Nonprofits important cog in coastal restoration

Private groups supplement government work to save disintegrating marshes

They arrived by barge to Raccoon Island, just south of Cocodrie, tall white sacks weighing in 2,000 pounds filled with what many of us might otherwise mistake for sandbags.

But they were much more than that. Each oversized pouch was biodegradable and filled with a mixture of soil, nutrients, root balls, grasses and millions of micro-organisms that break down naturally over a nine-month period.

More formally, they’re called Gulf Saver Bags, and they’re meant to help plants flourish — even in the face of subsidence, erosion and tropical storms.

One after another, AmeriCorps volunteers and other individuals from across the country heave these bags out of the larger sacks and place them strategically around the island. It was March, and South Louisiana was basking in Mardi Gras weather, the volunteers experiencing our dichotomy of climate where it’s cool enough for long-sleeved T-shirts but humid enough to still sweat.

More than two dozen of them were trudging around the sand — a few wise enough to wear boots — all brought together by Restore the Earth, which isn’t a group of do-gooders from down the bayou, but rather a foundation out of Ithaca, NY.

The were getting dirty, too. Co-founder P.J. Marshall is helping volunteers plant black mangrove and spartina grasses directly into the bags.

By day’s end, with the tide turning both literally and figuratively, the party had helped insert some 8,000 individual plants into 4,000 Gulf Saver Bags. While there’s certainly an environmental win to write home about, Marshall said she understands the project helps Louisiana’s sportsmen, as well.

“No marsh, no fish,” she said, adding that future projects are already planned for along Louisiana’s coast.

Any way you look at it, the work of such nonprofits is vital to the work of shoring up the Louisiana coastline.

State Rep. Joe Harrison of Napoleonville, whose district includes Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes, said non-governmental organizations and nonprofits have been increasingly finding ways to supplement what the state and federal governments are already doing. Harrison sits on the House Natural Resources Committee, which is charged with reviewing the state’s annual plans for coastal restoration, hurricane protection and flood control.

He said one emerging role for such groups is that of watchdog, meaning that they’re combing through government contracts, assessing construction projects and counting pennies.

“They’re addressing not only what could be considered neglect on the part of government in some cases, but they’re also pushing for more transparency and accountability,” Harrison said. “I support that trend 100 percent.”

If there’s a worrisome trend, he said, it’s that some nonprofits from outside of Louisiana are being attracted to coastal Louisiana due to the amount of grant money and private donations available, in large part thanks to the 2010 BP oil spill and recent hurricanes.

“I don’t like the fact that there are groups that are operating in this state and have been working on this issue since day one who are now having to deal with competition from the West Coast and elsewhere,” Harrison said.

Marshall said Restore the Earth doesn’t want to compete with Louisiana nonprofits in the sense of chasing the same dollars, so they direct their fundraising efforts to national and international corporations outside the state.

“We want to play well in the sandbox,” she said, noting that the Raccoon Island project was sponsored by For the Bayou, a San Francisco-based nonprofit founded by a group of Louisiana natives.

From inside the state, several organizations have been toiling away on the front lines of the battle against land loss for decades. These groups include, but are not limited to, America’s Wetland, Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, Coastal Conservation Association, Louisiana Wildlife Federation and Restore or Retreat.

While each group has a different focus, their passions overlap and most of their leaders are well acquainted.

America’s Wetland, while it does plantings and educational outreach, has honed a reputation for being on top of policy happenings in Washington. Most recently, they put out a call for activism on the federal Farm Bill. Always in danger of not passing in recent years, the bill includes a program for wetland restoration that has restored more than 2.6 million acres of wetlands habitat across the nation.

The Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, along with Water Institute of the Gulf, is hosting a State of the Coast Conference in March that will consist of three days of presentations and interdisciplinary forums. The coalition is also amassing volunteers to undertake beach restoration work on Elmer’s Island.

CCA, meanwhile, loves to build. Over the summer, it partnered with Shell Oil Company, the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, D&L Salvage, and Marine and Roadrock Recyclers to begin construction on a much-anticipated artificial reef in Vermilion Bay. The raw materials were taken from one of the oldest sugar mills in the state, the Adeline sugar factory in Baldwin.

“Using recycled material from the factory not only gives extra meaning to the project, (but) it also allows us to build a bigger reef at a lower price,” said Joey Russo of Abbeville, president of CCA’s Vermilion chapter.

While the above examples aren’t the only disciplines in which these nonprofits specialize, it’s a good overview of the work currently going on to strengthen our coastline. They also show that partnerships go a long way, whether it be with volunteers and private industry or other nonprofits and the government.

Marshall said there are other challenges, as well, that those looking in from the outside might not consider. It’s not uncommon for project sites to only be accessible via boat rides stretching hours, and dynamic weather conditions can postpone work at a moment’s notice—not to mention the interruption or destruction of early progress and jeopardize the entire operation caused by adverse weather.

It’s no wonder that many of the people behind these nonprofits often have a pioneering spirit. They’re self-starters and unwilling to sit around until others can accomplish the mission they care about deeply.

That’s part of the reason Marshall said she was drawn to South Louisiana. To help.

“If you’re waiting for government money, you’re going to be waiting for a long time,” Marshall said. “Your coast doesn’t have that kind of time.”

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