Growing up in New Orleans, Don Boesch would spend long days exploring the lush marshes and swamps of coastal Louisiana with his father, an avid fisherman.
That youthful immersion into the bays and bayous surrounding his hometown sparked a lifelong career in marine science and a passion – both personal and professional – for sustaining coastal ecosystems that support people and nature.
“I decided in high school that I wanted to be a marine biologist and – for almost 50 years – I’ve been fortunate to work on protecting coastal environments,” says Don, one of the nation’s leading experts in the application of science to policies for the sustainable use and restoration of coastal ecosystems.
A former president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, and Vice Chancellor for Environmental Sustainability for the University System of Maryland, Don recently began a one-year term as a Walton Family Foundation fellow.
In his new role at the foundation, Don will be crafting a science-based vision for what a successfully restored and sustainable Louisiana coast might look like over the state’s 50-year timeline to rebuild land lost due to natural disasters, rising sea levels and the straightjacketing of the Mississippi River.
We asked Don about his goals for the project – and how they might help inform Louisiana’s decisions regarding its Coastal Master Plan, which supports major projects like sediment diversions from the Mississippi River, reconstruction of barrier islands and restoration of marsh and oyster reefs.
Tell us a bit about your personal and professional history with New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
I grew up in New Orleans. My family on all sides goes back four or five generations, so I have a deep connection through ancestry to the region. I’ve always had an interest in the Gulf Coast, since I was a kid, and I have been working on this issue of coastal land loss in Louisiana since 1980.
Most recently, I served on the commission that recommended dedicating fines from the 2010 oil spill for use in Gulf restoration, so I am strongly motivated to help the restoration process succeed. It’s an issue I care about deeply.
What does your project entail?
I’m going to try to use my experience on the Louisiana Coast, and elsewhere, to prepare a vision of the likely future of the coast – a geographically detailed sketch of what the future might hold.
There is going to be a Gulf Coast in the future. The question is what it’s going to look like. Louisiana has done a great job in using the best available science and technical analysis to guide its master planning. Hopefully, we can add another layer to that by producing a vision of a coast that is sustainable.
It will involve extensive consultation and interaction with local-state-and federal planners, regional scientists and a variety of non-governmental organizations.
What do you hope to achieve?
It is essential that the vision that emerges is objective, supported by evidence and reason, and independent. I plan to take into account environmental changes, including those due to climate change, and the feasibility and effectiveness of protection and restoration measures now under consideration in the Master Plan, and others that could be considered.
If we can understand what’s in store for the coast – with respect to a changing climate, sea-level rise and other factors – we can not only show the consequences of inaction but also what restoration can be achieved within the timeframe of the Louisiana Coastal Master Plan. If we have a clear vision of what the sustainable future of the Gulf Coast might be, it can provide a better compass to guide our restoration efforts.
Are you optimistic about the future of the Louisiana coast?
My job is to be realistic, and part of that realism is to look for the best possible outcome. I have grown over the years to understand that the changes that we have caused in the ocean and coastal environments are really substantial. Some of those changes are bigger than most scientists – including me – thought were possible 20 years ago.
But I am optimistic that – if we use what we know scientifically, make some intelligent, well-informed decisions and do the most effective job possible – the future can be far better than the one we will confront if we don’t do anything.
Why is it important to do this work now?
The timing is opportune because of the dramatic changes experienced in this part of the Gulf Coast and the difficult, enormously consequential, and urgent decisions being integrated into Louisiana's Coastal Master Plan.
This region is ground-zero for Gulf restoration, with outcomes influencing much of the rest of the Gulf Coast, at least from the upper Texas coast through Alabama. This project is action-oriented in the face of great uncertainty. Hopefully, it can inform every other vulnerable coastal environment that will have to confront these issues – whether it’s next week, next month or in the next 10 years.