In a mash-up that mixes concepts of radio journalism, reality TV and professional testimony, I reported from President Obama’s Gulf Ecosystem Restoration Task Force’s final public meeting that was held in Biloxi, Mississippi, on August 30, 2011. This reportage took the form of a YouTube video released within three days of the event, an episode of “Hovey’s Outdoor Adventures” radio show broadcast over WebTalkRadio.net on Sept. 19 and blog posts.
The objective of this work is to help frame public policy by presenting a 200-year plan for the ecological restoration of the Mississippi River Delta. Considering outside plans was one of the objectives of the Task Force. I submitted written comments to previous events in Pensacola, Florida, and Galveston, Texas, that had no detectable impact. To get my points across in the most effective way, it became apparent that I needed to attend the final meeting in Biloxi, Mississippi.
These public hearings, although filled with significant information, are often dry and long-winded. My comments were written in the formal language of a Professional Geologist; but I certainly did not want to deliver them in that manner as I wanted to use my testimony as the core segment of my radio show. This show provides entertainment and secondly, delivers content. I chose to give my testimony as “The Backyard Sportsman,” my radio persona. This show will be broadcast on Sept. 19 on WebTalkRadio.net. To listen, go to my website, www.hoveysmith.com and click on the radio link immediately below the banner.
Thus, not only have I tromped on the traditional rules of professional journalism and incorporated a “reality TV” approach in that my show records a real action in an unresolved event, I am also introducing performance art in order to make appealing radio. Did I succeed? That is for you to judge. You can hear my presentation as well as view photos of the event by viewing my video at: http://youtu.be/9k4yE6JtAd4. You can contrast my oral comments with the attached copy of my written recommendations.
I realized that the success of my efforts largely depended on exposure. An adverse circumstance was that my testimony was delivered in a break-out listening session which was not recorded for the public record and only about 40 people heard it. However, two Task Force members were there, including the Task Force Director, John Hankinson. I was fortunate that I had my own recording equipment and had the foresight to bring 20 copies of my presentation to hand out to anyone who might be interested.
The listening sessions were to start after lunch. I recorded some materials from the introduction to the meeting and had lunch with a member of the Environmental Protection Agency who happened to be of Vietnamese extraction. From him I got an interesting segment on Vietnamese cooking and, in particular, the making of fish sauce, which in the West was an important item of commerce during the days of the Roman Empire.
I got a little antsy before I was to speak, but fortunately there was an easel-mounted pad where I could post some of my points. I wrote these up, and almost as soon as I put up the title, “A 200-Year Plan for the Restoration of Louisiana’s Mississippi Delta,” I heard some detracting remarks from the rear of the room to the effect that, “That will never work.”
I replied to the 5th-generation Gulf fisherman, “Listen to what I have to say. If you have questions later, I will be happy to answer them.” After the presentation he found that he had little to disagree about, and he made no additional comments about my presentation. As it turned out, he and I apparently have very nearly the same opinions about many aspects of these complex issues. I also recorded some of his comments about the fishing industry for inclusion in my radio program.
Finally, my time came to speak. I was certainly ready to go. I called myself an, “odd bird in this community,” which I certainly was. I was from Georgia, which is not a Gulf Coast state. I was not representing any organization, only myself. I am an author, radio host, playwright, Professional Geologist, former Engineer Officer and performer. All went reasonably well until it came time to flip the pages on the tablet. My fingers decided that they did not want to work and I fumbled with the pages. The session facilitator turned the page, and I continued.
One of punch lines was, “It is never a bad time to start a good thing.” After delivering this line the second time I concluded with “So let’s get one started.”
No applause. No response. Silence. John Hankinson, the Conference Director, who had come in and was sitting behind me, rose and presented me with his Task Force pin which he said was in recognition of my long thought and hard work on this question. Later he asked some off-the-record questions about how this plan might be implemented.
Well, I did my gig. Did I do any good? That question will remain unanswered until the Task Force delivers its report to President Obama by the end of 2011. Like the best of reality TV, this is a significant issue, the outcome will impact millions of people, I am one man who gave this issue my best shot, and the ultimate outcome is still in doubt.
Wm. Hovey Smith, P.G. August 30, 2011
Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force
August 30, 2011
Designing a 200-year Plan for Louisiana Wetlands
Restoration and Management
Although all of the nation’s coastal wetlands are important, those associated with Louisiana’s Mississippi River Delta are nationally significant because of their size, economic contribution, impact on transportation, wildlife resources, seafood production and as a protection forNew Orleansand other up-river communities.
This is a large geographic area that is subjected to adverse natural and man-made events that have occurred in the recent past and can be anticipated in the future. Some, such as the 2011 floods in the Mississippi River system have been managed to the extent that the major cities along the River have been protected and the levee system has kept some of the lower parishes dry, although large areas of the Mississippi and Missouri river valleys have been allowed to flood to reduce the danger to New Orleans and other cities.
These Spring floods were a record event which resulted in wide-spread flooding of pre-designated areas. This event is remarkable in that adequate time was allowed for evacuation and few, if any, lives were lost. The system of engineered structures and levees held and the Corps of Engineers’ efforts can be considered successful. There were loses of crops and homes, but these were unavoidable consequences of living on and farming the very rich soils of theMississippiValley.
Such things happen from time to time. The question is how to manage such events while minimizing losses to life and property while simultaneously fostering the ecological recovery and restoration of vital coastal wetlands?
The options of doing nothing, restoring the Louisiana wetlands to the exact state they were at any time in the past or permitting unrestricted development are all impossible outcomes. Stabilizing and rebuilding the Mississippi Delta will require compromises and concessions to the ecological, economic, cultural, energy and transportation interests as well as continuing efforts though storm events, periodic failures and reversals. This can never be a build-it-and-leave-it response because of the dynamic nature of this huge natural system.
Seen in the long view of geologic time, the present complex of coastal islands, waterways and marshes are but recent modifications of the last catastrophic event. Restoring the delta will be a continuing process of progressive, successive approximations which are somewhat predictable in their general result, but are subjected to too many variables to expect long-lived outcomes without continuous interventions. Practical examples are the needs for constant dredging to keep shipping channels to useable depths, levee repair and replacements, etc.
Part I. Organizational attributes
In order to successfully restoreLouisiana’s wetlands an optimum organization should have the following characteristics.
A. Longevity. Restoration efforts are very long term projects, and such an organization should have a 200-year mandate.
B. Science. Several organizations such as theNationalWetlandsResearchCenterof the U.S. Geological Survey have been studying the hydrology, geography and biology ofLouisianawetlands for more than a quarter-century. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers utilizes some of this information in their design programs.
C. Stakeholder input. Because any decision to alter the present wetlands will have both negative and positive impacts, governmental groups from the state, parishes and town should be involved along with NGOs to represent environmental and economic interests.
D. Local management. This organization should have its resources and personnel close at hand and have its operational functions inLouisiana.
E. Decision making authority. Because of the need to respond rapidly to take advantage of short-term conditions, or to respond to hurricanes and other disasters, this organization needs to have the authority to immediately act to implement pre-planned activities. These might include opening certain levees when river levels reach predetermined flow rates.
F. Use existing natural system as a base for rebuilding the wetlands, but acknowledging that these are geologically transitory features that can never be “restored” in the strict meaning of the word.
G. The abilities to call-in resources from other organizations in order to fulfill its mandate for wetlands restoration and respond to emergencies.
H. Independent funding sources to continue centuries long, but “non-sexy,” engineering projects. Funding would most likely be derived from oil, gas, shipping, greenhouse gas capture and other potential revenues.
No existing organization has all of these attributes. In a previous statement I thought that perhaps the U.S. Geological Survey, if sufficiently augmented, might be most appropriate as they have on staff most of the scientific personnel to consider the geological, ecological, hydrological, geographical, environmental, economic and cultural impacts. Further research revealed that while the above is generally correct so far as personnel and activities are concerned, the U.S.G.S. does not have the engineering, management capabilities or congressional mandate to undertake a project of this magnitude, although they would be expected to make a continuing scientific contribution.
Born when the nation was in the midst of a depression, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) appears to offer the best model for an organization that can have the above-listed attributes. Although this may not be politically possible at present, I firmly believe that a new TVA-like organization needs to be established with the mission of restoringLouisiana’s wetlands over the next 200 years.
Such an organization would have the following significant advantages over any existing organization or grouping of them.
A. A central mission of wetlands restoration.
B. Stable management that would not have to be re-trained every few years or replaced with each election.
C. Independent sources of revenue.
D. Have direct input from local governmental organizations, business interests and NGOs.
E. Be equipped and capable of rapid response to emergencies according to pre-approved plans.
F. Arrange for the continuing management of programs that will outlive anyone in the organization.
G. Be able to make the tough decisions and trade-offs between competing interest for the best outcomes for wetlands restoration and the people whose livelihoods depend on this ecosystem and the natural resources on and under them.
About the author.
Wm. Hovey Smith is a Professional Geologist (GA. no. 622) with degrees from the Universityof Georgia, University of Alaska and post-grad work at the universities of Arizona and Arkansas. He has been a Army Engineer officer, newspaper writer, the author of 14 books, a radio producer-host, photographer, blogger, video producer, wild-game cook and playwright. His work is noted for being bold, inventive and wide-reaching in scope. Among his books are four of the first ever written on AIDS, popular works on local geology and architecture and more recently outdoor titles featuring hunting and bowfishing. His current radio show is “Hovey’s Outdoor Adventures” on WebTalkRadio.net. For more information go to his website: www.hoveysmith.com.