Wetlands Warrior: Jonathan Henderson

_Wetlands Warrior_ photo of Jonathan Henderson

This week’s “Wetlands Warrior” interview features Jonathan Henderson, the Gulf Restoration Network’s (GRN) Coastal Resiliency Organizer. Jonathan manages GRN’s BP drilling disaster field monitoring operations—in other words, he’s a watchdog. He’s also the GRN liaison with the Gulf Monitoring Consortium; the current writer of GRN’s bi-weekly online newsletter, GulfWaves; and an advocate for better stormwater management with the Flood-less New Orleans campaign.

Jonathan’s Swiss-army-knife skillset makes him a true warrior for our wetlands, an environmental treasure whose health hinges on the quality of all surrounding water. Jonathan gave us his two cents on our marshes, the BP disaster, and just what our Gulf needs from us.    

Global Green USA (GGUSA): What sparked your passion for protecting Louisiana’s wetlands?

Jonathan Henderson (JH): I got a lot of my passion from my father, Russell Henderson, a well-known progressive advocate and lobbyist who spent most of his life fighting for the underdog. He passed away in January 2011, but to this day I run into activists who tell me stories of how my Dad inspired and mentored them. As a kid I remember writing papers for school about various injustices in the world—like the damage the oil and gas industry had caused in places in other parts of the world.

Like many of us, I learned quite a bit about the importance of our wetlands and other coastal lines of defenses when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck. While I was fortunate to have been living in downtown Baton Rouge while attending law school at the time, I still experienced quite a bit of the devastation Katrina had on my hometown of New Orleans: I had security clearance to get into the city and took several trips down to deliver supplies. I also spent time boating around some of the flooded neighborhoods listening for voices in the attics; and passed by countless friends’ homes that had been completely destroyed.

Most New Orleanians my age will tell you that as kids we considered hurricanes as unplanned “staycations.” So what made Katrina and Rita so different? When I began to put it all together, I realized that the future of New Orleans and many other communities is at stake if we don’t fix our coast. I love New Orleans. Being my father’s son, I had no other choice but the fight.

GGUSA: Can you tell us a little bit about your past or current work on wetlands?

JH: I started as a field manager working a summer canvass for Gulf Restoration Network (GRN). Despite having three college degrees, I knew that I wanted to work for an organization actively engaged in the fight, and that the best way to get involved would be to come up through GRN’s canvass going door-to-door raising awareness about the loss of Louisiana’s wetlands.

GRN then hired me full time to work on federal climate policy, which I did for about two years. I was a co-located organizer representing the 1Sky Campaign (now merged with 350.org). Coastal Louisiana is ground-zero for the impacts of climate change and our wetlands and coastal communities are already paying a steep price.

Fast-forward to April 2010 and I became fully focused on the BP disaster. Just a few days after the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank, I was in a plane flying over “the source,” bearing witness and documenting the ongoing impacts to the Gulf Coast. To date I have taken approximately 200 trips by air, sea and foot, monitoring the ongoing impacts of the BP disaster and other leaks and spills. Now, in addition to advocacy work on a multitude of GRN campaigns, I conduct routine monitoring trips over our coast, searching for new leaks and spills and reporting them to the National Response Center.

GGUSA: What important, yet little-known fact would you like to share with our audience?

JH: That BP’s oil is not the only oil fouling our wetlands. Just about every time I go out I find a new leak completely unrelated to the disaster. Last year alone I filed about 40 incident reports. I take pictures that are GPS tagged and you can find them on our Flickr page here. Bob Marshall also wrote a recent Lens article on the subject.

GGUSA: What do you view as the primary obstacle to wetland restoration?

JH: A lack of money and failure of the oil, gas and pipeline companies to pay their fair share for the damages they’ve caused, and the failure of the State of Louisiana to make them do it. The CPRA does not have the money to fund the State’s Coastal Master Plan. Instead of opposing the lawsuit filed by the SLFPA-E, the Jindal Administration should be supporting it every step of the way.

GGUSA: What is something you would like to see added or emphasized in the 2017 State of Louisiana Coastal Master Plan?

JH: I would like to see real progress made on funding the non-structural provisions. We all know the threats that hurricanes pose to coastal communities. The Plan calls for assisting those communities that will be left unprotected, yet no money has been allocated to do so.

We should not wait until the next disaster to begin thinking about planning. The state’s current strategy is to spend available money to relocate vulnerable populations, rather than giving them the structural protection they need now. The people will suffer under this current plan, and Louisiana needs to change course immediately.

GGUSA: What future do you see for blue carbon on the Gulf Coast?

JH: I’m worried: I have seen mangroves, a great carbon absorber, on Gulf Coast beaches and barrier islands (including pelican rookeries) completely disappear, thanks to coastal erosion and BP’s oil. As the mangroves get destroyed, carbon stored in the roots is released back into the atmosphere.

On a related note, industry is now seeking to inject carbon in the shallow waters of the Gulf Coast as a way to sequester it. If industry has its way, there may soon be more carbon on the Coast than there is today—but it won’t be blue.

GGUSA: What is the one thing the average community member can do in the battle to restore coastal Louisiana?

JH: Fortunately, there is no shortage of things that people can and should do. However, I submit that whatever action any individual decides to take, the best way they can make their action the most effective is by pledging to get others to take the same action.

One thing I strongly encourage people to do right now is call their state legislators and urge them to oppose any attempt by the Jindal Administration or others to derail the SLFPA-E lawsuit seeking to hold the oil, gas and pipeline industries accountable for the severe damages they have caused our wetlands. Then, get 10 of your friends to do the same thing.

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