetlands, and natural systems in Florida provide an incredible array of critical natural functions both to people and wildlife. Some of these ecosystems services include:
• Helping to ensure a safe and sustainable water supply as cypress domes and wetlands act as natural filters in areas of aquifer recharge. This is critical to our water supply.
• Helping to reduce flooding and protect ever expanding human communities from flooding and storm surge.
• Providing habitat for threatened and endangered species
• Ensuring the health of our commercial and recreational fisheries by stabilizing habitat and ensuring healthy and productive aquatic and coastal ecosystems.
• Providing places for birders, hunters, hikers, and outdoor recreation and outdoor recreation based economic activity.

In a state with a population rapidly passing 18 million people we must continue to redefine sustainability. As more of natural Florida is lost and our wetlands and water based natural resources are increasingly developed, what may have been considered an acceptable practice in the past is no longer. We need cypress trees in our wetlands, in our swamps, in cypress domes, and in bottom land forests not in plastic bags as mulch.

Areas in Florida that are experiencing large loss of cypress forests, including places like Florida’s Panhandle and Florida’s Nature Coast, are facing tremendous development pressures. The cypress systems that are currently still in place are essential to the future of these regions.

Sustainable mulch alternatives exist, and some are already capable of delivering on the commercial scale that your companies require. The innovative FloriMulch is made from melaleuca, an invasive species that is harming Florida’s Everglades and wetlands systems in southwest and southeast Florida. Removing melaleuca from natural systems and using it for mulch is a win-win for Florida’s Everglades, and Florida cypress. Additionally pine straw can be raked up from existing pine plantations to provide sustainable mulch on a very large scale. Other options include pine bark and more creative choices like pecan shells.

Individual consumers can only make a small difference, but your companies have the retail power to make an enormous difference towards ensuring that the incredible and necessary natural functions that Florida cypress forests and wetlands provide for people, wildlife, and our drinking water supply are not lost forever.

Please be national industry leaders and cease the sale of all cypress mulch products from your stores today. Contact Joe Murphy, Florida Programs Cooridinator for the Gulf Restoration Network, at 352-583-0870 or joe@healthygulf.org to see more evidence of cypress destruction for mulch in Florida and to set up further conversations on this topic.

Joe Murphy is the GRN Florida Programs Coordinator.

 

Since the Magnuson-Stevens fisheries management act was reauthorized in 1996 as the Sustainable Fisheries Act, there's been a mandate for 'ecosystem management' of the fish in the oceans of the United States (this was reaffirmed with last year's reauthorization of the MSA). I think it's fair to say, whether you look at the North Pacific, the North Atlantic, or our own Gulf of Mexico - most fish managers don't know what it means, and don't know how to do it. As a result, it hasn't been done. But do I have any specific direction to these poor managers of our shared natural resources? Can I write down how they should be 'managing ecosystems?'

Probably not as explicitly as the fish managers would like, but I can take a stab at it, and point to some movement around the globe that gives me hope that we can start to make it happen on a more wide-scale level:

First, to enact ecosystem management, we should remember the wise words of Aldo Leopold (though he was writing of a 'land ethic' I think he'd be alright with us applying his values to a 'marine ethic' as well): "To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering." We need to keep all the pieces of a functioning ecosystem, to keep it healthy. We can expect the law of unintended consequences to apply to our seas.

One way to keep all the pieces is to simply fence off the most pristine and intact habitats we have left. Recently the tiny island nation of Kirbati in the north Pacific created the largest marine sanctuary in the world. Choosing to forgo the immediate gain of commercial fishing leases and recreational fishing permits, the country decided to add to their existing Phoenix Islands Protected Area, to total over 158,000 square miles! Trumping President Bush's Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawaii, this is the payoff of important work by the island nation, conservation international and the New England Aquarium.

The unfortunate reality in the U.S. is that recreational and commercial fishing interests react with violent opposition to any talk of 'restricted areas', even though the argument can be made that by keeping some areas free of fishing, the fish in those areas can become so productive that they actually 'seed' other areas that are open to fishing. Here in the Gulf, one of our marine sanctuaries, the Flower Garden Banks, is right now considering closing some of the banks to fishing and diving to see what the affect will be. An even larger proposal has been floated called, "Islands in the Stream." This concept is the brain child of Billy Causey, who helped create the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary. The stream in the name is the circling currents of the Gulf of Mexico, which connects even distant areas. The islands would be a network of different protected areas along that current - stretching from the Yucatan around to the Keys. Some are areas that already have some protection, such as the Flower Garden Banks, but most are areas that researchers know contain high-value habitat, but are as yet, unprotected.

Aside from creating sanctuaries, ecosystem management must work to consider, characterize and quantify the interactions between fish species - such as the red snapper - shrimp interactions that have been quantified in the finally finalized new rules to rebuild red snapper. These rules are a good first step, as they acknowledge that shrimp trawl bycatch has a significant impact on red snapper, and needs to be a factor in that species management. But this regulation is the exception, not the rule, and for the most part bycatch isn't significantly considered in the single-species management rules that exist in the Gulf.

Texas is taking the lead in protecting a key forage species, currently proposing a limit on menhaden catch in state waters, specifically because so many species from birds to marine mammals to predatory fish rely on this unassuming schooling fish. Of course, this isn't news, and as my friend Mark Muhich with the Galveston Sierra Club points out - the NY Times was writing about the importance of this species to other species some 100+ years ago. We think the Texas cap is a good first step, but would like to see observers on menhaden boats to characterize and quantify the catch and bycatch as the pogie boats strip mine the schools, as well as some far more intense species management modeling which takes into account the whole ecosystem's need for menhaden and sets some catch levels which respect those interactions. (Agree? Take action here).

It all comes down to this: Humanity has had a significant impact on our marine ecosystems. A new map out of Stanford shows that over 40% of the world's oceans have been hammered by humans - whether it's fishing, coastal development, land-based pollution running into the oceans, shipping pollution or atmospheric deposition, the seemingly endless oceans are running out of untouched areas where the cogs and wheels are still running smoothly. Trawling, purse seines or longlines, the inherently unfair arms race we've engaged in with our fish friends (no arms on their side, just flippers) has hammered habitats and winnowed fish populations. The photo to the right, a google earth image from our friends at Skytruth shows the mud plumes of shrimp trawlers off the Louisiana coast, churning the benthic habitat and leaving an indelible mark visible from space.

It's time to get serious saving cogs.

Aaron Viles is the GRN's Campaign Director

 

“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

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