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Science v. politics in coastal Louisiana


Figure one

Figure one

Editor’s note: On Thursday September 10 at the invitation of Assoc. Professor Andy Nyman I presented a seminar to graduate students in the LSU School of Renewable Natural Resources. The too-long title of my talk was Mediating the stormy marriage between science and politics in south Louisiana, thoughts of a “coastal counselor.

This post includes some highlights of the presentation, which focused on my reflections on working at the never-dull interface between coastal science and politics.

I described being almost a year into a fifth career, following 19 years as an academic, 5 years as an entrepreneur, two years as a state bean counter, 18 years as a coastal advisor in the Governor’s Office of Coastal Activities and almost a year as the founding editor of

My first four careers each strongly influenced my views on public policy and the role of politics on critical coastal issues. I commented that since beginning my post-graduate tenure I’ve gained great respect for those who run for office, even those with whom I disagree, and I noted the importance of getting involved in the political process. I also described applied science as an exciting field, and stated that coastal restoration is as much challenged by politics as by technical issues.

Ivory tower academic (1963-84)

This career included three years as a coastal research assistant (Univ. of MD); six years in graduate school (Univ. of Richmond, Univ. of GA) and ten years at LSU as a research associate, assistant professor and associate professor.

At LSU I experienced my first serious brushes with Louisiana politics, which ultimately shortened my academic career. For example I was intimately involved in a team study of clam shell dredging in Lake Pontchartrain, culminating in my outspoken opposition to this highly destructive practice. In those days the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWL&F) received a 25 cents/bushel severance tax on dredged shells and the shell dredging industry held significant sway with the state legislature.

While still at LSU I testified against an anti-evolution bill that was eventually signed into law.* I alienated deep-pocketed LSU supporters who lived around Baton Rouge’s City Park Lake with a “radical” proposal to recreate some of the swampforest of the original Lake ecosystem. These and other issues eventually resulted in the not-so-mysterious cessation of my research funding and the sunset of my tenure at LSU.**

Entrepreneur, publisher of CityFtness magazine and running organizer (1984-89)

During my last three years at LSU increasing job-related stress induced me to begin a running program. Running soon became a major part of my lifestyle and after leaving the university I was inspired to start a distance running promotion and fitness publishing business. I failed miserably as a businessman but gained a new political perspective about reaching people in the workaday “real” world.

During this career I made lots of running friends, including Arlene Edwards, former daughter-in-law of Edwin Washington Edwards. Arlene’s then husband Stephen recommended that his dad appoint me in 1992 to head the governor’s coastal office, which had important consequences many years after EWE ended his fourth term as governor of Louisiana (see below).

Bean counter (1989-91)

With a Ph.D. and nineteen years of post grad technical experience under my belt, remaining in Louisiana as a single parent forced me to accept an entry level position at the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ). I spent two dreadful years writing hazardous waste permits but gained vivid lessons about bureaucracy. I also met such smart and well-known “Roemeristas”as Terry Ryder, Tim Hardy, Vickie Arroyo and Karen Gautreaux. I was already a friend of Paul Templet, then LDEQ secretary.

Governors’ coastal advisor (1991-2008)

Over a Friday afternoon beer in 1991 I was invited by David Chambers, a former LSU coastal grad student, to become his technical advisor in the brand new Governor’s Office of Coastal Activities under Buddy Roemer. Including my one year with the Roemer administration, I ultimately survived 5 governors and 6 administrations; learned about public policy; gained respect for some elected officials; learned to choose my fights carefully, stick to technical issues and bite my tongue on everything else. During this tenure my principal goal was to serve as ombudsman between politics and technical issues in a setting openly hostile to academic science. Lessons learned during this exciting time period form the basis for the views expressed in

Founding editor LaCoastPost (2008-present)

During my talk I described the evolution of the logo design, the disintegrating Fleur de lis (figure one). This iconic French design has a long history that is in dispute. Some think that two thousand year-old stone carvings of the Mississippi River system discovered in Kentucky may be the original basis for the Fleur de lis, with tributaries symbolizing petals. The term “fleur” and the striking resemblance of the design to the Louisiana iris is unmistakable. This beautiful native Louisiana marsh plant is a perfect symbol for coastal wetlands.

The asymmetrical disintegration of the Fleur de lis seemed a particularly appropriate way to symbolize the geopolitical and cultural deterioration of south Louisiana.

Coastal challenges: the six “esses”

I told my audience that I classify the principal impediments to restoring south Louisiana into six classes, each beginning with the letter “s.” Three are technical (subsidence, sea level rise, and sediment deficits) and three political (science, stipends and socioeconomics). I suggested that the three technical challenges are no more daunting than the three political esses. I also said that the two myths that have long driven me crazy are: (1) “We don’t need any more studies, we just need to move dirt;” and (2) “We know how to fix the coast, all we need is enough money.” In my humble opinion, huge technical uncertainties remain and funding is not the limiting factor.

Figure two

Figure two

Subsidence, the sinking of the landscape, is the result of complicated processes, from the surface oxidation of organic soils to deep tectonic (faulting) activity.  I shared a graphic illustration of the broad pattern of subsidence in coastal Louisiana (figure two). Note that according to this diagram peak subsidence (6 mm/year) is occurring south of Houma.

I suggested that those who were still exploring various career paths strongly consider devoting their technical futures to solving the numerous uncertainties and specific applied questions related to the largest ecological engineering program ever mounted (restoring the Mississippi River delta). I suggested that there are unlimited technical issues in terms of legal, social, cultural and economic importance.

Figure three

Figure three

My talk ended with my contention that the flagship university of Louisiana has run aground in terms of squandering its unique opportunity to become the flagship delta school of the world.

Its geographic location and scientific research reputation make LSU the obvious global center for a broad interdisciplinary coastal curriculum that would train students in geology, ecology, engineering, law, economics and sociology. These students could be trained to help restore the great equally dysfunctional deltas of the world, using the Mississippi delta as a backyard laboratory.

I believe that political concerns about LSU’s long-term dependence on funding by the energy industry have prevented this from serious consideration. In my opinion, the obvious coastal damage caused by onshore energy production during the sixties and seventies and the climatic implications of continued dependence on fossil fuel are coastal issues that LSU does not want to have deal with.

Len Bahr

*This ridiculous bill was eventually overturned by the US Supreme Court, but my LSU career had already ended. Louisiana’s current anti-evolution, anti-climate change bill is still law, pending its eventual challenge in the courts.

**Except for teaching a basic correspondence course in environmental science with Independent Study that has lasted for decades.

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