LACOMBE, La.-- On land, in water and within the muck: plugs of marsh grass planted on the Northshore that could end up helping restore marshes hit by the oil spill on the Southshore.
"The fact that I'm not cleaning up oil right now really doesn't matter," said Bonnie Blomberg, a volunteer from Oregon. "I feel good about doing this and it also helps about getting the word out."
On Wednesday morning dozens of volunteers fanned out to plant marsh grasses at the Big Branch National Wildlife Refuge in Lacombe. It is part of an ongoing marsh restoration project in that area.
"This is a classic example of making new land," said refuge manager Danny Breaux, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Hurricane Katrina wiped out 2,500 acres of marsh at the refuge, creating open water where there had once been land. An aggressive restoration effort that began in 2008 undid some of that damage and recreated 600 acres of marsh.
"It benefited more than what the project itself was intended," Breaux said.
Now, the benefit could reach beyond the borders of the refuge -- all the way down to coastal marshes affected by the spill. Even though the replanted area was not directly impacted by the oil spill, it could help places that were by creating a living lab and a potential source of vegetation. The two-week effort to replant marsh at Big Branch will end up including 700 volunteers and 70,000 plugs of marsh grass.
"People get interested, they want to help with the oil spill and this is kind of an off-shoot of that," said Joy Yoshina, a volunteer who came in from Baton Rouge.
Once the marsh grasses take root, seedlings are expected to be harvested here and planted in coastal areas with similar tidal basins. The project has been successful so far and it has attracted the attention of a number of federal officials, including Dr. Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She spent part of Wednesday planting marsh grasses with the volunteers.
Lubchenco said the project fits in well with Tuesday's announcement from U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, on what the Gulf Coast Restoration Commission will do, as it charts long-term, post-oil spill recovery projects.
"Many of the threats to the Gulf go far beyond just the oil spill itself," Lubchenco said. "As we think about restoration, it needs to be a comprehensive effort."
It is a restoration effort, which will require a great deal of money. Federal officials are now looking to BP to foot that bill.