Profile: Captain Conservation He's charting a course to save Mississippi's coastline By Marilyn Berlin Snell
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In April 2005, a bill for emergency military spending and Southeast Asia tsunami relief came before Congress. The legislation also contained four paragraphs tagged on by Mississippi senator Thad Cochran (R) at the request of the state's governor, Haley Barbour (R). The addition declared Mississippi the owner of the mineral rights in and around the Gulf Islands National Seashore and ordered the Department of Interior to allow oil and gas exploration there and directional drilling beneath it. (The drill would be located outside the seashore boundary but then slanted to penetrate the area.) Two of the seashore's islands, Horn and Petit Bois, are designated wilderness areas, which makes them off-limits to development. They are among the very few remaining barrier islands between Maine and Mexico that retain their utterly wild character.
The islands in the national seashore provide rest stops for more than 300 bird species, including bald eagles, ospreys, skimmers, and terns. Cochran's rider allowed sound-wave explosions within the seashore as a means to locate oil and gas reserves--making it the first time seismic testing would be authorized in wilderness areas managed by the Park Service.
Just two weeks prior to the congressional vote, Skrmetta got a call from a friend at the National Parks Conservation Association, asking if he'd heard about the rider. He hadn't. A similar attempt to allow drilling in the national seashore had been made in 1996, but when Skrmetta and hundreds of others organized, the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (which oversaw oil and gas permitting) backed away from the proposal. Since that time, though, the governor handed permitting power to the state's Development Authority, which is far less inclined to entertain citizen concerns.
The Sierra Club's southern regional representative, Louie Miller, joined forces with Skrmetta to protect the barrier islands. "Cochran's move was outrageous, but we responded as fast as we could," says Miller. The two men captured media attention by organizing a press conference in front of the Skrmettas' Gulf Islands Excursions terminal in Gulfport. Speaking against drilling were representatives from a gaming association and Mississippi's tourism bureau, and even the daughter of the late local artist Walter Anderson, who used to row a boat filled with rice and water 12 miles to Horn Island and paint there for weeks at a time. Tourists waiting to head out to West Ship Island for the day provided a ready-made audience.
"Tourism makes more money around here than oil and gas ever will," Skrmetta says as we sit in the pilothouse of his 110-foot tour boat, the Gulf Islander, adding that anyone who enters the room has to sign his petition opposing drilling. He doesn't proselytize to his customers anymore--the Park Service subtly suggested he cool it--but still has petitions ready when visitors ask how they can help protect the islands. He's agile and at ease on his boat, and his friendly character seems to expand once he's onboard. Skrmetta's been growing a "hurricane beard" since Katrina nearly sank his ships a month earlier. He and his brothers had moored them at his in-laws' home up Bayou Bernard, braving the 150-mile-an-hour winds while lashing and relashing ropes as they tore loose from moorings or snapped under the strain; one 1.5-inch-diameter line Skrmetta calls "sacred" held as the storm surges raised water levels 31 feet and threatened to smash the boats. Casinos, restaurants, hotels, and all ships in Gulfport Harbor were destroyed by Katrina, but Skrmetta's boats, and the Gulf Islands National Seashore, remain. "It will take a while for the casinos to come back," he says, "but in the meantime, we have a natural wonder offshore."
From a pilothouse file, Skrmetta pulls articles about the drilling controversy that he says began rolling off local presses after the media event in the harbor. Cochran's rider infuriated Gulf Coast residents, who started demanding a public hearing on drilling. "Congress was going to completely change the rules on seismic testing in our national parks, and we didn't even have a chance to comment!" Skrmetta says. "Southerners have historically tended to think, 'Well, our elected officials must be right,' and they don't get involved. Thank God that's beginning to change. If you don't ask for and show up at these public hearings, the opposition is going to get what it wants."
With too little time to stop the bill, it passed. But critics didn't give up, managing to secure an "unofficial" May 2005 public hearing. State representatives came "to answer questions" about drilling but said the issue was out of their hands. Skrmetta and others disagreed, refusing to accept drilling as a fait accompli. "It was very emotional. People spoke from the heart about their national park," he says. "We expected about 200 folks--the hall holds 450--but there were so many people that they had to stand in the aisles and even outside the building. At a certain point, the police had to stop traffic from entering the parking lot off Highway 90 because there just wasn't room!"
The power balance started to tip when others from the gaming and tourism industry got actively involved, Skrmetta says. Tourism is the state's largest private-sector employer, and casinos and the coastline are two of the biggest draws. Since 1992, Mississippi's coastal casinos--which were located on barges until Katrina destroyed them but will now be allowed to move into stable structures within 800 feet of the shore--have generated more than $8.6 billion in revenues for the state. "We aren't granola crunchers," Skrmetta says. "We just keep talking tourism and money. It gets politicians' attention every time."
After the hearing, Skrmetta helped form the 12 Miles South Coalition with business and community leaders to advocate prohibiting oil and gas exploration any closer than 12 nautical miles south of Mississippi's barrier islands. The group is also pushing for the federal government to purchase and retire the state's mineral rights under the national seashore. Such a buyout would permanently protect the area while providing millions of dollars in revenue. "The coalition isn't saying don't drill," Skrmetta argues. "We're saying do it where it's appropriate and save the national seashore for future generations."
Last August, several thousand people, including Representative Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), attended a rally at the Biloxi Coast Coliseum sponsored by the coalition. Taylor, whose district includes Mississippi's barrier islands, publicly supported the buyout proposal.
"It was a hot Sunday afternoon, but people still turned out. We got endorsements from gaming, tourism, and the restaurant association. Boards of supervisors from 12 coastal communities passed resolutions supporting our plan," says Skrmetta. "We proved that this was an important issue to the people of south Mississippi." Despite Barbour's continued support for drilling, he threw a bone to opponents by announcing two days before the rally that the state's Department of Marine Resources would conduct an environmental impact study on how drilling would affect the islands.
Proof that the momentum had shifted in the coalition's favor came the day of the rally, when Biloxi's conservative Sun Herald printed a full-page editorial telling readers to "do everything in your power" to limit drilling to a zone 12 miles south of the barrier islands. Citing the threat to "a magical place" from "drilling rigs and the blare of rig sirens," the editors made the tourism-dollars argument: "When it affects the bottom line, a beautiful view is not a luxury; it's a valuable and necessary asset."
Even Cochran had an apparent change of heart. Three days after the event, the senator announced that he'd support legislation authorizing a federal buyout of Mississippi's mineral rights. During a call to his Washington office a few months later, spokesperson Jenny Manley clarified Cochran's earlier statement: Barbour made the initial request that the senator introduce the legislation allowing drilling. If the governor asked him to propose a bill to protect the seashore, the senator "would consider it." Calls to Barbour's office regarding any plans to make such a request have not been returned.
"The senator acts on behalf of the state," Manley explained. "The governor asked him to put in the language. He did. And then, when there was push-back [on the part of Mississippi residents], he said, 'Well, if this is not what the state wants, then we'll do something different.' Senator Cochran was not out on a crusade to get drilling on the coast."
Unfortunately, just as Cochran was beginning to understand his constituents' opposition to the proposal, Katrina hit. According to Skrmetta, the powerful anti-drilling momentum built in just a few months was blasted by the storm. With most of the Gulf Coast's casinos, hotels, and restaurants destroyed, it's harder to make the "tourism dollars beat drilling dollars" argument, he says. Many of the most active members of the coalition, including Skrmetta, lost their homes in the catastrophe and have immediate crises to contend with. Drilling becomes an abstraction when the insurance companies are saying they'll give you $500 for your ruined house, as is the case with the Skrmettas. Still, the 12 Miles South Coalition hangs together and continues to track every move the Mississippi legislature makes--prepared to respond to any effort to push forward with drilling under the guise of post-hurricane recovery. "We have to keep up the fight," Skrmetta says. "If they can get away with drilling in our popular national seashore, they can do it anywhere."