COLUMN ONE : In Biloxi, Growth Came First : Along the Gulf Coast, environmental awareness developed late. Now, decades of neglect may stunt the region's future.


During summers growing up here in the 1940s, my brother Ken and I would get up before daybreak, go to the old Campgrounds pier near our house and paddle a skiff out about 200 yards into the Gulf of Mexico. We would anchor over an oyster bed, fish several hours and return with scores of trout.

Or we would take a couple of nets out on the pier, bait them with pieces of chicken or red meat, and catch a bushel basket of crabs by noon. You could also cast a net into the shallow waters offshore and in no time bring in a supply of mullet--or "Biloxi bacon," as we called those fish.

If anybody ever mentioned pollution or talked about the environment--other than the weather--Ken and I never heard it.

Just like most Biloxians, we were oblivious to the fact that pollution was slowly spreading along the Mississippi coast. In the decades after I left, pollution and other environmental problems were to impose a crippling burden on Biloxi and the coastal region--a burden people only recently have begun to recognize.

Today, Biloxi's leaders are making a valiant effort to clean up the environment, and they have made significant progress. But they are struggling against a legacy of indifference, and some of those old attitudes linger.

To me, in those days of my youth, Biloxi was a great little town. It sits on a low-slung, six-mile-long peninsula that ranges in width from half a mile to two miles and parallels the Gulf on the south and Back Bay on the north.

Touted as "the seafood capitol of the world," its huge oyster reefs and large shrimping fleet provided a bounty that was shipped all over the country. It was also a fisherman's paradise. Tourists flocked to Biloxi in summer months, and trade and professional groups held conventions.

My family had moved here from Atlanta in 1942; my father joined the Army Air Corps after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. I sold newspapers to soldiers stationed at Keesler Field--the setting for Neil Simon's play, "Biloxi Blues"--and it made me mad when they called my hometown "the armpit of the world." Much later I learned that military personnel--regardless of where they were stationed--were prone to talk of the nearby town in such unflattering ways.

The fact that raw sewage drained into the Gulf from Biloxi and other towns was common knowledge and caused little concern. Not until many years later did city officials crack down on residents who bypassed the sewage system and disposed of their sewage through storm drains, sending the waste directly into the Gulf. The city caught the culprits by forcing smoke up drainage pipes and waiting for it to pour out of houses.

Crackdown Too Late

But the crackdown was a day late and a dollar short.

Uncontrolled sewage disposal, including runoffs from septic tanks, was a major factor in killing many of Biloxi's oyster reefs. For almost 20 years, the 2,000 acres of oyster reefs in the Back Bay have been closed to harvesting because of pollution.

And, on the Gulf side, only a third of about 10,000 acres of once-productive reefs off the coast can be harvested. Another third are closed because of pollution, and the rest have been ruined by fresh-water flooding.

Sewage from septic tanks and other sources remains a problem, and as recently as last year neighboring Gulfport was forced to close two miles of its beach to swimmers because of contamination. In the affected area, bacteria counts 60 times higher than acceptable were found.

Bad as those problems became, it was not until the 1970s that environmental deterioration began to emerge as a major issue in Biloxi--a decade after it had become important in other parts of the country.

One reason the issue was slow to take hold in Biloxi was that the historic old town--it was founded by the French in 1699 and named for an Indian word meaning "broken pot"--had reveled in the easy life style of a fishing village. Its traditional laissez-faire approach to life had spurned government regulation of almost any kind.

"A lot of people have had the attitude that they don't want anyone to tell them what to do, and that's very difficult to deal with," said Connie Rocko, Harrison County's beautification director. "It's a perception we're still trying to overcome."

Then too, until fairly recent years Biloxi and the Mississippi coast did not begin to experience the kind of industrial and commercial development that has brought serious pollution to the East and parts of the West.

And, in struggling to rebuild their economies after recurrent, devastating hurricanes, Gulf Coast communities such as Biloxi traditionally have put economic development first and environmental protection second.

Mississippi, however, has been ahead of other Gulf states in one important area: protection of wetlands and marshes--the rich nurseries for fin and shell fish, and the winter habitat for waterfowl.

When Gerald Blessey returned here in 1970, after 10 years of Army service and studies of aquaculture at Harvard, he said he was "shocked at the decline in the quality of sea life" he found in Biloxi.

The coast, said Blessey, who recently served as mayor of the city, was losing about 5% of its wetlands a year to dredging and filling for new development. Three years later, Blessey, then a young state legislator, authored the Coastal Wetlands Protection Law, which established a permit system for regulating such operations and required developers to create new wetlands to replace any they destroy.

The measure has proved to be effective in protecting the coast's 66,000 acres of wetlands.

Trash Dumping

And, during a recent visit, I found that many Biloxians had become alarmed over another environmental abuse: the dumping of trash in the Gulf.

Legislators from Biloxi sponsored a tough new law recently enacted by the Mississippi Legislature that prohibits disposal of any waste in Gulf waters. It took effect July 1 and, although it provides only a $500 fine for the first offense, it imposes a $10,000 fine and revocation of the boat license for a second offense.

It is hailed as "bellwether legislation" by William Whitson, assistant director of the Gulf of Mexico Program, which was set up by the federal Environmental Protection Agency in late 1987 to coordinate the activities of federal, state and local agencies in fighting pollution in the Gulf.

"People are waking up to what a treasure they have and are concerned that if they lose it, they'll lose more than just a pretty picture," he said. "They'll lose tourism and fishing and wildlife and their very livelihood."

The United States' Gulf coastline, all 1,631 miles of it, is longer than the combined coastlines of California, Oregon and Washington. The Gulf produces 40% of the country's commercial fish yield. It is the economic wellspring of many coastal cities, including Biloxi, where the economy revolves around fishing and tourism.

The Biloxi of my youth was post-card picturesque. Giant live oaks draped with Spanish moss dotted the coastline, much as they had in 1791 when naturalist William Bartram visited the area and wrote: "The live oaks are of an astonishing magnitude. Great limbs grow nearly horizontal. The wood is almost incorruptible."

I used to see pelicans perched on every piling in what is known as the Mississippi Sound--that part of the Gulf of Mexico located inside the barrier islands, 10 to 15 miles offshore, and bordering on Mississippi. That was before pesticides, widely used on the coast, had entered their food chain, making the shells of their eggs thin and virtually wiping out the pelican population here by the 1960s.

When I left in 1951, before commercial development along both sides of the beach highway and the proliferation of pleasure and commercial boats, you could walk along the waterfront and hardly ever see trash.

When I returned recently to see how Biloxi was coping with environmental problems, I was reminded of a fishing trip I had taken around Ship Island several years earlier. It is an island rich in history: Some colonists took their first steps on American soil there in the late 1600s, and old Fort Massachusetts still stands there, a reminder of the island's strategic importance to Union forces in the Civil War.

After a brief visit, we re-boarded our charter fishing boat for the trip to Biloxi, 10 miles away. My mother handed the boat captain a bag of cans, glass bottles, plastic containers and other trash she had carefully picked up while walking along the island's gleaming white sand beach.

She asked him to please take care of it.

"Certainly," he replied. Without another word, and to my mother's shock and bitter disappointment, the captain tossed the bag over the rail. Unlike my mother, I had been fishing often enough not to be shocked. I knew that crews on commercial and pleasure boats routinely dumped trash in the Gulf.

Although the incident occurred several years ago, it could easily have happened now. Dumping of trash into the Gulf has continued almost unabated, even though it threatens one of the nation's busiest and most productive bodies of water.

Much of the trash is not biodegradable: milk cartons, oil containers, fishing line, plastic hoops for beverage six-packs, and various other gadgets and containers. Jim Franks, a research associate at the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, said the trash "is not just an eyesore, but injures and kills marine life and birds."

"If Christopher Columbus had brought over a plastic bag and thrown it in the Gulf's waters," said Franks in one of his frequent lectures on environmental concerns at Biloxi's Gulf Coast Aquarium, "then it could still be there."

In addition to trash dumping, other environmental abuses have taken a toll on Biloxi. And the town has also been battered by hurricanes during the past half-century.

At its highest point, Biloxi is only about 20 feet above sea level, making it especially vulnerable to storms despite the barrier islands.

Twenty years ago last August, Hurricane Camille devastated Biloxi. Its 200-m.p.h. winds and 20-foot tides swept over the barrier islands and crushed mile after mile of beachfront property, including hundreds of businesses and scores of stately homes. Huge trees were uprooted or left leaning with shattered limbs.

But compared to man, hurricanes have played a minor role in marring Biloxi's beauty. Most of the damage has resulted from the pressures of population growth and unbridled commercial and industrial development.

As a reporter for the Los Angeles Times based in Atlanta, I went to Biloxi in 1969 to write about the damage caused by Camille. Several days later, as I was leaving City Hall, Mayor Danny Guice, bearded and bleary-eyed from disaster work, called out, "Don't forget to come back and write about what we do to rebuild. We're going to be a bigger and better resort than ever."

There's no question that many of the hotels, motels, condominiums and restaurants built in Biloxi since Hurricane Camille are bigger than ever. But the beach development has been as unregulated as ever, and also gaudier than ever.

Go-carts and goofy golf, go-go girl dance halls, super slides, adult porno shops, cocktail lounges and recreational games of all kinds are crammed along the beach highway.

There were a few cocktail lounges and entertainment parks along the beach when I was growing up, but nothing like today.

In the late 1970s, some Biloxians concerned about the rampant growth managed to defeat plans by city officials to erect a "sky ride" to Deer Island, a narrow strip not more than 100 yards from the mainland at the east end of Biloxi. The ride would have marred the skyline and opened an ecologically fragile island to tourism, with potentially damaging consequences.

Highway Battle Lost

But Biloxi's fledgling environmental movement was unsuccessful in defeating the construction of a spur from Interstate 10 that mars the view of the town's waterfront between the Biloxi Lighthouse on the west and Deer Island on the east.

The spur, designed to relieve traffic congestion, runs through the middle of Biloxi, towering over the beach, and snakes back to dump traffic on U.S. 90 not far from the lighthouse, a historic landmark built in 1848.

At Baricev's Seafood Restaurant, less than 100 yards from where the spur spills onto the highway, 85-year-old Joe Baricev shook his head in dismay.

Baricev recalled that before he died, longtime Biloxi architect John Collins, who had fought the project, gave a simple reason for environmentalists' opposition: "The highway shouldn't be there. It just doesn't belong."

As I talked with Baricev early one Sunday morning, two old schoolmates of mine--Jack Pisarich and Don Tremmel--ambled into the restaurant, popped open a couple of beers and walked out on the restaurant's pier, where they cast a net for mullet.

After about an hour, they had managed to put just two fish in a five-gallon can. "We used to fill that easily in an hour's time," Pisarich said, "but you can't fill it now in a day."

Pollution, waterfront development and the proliferation of commercial and pleasure fishing boats--many of them bigger and better equipped than ever to catch fish--are blamed for the dramatic decrease in fish near shore.

While the crab yield is still high in coastal waters, commercial crab traps account for practically all of the yield, with relatively few caught from piers.

As Baricev and I talked, a pelican that visits the pier regularly looking for food landed on a nearby piling. "We feed him all the time and call him 'Freddie the Freeloader,' " Baricev said.

Thanks to assistance from Louisiana wildlife officials, the pelican population began reappearing on the Mississippi coast about 10 years ago and has steadily increased, although the birds are not nearly as plentiful as when I was growing up.

Protected under the federal Endangered Species Act beginning in the 1970s, pelicans have made such a comeback around the nation that they have been removed from the list of endangered species in all states except Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and California. And they are expected to be removed from lists in those states soon.

Since I left the area, successful efforts have been made to protect birds and wildlife, especially with the establishment of the Gulf Islands National Seashore by the U.S. Park Service in 1971. It put three Mississippi islands--Ship Island, Horn and Petit Bois--under federal protection.

Unprotected bird habitats outside the national seashore have been disappearing rapidly because of development, leaving the protected islands as crucial breeding grounds for marine birds, according to Gail Bishop, chief interpreter for the Mississippi section of the national seashore. On Horn Island, as part of the world's first major re-introduction program for bald eagles, wildlife biologists have released a large number of the birds in recent years, she noted.

There has also been progress in protecting what remains of Biloxi's beautiful trees. Until the 1980s, the felling of trees for commercial development along the beachfront was routine. But it finally aroused the ire of many Biloxians. In fact, one homeowner shot out the tires of a developer's car several years ago to prevent the felling of trees near his house.

The city has passed an ordinance effectively prohibiting the felling of live oaks, magnolias and other hardwood trees. That law cost Biloxi a prize, 256-seat restaurant.

Red Lobster, the giant seafood restaurant chain, balked earlier this year at having to build around several large live oaks on property in Biloxi and decided instead to build across the street in neighboring Gulfport, which has no such ordinance. The restaurant company then cleared the Gulfport property of five large live oaks, four water oaks and a pine tree to make way for the restaurant.

Red Lobster isn't unique. Many coastal residents still don't hesitate to sacrifice trees for commercial development. Last year, when critics raised a fuss about bulldozers clearing trees from a Gulfport tract for a K mart store, Joe Randolph, owner of the property, declared: "Trees don't pay taxes. Trees don't employ anyone."

A growing number of Biloxians, however, have led the way in pushing for environmental reform, among them two friends from my old newspaper, the Biloxi Sun-Herald: James Lund, editorial director, and John Lambeth, outdoor editor, both of whom have won statewide awards for their coverage of the environment and natural resources.

If not for their work and the Sun-Herald's extensive coverage of environmental issues and its editorials in support of reform, environmentalists say, the Mississippi coast would be even further behind the rest of the country in protecting the environment.

As it is, said Edwin W. Cake Jr., who lives in Ocean Springs, a town across the bay from Biloxi, and is Gulf Coast regional vice president of the Sierra Club, the area lags by "at least 10 years" in almost every category of environmental protection.

Cake, an environmental consultant, is one of the few outspoken environmentalists on the Mississippi coast. In an interview, he railed about trash dumping, raw sewage that still sometimes drains into the Gulf, indiscriminate cutting of trees and other abuses.

But he believes Biloxians finally are awakening, as evidenced by such recent developments as support for the trash-dumping law, the tough new tree-cutting ordinance, a $70-million sewage disposal program and various conservation programs.

However, Cake sees excessive development and overpopulation creating great environmental challenges in the years ahead not only for Biloxi but for many other coastal towns around the country.

"When you dump so much crap in the water, it will come back at you," he said. If more isn't done to protect the environment and regulate development, he said, when Biloxi celebrates its 300th birthday 10 years from now, it could face an environmental nightmare of "oil rigs dotting the skyline, condos springing up on Deer Island and wall-to-wall shoreline development."

If that happens, the "armpit of the world" comments of those World War II soldiers at Keesler Field might be proven right.

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