NWF chair Jerome Ringo talks about restoring the gulf, outreach to minorities

As federal and state officials prepare massive recovery plans to help the Gulf Coast bounce back from hurricane damage, environmental groups say coastal restoration needs to be a top priority. Jerome Ringo, chair of the board of directors at the National Wildlife Federation, explains how restoring wetlands and marshes could shield Louisiana from future storms, and also attract hunters and fishers to the region. Plus, Ringo -- the first African-American chair of an environmental group -- discusses why the environmental movement needs to do a better job reaching out to minorities.


Brian Stempeck: Hello and welcome OnPoint. I'm Brian Stempeck. Joining us today is Jerome Ringo, who's the chair of the board of directors at the National Wildlife Federation. Mr. Ringo thanks a lot for being here.

Jerome Ringo: How are you Brian?

Brian Stempeck: I'm great. Now you're from Louisiana. You're in town this week in Washington to basically testify before the House transportation committee and talk about the effects of the hurricanes that have hit Louisiana. What did you have to tell the committee this morning?

Jerome Ringo: Well, what I wanted to say to the committee was that the National Wildlife Federation and the conservation community recognize how important it is that we rebuild New Orleans. But what is an important element as part of that rebuilding process is to restore the wetlands that have been lost that are critical to the New Orleans community and act as a buffer in the event of hurricanes. We've lost a substantial amount of wetlands. And restoration of those wetlands has to be an important element as part of the rebuilding process.

Brian Stempeck: Give us a sense, you're from the area, how much of the wetlands were taken out during the storm? And I guess how many were already taken out prior to the storms even hitting?

Jerome Ringo: Prior to Katrina we were losing an acre of land every 42 minutes. We have lost land equal to that of the state of Delaware, approximately 24 miles per year of beach was eliminated. I recently visited the coast after Hurricane Rita and I personally saw up to 100 yards of beach that had disappeared around Holly Beach, Louisiana, which is in the southwest corner of the state.

Brian Stempeck: Now what should their priorities be as Congress and the White House look to rebuild New Orleans? And you're talking about these coastal restoration plans. Specifically, what needs to happen to try to rebuild? I know there's been talk of this $14 billion coastal 2850 plan to try and rebuild?

Jerome Ringo: Well the No. 1 priority of course is the people. We've got to rebuild the levies to protect the people, but we also have to make sure that the three elements that are the buffers for New Orleans, in particular, are secure. The barrier islands, we've lost many of them as a result of hurricane, the rising waters and the intensity of the hurricanes. Those have to be restored as best we can. And of course the marshes, we've got to rebuild those marshes. And the third element of course are the levies. All three failed us. We've got to rebuild those, but the first priority must be given to the people of New Orleans to make sure that they have a safe place to return. A place that can grow economically as well as the areas that surround New Orleans be protected and restored, so that we won't see the intense devastation that we've seen in the last several weeks.

Brian Stempeck: There are people though who are critical of these kind of plans. We had the Interior secretary, Bruce Babbitt, who was the secretary under President Clinton. He was on our show a few weeks ago and he basically said if you're going to rebuild New Orleans you should rebuild it as an island. With global warming, with seas rising, with the damage that's already been done it's really too late to save many of the coastal areas. I assume you would disagree with that?

Jerome Ringo: I totally disagree with that. We can restore the marshlands and the wetlands. Before the levies were built the Mississippi River acted as a recharge for the coast of Louisiana with the valuable sentiments that were brought down the river would simply recharge the coast. And any wetlands that were lost would simply be replenished naturally by the Mississippi River. But the levies were built, which were necessary after the floods of 1927, to protect cities like New Orleans. But what happened was a funnel was created to now where we're dumping those valuable sentiments into the Gulf of Mexico, which has created a 500 mile dead zone and we have no recharge along the coast. I believe that there are plans in place for possible strategic breaks in the levy that will allow recharge to take place. There has been some consideration to using some of the old abandoned pipelines that were abandoned by industry to pump valuable sentiments back into the marshes. It's more than just a loss of protection for New Orleans. We're talking about a loss of valuable habitat that is critical to the Louisiana economy. My state has been known as a sportsman's paradise, a sportsman's paradise because many migratory birds fly down there. Hunting has a tremendous impact on our economy. But if the ducks don't come and have no place to come to it affects the Louisiana economy. So building and rebuilding those marshes for the sake of hurricane protection and for the sake of restoration of habitat is critical.

Brian Stempeck: At the same time though I've heard past interviews with you and you've said that climate change really is your number one issue and a major issue for NWF as well. Given the realities of global warming and the sea level rise how realistic is it to think that -- as you said, you're already losing an acre every 42 minutes, that that's not going to be something that -- the pace of that is going to increase into the future?

Jerome Ringo: Well there are steps that need to be taken with respect to climate change. CO2 gases must be reduced to the atmosphere. There are steps that we can take. I believe that man's actions have contributed to climate - does contribute to climate change with the increased CO2 gases. There are proposals by people like Governor Schwarzenegger, in California, that are going to reduce the amount of CO2's to the atmosphere. Those actions should be taken by governors around the country, as well as the administration and our Congress, to reduce those gases so we can slow down the effects of global warming and begin to restore we have lost.

Brian Stempeck: Now a big part of what your group does is basically take these kinds of issues and bring them to the local level. You yourself were talking before about being a sportsman, and I know that you're very active in hunting and fishing in Louisiana. How do you take an issue like global warming, you know a very complex federal issue that affects the entire world and bring that home to people in Louisiana? Bring that home to people on a level they can relate to?

Jerome Ringo: The Louisiana economy depends tremendously on hunting, fishing, our commercial fishing industry. Whenever our coastline erodes as a result of higher water levels, global warming of course contributes to that. The thermal expansion of water causes higher water levels. We're going to have more erosion. As we have erosion along our coastlines salt water in the Gulf of Mexico begins to intrude upon freshwater marshes. Those freshwater bodies are very important to our oyster industry, our shrimping industry and what have you. As we lose more coast it impacts the economy. It puts people out of work. So it's very, very important that we begin to think in a more proactive manner when we look at the many millions of dollars that can be made by projects in restoring our coastline. When we think about the areas and habitats that we are saving that are going to be productive to those oyster fishermen, those shrimpers, those fishermen that make a living off the coast of Louisiana and inland Louisiana. It is imperative that we rebuild what has been lost.

Brian Stempeck: To address the hurricanes, when you're talking about global warming and getting into these issues on the local level, do you think that message is getting through? I mean there's been some criticism that with issues like these, they're harder to deal with at a local level. Where people can't just see the effects of say shutting down a factory or getting more pollution controls on a factory, that when it's a broader issue, where they don't see the effect immediately, it's harder to get that message across. Do you think the environmental movement as a whole, including NWF, is missing a chance to succeed at the local level?

Jerome Ringo: Katrina and Rita has been a wake-up call for many people. I spent three weeks in the shelters volunteering immediately after Katrina. I was very aware that a week after the hurricane people in the shelters weren't talking about the hurricane anymore. They were asking questions like tell me more about this global warming. What is it? How is it contributing to the intensity of these storms? So the public ears are wide open. People want to know. They want to know more about this issue and they're going to know more about it. And they're going to get more involved and encourage their representatives and the elected officials to get more involved and make decisions that are going to reduce our contribution to global warming.

Brian Stempeck: Now kind of changing gears a little bit. Part of involving the local communities is getting more types of groups of people involved. You yourself are the first African-American to really head up a national environmental group. And you were named to the board I believed earlier this year in 2005. So far it seems like historically the environmental community has not done a good job of involving the African-American community and other minorities as part of their movement. Do you think that's changing?

Jerome Ringo: It is changing. We're not where we want to be, but we're not where we were. I joined the conservation movement back in the early '90s at a time when there were not many African-Americans and minorities involved. The National Wildlife Federation has made tremendous efforts and tremendous strides in this area. We now have programs in the urban communities where we are educating young people in encouraging them in careers in conservation. I spoke at a function two days ago in St. Louis, Missouri with African-American professionals in conservation, encouraging them to become part of organizations like the National Wildlife Federation. And make a contribution in areas that would be beneficial in their own communities. So there is a move across this country whether in the Hispanic community, in the Native American community, National Wildlife Federation is there. And we're doing the right things to move us forward, to get us exactly where we should be in the decades to come.

Brian Stempeck: How does the message needs to change? I mean I know I've seen some questions for you about this in the past. And you're talking about basically getting people to focus on issues besides their everyday concerns, whether they're white or black or Hispanic. You said basically what good is next month's rent if you're dying of cancer? Talking about some of the cases of cancer developing in Louisiana. How do you reshape that message to get to people regardless of income or race?

Jerome Ringo: Well people have that list of priorities, especially poor people. And that priority list consists of more quality of life issues. How do I pay next month's rent? How do I get quality health care? How do I keep my kid out of jail? As I share with people in Cancer Alley, Louisiana, when you're worried about next month's rent, but you have cancer throughout your community next month's rent is not just as important as you surviving the cancer. You've got to get involved to determine exactly what is causing the cancer. What's contributing to it? So there's a reason for you to get involved. Everyone breathes the air. We all drink the water. We all should be involved. And National Wildlife has a commitment to get everyone involved on every level in this fight for conservation.

Brian Stempeck: Do you think part of this is basically strengthening the activities of the NWF and other groups, that on this whole, I guess what you would call the environmental justice movement. Its something that's been kind of gaining steam in the past few years. A lot of agencies like EPA have taken fire from some critics for saying that they're not doing enough to consider how this affects black communities or how this affects low income communities, things like that. Is that part of this movement?

Jerome Ringo: It's part of it and it's no secret that the 1987 study that was done by the United Church of Christ, which was the birth of the environmental justice movement, the 1994 executive order signed by President Clinton on environmental justice was created, the Department of the Environmental Justice at the EPA are all steps in a positive direction. It was clear that there is a disproportionate impact on people of color in the citing of industrial facilities. Well we realize that now. Now we must make people of color included -- make it an inclusive movement so that everyone is involved and onboard in our efforts to clean up the Earth and make it a better Earth for generations to come.

Brian Stempeck: All right. Jerome, we're out of time. We'll let that be the last word. Thanks a lot for coming on the show.

Jerome Ringo: Thank you Brian.

Brian Stempeck: I'd like to thank our guest today. That was Jerome Ringo of NWF. I'm Brian Stempeck. This is OnPoint. Thanks for watching.

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