Volunteers from as far away as Washington state and Vermont and even as close as Houma recently spent two days lugging 4,000 22-pound bags on the east point of Raccoon Island, all in the name of coastal restoration.
“Raccoon Island is a very diverse island that provides habitat for both colonial and shore birds, and it is a nursery for a diverse population of sea creatures,” said Leslie Carrere, executive director of projects and programs with Restore the Earth. “It’s disappearing, and we want to come back here and do more work.”
Restore the Earth, a New York-based non-profit organization that focuses on environmental conservation, protection, restoration, awareness and stewardship, is no stranger to helping out along Louisiana’s shore, and the organization’s Gulf Saver bag initiative was critical to restoring marshes at Pass-a-Loutre after the 2010 BP oil spill.
“The Gulf Saver bags were one of the only successful restoration projects after the oil spill,” Carrere said. “That was also the first time the bags had ever been used.”
So what’s in a Gulf Saver bag? Each $30 bag is loaded a healthy heaping of spartina alternifloura, smooth cord grass, bitter panicum and seashore paspalum and the natural nutrients to support, feed and protect the plants, and, once placed in the right spot, the bags not only sprout plants, but they also trap sediments, creating dunes that help protect the land behind them. Time lapse photos on Restore the Earth’s website show the progress of the bags at four, eight and 18 months, and it is easy to see how bags blossom and build up soil in a short amount of time.
“These bags are also filled with oil-eating microbes, so if oil washes up from the spill, these bags will help combat the oil,” she said. “They are a great package for nature, and they are better than plug planting. Plug plantings are much more susceptible to getting washed away.”
The $400,000 project at Raccoon Island, part of the fragile Isle Deniere chain, was funded by grants and donations from Restore the Earth, For the Bayou, the Coypu Foundation and the Gulf of Mexico Foundation.
“This island provides critical bird habitat for brown pelicans, and it’s part of the coastal master plan,” Carrere said. “The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, who also helped execute the project, suggested the site, and we decided that the island would be the most effective use of Gulf Saver bags. Plus, it’s got good fishing.”
“Since 2008, we have been engaged in restoration and reforestation efforts along the coast, and we have helped to restore 30,000 acres of coastline in Louisiana and Mississippi,” said P.J. Marshall, executive director of development for Restore the Earth. “There is a need for this critical nature restoration.”
The bags, packed with plants from Ecological Restoration Services in Montegut, were packaged into larger bags, moved to the island by barge and craned off onto the shore to the waiting hands of local volunteers as well as 25 Americorp volunteers who were bunking at Trade Winds Marina in Cocodrie for the March week. Those helping hands spread more than 100,000 pounds of soil and 8,000 plants over four acres of land.
“We were right there with the volunteers,” Carrere said. “We love being out in the wetlands. This project was very important because these volunteers from around the country will go home and spread the word about what is going on here. They are getting a first-hand look at wetlands, and it’s a game changer to bring people out there and let them get an understanding of the value of the coast.”
Carrere said a seaplane tour of the area was what really opened the eyes of many of the volunteers.
“When they saw the chopped up tapestry of the ecosystem from the sky, they really got it,” she said. “It really brings things into the perspective in a magnificent and powerful way. It just knocked their socks off. We all hope we will get to do a project like this again, and we are already looking for more funding options to pay for another.”
Local volunteer Darlene Eschete was one those on hand for the seaplane tour as well as the island project, and she was glad that the out-of-state volunteers had the opportunity to see how their work fits into the overall bigger picture from up in the sky as well as get an on the ground perspective from local speakers.
“They took them up in seaplanes to see the dead cypress trees killed by saltwater intrusion, sediment buildup from Atchafalaya River, the bags we had placed on Raccoon Island and the area around Isle de Jean Charles,” Eschete said. “In the week they were here, they heard about the oilfield industry from Jonathon Foret with the South Louisiana Wetlands Discovery Center, the history of Isle de Jean Charles from wetlands tour guide Wendy Billiot and the history of Raccoon Island from Mike Carloss with LDWF. We also had speakers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Terrebonne Parish Consolidated Government.”
“The week of events gave the volunteers an idea of the culture here and how we must help to restore the coastline, and they worked hard on the restoration project,” she said. “We have a sustainable economy here, and we must save what we can.”