Seven years ago, a coalition of Louisiana groups launched a save-our-coast campaign called "America's Wetland" with sponsors that ranged from the NFL's New Orleans Saints to the company that makes Tabasco sauce.
The campaign began because they wanted to alert the public that Louisiana's coastal wetlands are disappearing at a rate of 25 square miles per year. The campaign picked up steam after Hurricane Katrina showed the vital role that those coastal wetlands play in blunting the force of such storms.
Earlier this month, the latest iteration of the campaign sailed into St. Petersburg's Bayboro Harbor in a gorgeously restored 1984 Grand Banks yacht.
At the helm of the 50-foot trawler was Val Marmillion, a Fort Lauderdale resident who grew up in Houma, La. He has been the managing director of the America's Wetland Foundation since its inception. Now he's taking his boat around the Gulf Coast in the weeks preceding the start of hurricane season, warning boaters and anyone else he encounters about the need to restore wetlands.
He has dropped anchor in Key West, Fort Myers and Sarasota, and from St. Petersburg he was headed for Tarpon Springs, Crystal River and the state's Big Bend area. At each stop he hands out information about the statistical likelihood of when the next hurricane will strike within 60 miles as well as information about coastal land loss.
Marmillion wants the tour to spread awareness of the impact wetlands losses are having on the environment and also the economy, since it affects the seafood and tourism industries. And it's happening not just in Louisiana but throughout the country. He named the Everglades, Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes and the California delta near San Francisco as places in jeopardy.
"We're losing it right around the perimeter of the country — our nation is shrinking," he said. "The whole country around its rim is in danger."
How fast are Louisiana's wetlands disappearing?
We're losing a football field every 50 minutes. When we tell that to people in, say, Philadelphia, they go crazy. They say, "That can't be happening in our country!" They think it could only happen in places like the rain forest.
How did Hurricane Katrina spur interest in restoring coastal wetlands?
It showed how the loss of 40 miles of wetlands really had an impact. … You have moments that are benchmark moments. Then it tails off until something else happens.
Isn't the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers supposed to rebuild the levees and other structures to protect the coast from future hurricanes?
Everything the corps has done to the Mississippi River has caused sediment to go down the river and off the continental shelf, so you've got this huge plume barrelling off into the continental shelf and you don't have any way for it to get back beyond the walls into the wetlands, where it needs to go.
One of the things you're distributing is a report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on all the bureaucratic roadblocks to a large-scale wetlands restoration project like the one you're advocating. What's the point of that, other than noting that there's a lot of red tape?
This nation has no water policy as such, and no water agency. The majority of water projects are being managed by an engineering agency. … We're deciding water policy congressional district by congressional district.
As you stop at harbors around the gulf are you finding people are receptive? Do you think wetlands restoration could become as big an issue as, say, global warming?
The boating community is very aligned with what we're talking about. … I do see wetlands as a growing environmental issue. It may be the big environmental issue of the next decade.