Lacombe — Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar stepped out of an airboat Wednesday onto land thick with marsh grasses in the Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, surveying what looked like a textbook picture of a thriving southeast Louisiana wetland.
When he last visited the area, known as Point Platte, two years ago, it looked more like a lunar landscape, David Viker, Southeast Region refuge chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System, reminded him.
“It looks a lot different,” Salazar agreed.
Even earlier, in 2008, the area was under 3 feet of water.
“From the shoreline back to the brush line, which is the shore to Lake Pontchartrain, this was all open water,” said James Harris, senior biologist for the Southeast Louisiana Refuge Complex.
Salazar planted marsh grass during his earlier visit, part of a project funded by the federal Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act. That work, which included building a berm and pumping in lake sediment, created 100 acres of marsh where wire grass and oyster grass planted by volunteers and others thrive alongside other native plants that have sprung up on their own.
The restored marsh is also home to migratory waterfowl, secretive marsh birds, wading birds and a healthy assortment of amphibians, reptiles and small mammals, Harris said. There was evidence of a larger animal: scat left by a coyote.
The marsh also is drawing anglers and hunters, officials with the refuge said.
Salazar, who was in the New Orleans area for the lease sale of 39 million acres of the central Gulf of Mexico, said his impression from this visit is that things are going well in Louisiana.
Projects like the one in Big Branch show what can be done, he said. Much more will be possible with additional resources, he said, pointing to $2.6 billion in money from the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
Garret Graves, executive assistant to the governor for coastal activities, said the marsh project is one of those accomplished with $150 million in CWPPRA money through the Department of the Interior.
The fact that the group was standing on land where there had been open water is even more significant considering the restored marsh has weathered several storms, Graves said.
The restored marsh will help protect nearby areas from storm surge, he added.
“It’s safe to say the area is better protected now and more resilient than ever before,” Graves said.
But he also reminded Salazar that Louisiana’s shoreline is still imperiled, losing 16 square miles of wetlands per year, and that while Louisiana has 40 percent of the nation’s coastal wetlands, it also suffers in excess of 90 percent of the nation’s coastal wetlands loss.
At a meeting after the tour, Salazar was presented with a before-and-after picture of the marsh he had just visited. He noted that hundreds of volunteers were involved in the restoration work.
“It really demonstrates when you work at something together, you can make something happen. You can make believers out of skeptics,” he said, alluding to those who question whether Louisiana can restore its wetlands.
Salazar, who noted he had visited Louisiana many times as secretary of the Department of Interior, said his appearance Wednesday likely will be his last official one outside of Washington, if his successor is confirmed.
He talked about the “dark time” of 2010, when BP’s Macondo well blew out and repeated efforts to stop the leak proved futile for so long.
His decision to call for a drilling moratorium was “not exactly popular” in Louisiana, he acknowledged. But he said that timeout made it possible to “reset the button,” and now, three years later, government agencies have been reorganized to do their jobs and the industry has done its part to make offshore production safer.
And he pointed to growing energy independence, with the United States now importing a little less than 40 percent of energy compared with 60 percent eight years ago.
As for the future of the Mississippi River Delta and the Gulf Coast, Salazar said the United States will “lead the entire the world and show the world how to do conservation and do it right.”