Next to the New Orleans International Airport and alongside Interstate 10 west of the city is a stand of dead and dying bald cypress trees. This once beautiful place, a part of the LaBranche wetlands, is suffering from altered hydrology, land subsidence, and salt-water intrusion that have weakened the trees and made them vulnerable to pests, disease, and storms.
Skeleton cypress — like dead dolphins washed up on the shore, disappearing marshland, and unprecedented storm damage — are warnings that things are wrong with the natural systems that support fish and wildlife and that are critical to our own well-being. But the causes of those problems and the solutions to them are often not obvious. That’s where science comes in. Science is essential to diagnosing the complex environmental stresses to the Gulf of Mexico region and to identifying and designing solutions to reduce those stresses that are likely to be successful over the long run.
Fortunately, the Gulf region overall, and south Louisiana in particular, have a history of good science, much of which has been the product of partnerships among universities, other research institutions, and public agencies. These partnerships are supported in part by modestly funded but reliable federal programs such as the National Sea Grant College Program, the EPA Gulf of Mexico Program, the National Estuarine Research Reserve Program, the National Estuary Program, and by state programs such as the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority in Louisiana.
The Louisiana Coastal Master Plan is a good example of scientific analysis being put to practical use. The plan is allowing our decision-makers to select those investments in coastal restoration most needed to reduce coastal land loss and save natural and human communities. Given the amounts of money involved and the stakes for the future of the coast, we should no more rely on guesswork in coastal restoration than we should depend on outdated science and technology to treat human diseases.
Unfortunately, and probably as a result of the rush to prepare a budget for the next fiscal year, recent federal budget proposals appear to cut support for the cooperative coastal science that is so essential to solving the complex problems facing the Gulf of Mexico and south Louisiana. For example, funding for Sea Grant is in jeopardy. Sea Grant provides support for state universities to undertake applied research on coastal issues, and Sea Grant institutions such as Louisiana State University and Texas A&M University are providing critical input to decision-making about Gulf restoration. In addition, these institutions play an important role in coastal communities tha are struggling to adapt to changes in their local environments.
No one expects the federal government to carry the whole cost of science in our region, but in ongoing federal programs, in the RESTORE ACT, and the settlement that followed the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, federal agencies can and should be partners in both the science and implementation of restoring the coast.
There are science-based approaches to fixing the problems in the LaBranche wetlands — to making conditions right again for the cypress to thrive, just as there are solutions to overcoming other problems facing the Gulf ecosystem. These solutions require paying attention to dying trees — to the scientific analysis of what is actually happening in the environment around us. If we drive by and pretend not to notice; if we turn our eyes away because the view does not fit with how we think things should be, then we will lose the opportunity to act in time to save the natural world on which the Gulf’s economy and our own lives ultimately depend. For decades, federal agencies have been partners to state and local governments and to state universities in this process of understanding and responding to threats to the Gulf and its estuaries. We continue to need the help and support of federal agencies and federal programs if we are to be successful in saving the Gulf of Mexico for its many values to our society.
Keith Ouchley is state director of The Nature Conservancy in Louisiana. Robert Bendick is director of the organization's Gulf of Mexico Program.