I first arrived in New Orleans in month seven of my bicycle tour around the US. I started in Montreal, rode down the entire east coast, and then started heading west along the gulf. Upon my arrival in New Orleans, I immediately fell in love with the culture and the people. I decided to stay for a couple of months… that was over two years ago.
At that time, I had no idea of the scale of the environmental emergency that’s taking place in southern Louisiana. Nobody seems to talk about it outside of the small network of people working at various non-profits down here. It’s because of my involvement in wetlands restoration that I’m still here now, and it’s my passion for the wetlands that is the inspiration for my next big adventure.
First, a bit about the environmental crisis that inspired me. The wetlands are disappearing. Fast. A recent USGS study calculated the current rate of land loss at a football field every hour.
Without the wetlands we lose crucial habitats for an ecosystem that supports a 2.4 billion dollar seafood industry, provides an essential pit-stop for migratory birds, and acts as essential flood protection for coastal communities like New Orleans. The wetlands are disappearing for a number of reasons. First, the delta forming sediment traveling down the Mississippi no longer gets deposited in the wetlands due to the river’s levee system. To make matters worse, there are 15,000 miles of canals dug through the wetlands, introducing saltwater to freshwater ecosystems, and altering the hydrology of the entire area. Other problems, like unsustainable logging practices, invasive species, and sea level rise add to the land loss.
It’s a daunting problem, and the scale is massive. Restoration efforts need to be equally massive to make significant impacts. Some of these types of big expensive projects include river diversions, sediment transport, and barrier island construction. This link is a great graphic showing the problems and solutions for the wetlands. Despite the need for big expensive projects like these, I’m personally not very interested in getting involved. Working on these types of big projects probably means working for a big organization, in an office, daily, from 9am-5pm, for decades, and only maybe seeing results, all dependent on funding from politicians.
I like getting dirty. At my current job, I’m the Wetlands Coordinator for Common Ground Relief. I manage two nurseries where we grow over 10,000 native trees and wetland grasses. We use volunteers from around the country to grow these plants, and eventually plant them in the wetlands that surround New Orleans.
Every volunteer group that works with us learns about the issues, and takes a very small part in restoration. I like this work because I get to go out and see the swamps, get muddy, and see my direct impact, even if it is small.
Every time I return to an area that I’ve brought volunteers to before I get to see our grasses, getting more and more thick, protecting the land they’re planted on. I hope my indirect impact, through education, does even more.
Now for the exciting part: the big adventure I’ve been planning. I’m calling it CircumPontchartration (hard to spell, I know). Myself and two others have nearly finished building a boat completely from scratch, and soon we plan on sailing it all the way around Lake Pontchartrain.
Over the course of a month or so we will plant wetlands grasses and cypress trees all along the shore, an area with some of the highest rates of land loss. We’ll be living on an open platform with just a tent to protect us, eating food that we catch from the lake. Lake Pontchartrain is huge, mostly wilderness, and although it’s very close to New Orleans and other large, densely populated areas, its beauty is only enjoyed by a few. Even people living right across the street from the shore do not have easy access to it, in fact they can’t even see it. The levee system that protects populated areas also blocks people from interacting with the lake in anyway, disconnecting people from their environment.
We plan on making a film of our big adventure on the lake which we hope will educateand inspire people to get involved in this serious environmental emergency. I’ve been on many adventures, and I’ve loved them all, but this will be my first adventure with a purpose. I think I’m going to love it even more.
To see pictures of our boat, and see our progress as we make it, visit our facebook page. To help us achieve our goals please consider donating here. If donating supplies is easier than cash you can email me and I’ll send you a list of supplies we still need and where to get them.
James Stram was born in New York City and raised upstate. He attended McGill University where, after a brief stint as a music major, he got a B.Sc in Environmental Science. James now works at Common Ground Relief, in New Orleans, where he runs the wetlands restoration program.