ST. TAMMANY PARISH, LOUISIANA — When Interior Secretary Ken Salazar last visited the Big Branch National Wildlife Refuge in 2010, he stood on a barren strip of land that looked more like the surface of the moon than a flourishing marsh.
When Salazar toured the same area Wednesday, he saw a dramatically different scene: thick oyster grass and other invasive marsh plants now thickly covered the same territory.
“It demonstrates how when you work at something together, you can make something happen,” said Salazar, who was visiting the Gulf Coast region to meet with area residents and visit the refuge as one of his final acts as secretary of the Interior. “People used to say we could not restore the marshlands or the wetlands of the Mississippi River Delta.”
But, Salazar said, the joint federal-state wetlands protection initiative that actually began here in 2007 is a model for continued efforts to restore the Gulf Coast, after decades of erosion and negligence that preceded even Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the oil spill in 2010.
“We look out on the horizon and see how healthy it has become,” said Salazar, as he stood among reeds that stretched as high as his chest. “What we’re seeing here is that it really does work.
“I think it’s safe to say this area is now more protected and more resilient than ever before,” Salazar added.
At the $21 million, 600-acre Goose Bayou Point Platte project, sediment from Lake Ponchartrain was delivered to the area, allowing mother plants to be planted in the region. The invasive species quickly spread, helping to insulate the shoreline from erosion from storm surge, and providing an abundant habitat for geese, mallards and other waterfowl.
As Salazar walked among the marsh grasses Wednesday, his feet crashed through thick reeds that crunched with each step. Salazar’s close-up look at the newly restored region came courtesy of a swift airboat ride through still waters.
Refuge Manager Danny Breaux said the project was “a shot in the arm” for the area, creating not just new marsh but also encouraging more people to explore the area.
“It was a degrading marsh,” Breaux said. But “with the material that we put there,” it has been revived.
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Still, there is much more work ahead.
Garret Graves, the chair of Louisiana’s coastal protection and restoration authority, noted that the state is still losing coastline at a devastating pace: some 16 square miles each year.
The entire Gulf Coast is “trying to recover from decades of mismanagement,” he said. First there was the “devastation from hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and then to have the oil spill on top of it, these are just extraordinary impacts.”
All along the Gulf Coast, states are preparing to spend an influx of potentially billions of dollars tied to the 2010 oil spill — including potential Clean Water Act fines that could be decided as the result of an ongoing lawsuit against BP in New Orleans.
But some local stakeholders told Salazar in a meeting at the refuge Wednesday that they aren’t convinced the money will be put to the best use.
Cyn Sarthou, executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network, said she was worried that outside of Louisiana and Texas, some Gulf Coast states might dedicate the money to non-environmental projects.
“We are very concerned what is going to happen is those monies are going to be spent on concrete structures that increase the damage rather than decrease the damage,” she said. “Restoration of the environment . . . is what the restore council is supposed to be focused on. There are species out there that have been affected that need some attention.”
Salazar acknowledged that temptation.
Some states “want to take the money and use it for potholes or other things that aren’t related to the ecological value of the Gulf,” he said. “The biggest risk is that people forget the big picture.”
Other area residents said restoration planning meetings are poorly advertised — particularly to immigrant fishermen who do not speak English.
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Salazar said a major challenge will be marrying up all of the diverse streams of restoration revenue and coordinate to deploy it in the best way. That means defying the Washington, D.C. mentality of planning initiatives in a siloed, department-by-department approach.
But if the Gulf comes together, Salazar said, the result could be “the restoration of the Mississippi Delta and the Gulf Coast area in a way that was only imagined three or four years ago.”
For years, “people had a lot of thoughts, but there was not a lot of coordination,” Salazar said. “People had a lot of plans, but there was not a way to fund those plans.”
The trip might have been Salazar’s last as Interior Secretary, who will soon return home to his wife and granddaughter in Colorado.
President Barack Obama nominated REI CEO Sally Jewell to succeed Salazar as head of the Interior Department that oversees the park service and energy development on public lands and waters. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has scheduled a confirmation vote Thursday, though it is unclear whether that will take place.