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'He Used Science To Speak Truth To Power': Remembering Sherwood 'Woody' Gagliano

Coastal Environments Inc.
Dr. Sherwood "Woody" Gagliano looks out at a testing area for artificial oyster reefs in St. Bernard Parish in 2015.

It’s widely known that Louisiana’s coast is disappearing, for a number of reasons — subsidence, the erosion of oil and gas canals, and rising seas. But up until the 1970s, people believed that the coast was growing. That’s when a young Louisiana State University scientist made his findings public: The coast was washing away. That young scientist, Sherwood “Woody” Gagliano, died Friday.

New Orleans Public Radio talked with op-ed writer and former environmental reporter Bob Marshall about his legacy.

Tegan Wendland: Woody Gagliano was really the first scientist to alert the world to Louisiana's land loss crisis. What were his biggest findings and how were they received at the time?

Bob Marshall: This was in the early 70s that it hit the news, and his findings were that we weren't gaining land on the coast, that we were losing land rapidly — we're talking about primarily wetlands, some uplands — and he discovered that the main cause was extraction of oil and gas. This was a shocking development because oil and gas at the time was king in Louisiana. It accounted for 40 percent of the state's total income. So he's considered the father of coastal environmental action and concern, because he brought this up. It shocked a lot of people and, frankly, they refused to believe it.

And you interviewed him back in 2013 and he reflected on how his findings really challenged that oil and gas industry at the time.

(Archival tape of Gagliano) "The gospel then was that, 'Well, this big river is dumping all the sediment. It's always built land, for 5,000 years. The land's going to continue to grow and the river may move around a little bit.' But everywhere I went in the field, I saw it just the opposite…We raised the issue for the first time. And what was the response? The response was, 'Oh, forget about that.'"

The LSU Coastal Studies Institute was being funded by oil and gas companies in most of their research — their geological research was aimed to help the oil and gas industry solve some of their problems. And of course, he said, well, 'No, I'm not going to forget about that.'

He was one of the main characters in Mike Tidwell's beautiful book "Bayou Farewell." This was a guy who really had a lot of passion and energy, and he never really retired. He founded this restoration consulting company and was working on an oyster reef restoration project right up until he died last week at the age of 84. What do you think really drove Woody Gagliano?

His intellectual passion. He was curious, and he was a scientist. Woody believed in finding truth through science. And I would say that he really inspired the next generations of scientifically inclined Louisianians to get involved in saving the coast. And he taught them that you can use science to speak truth to power. And it doesn't matter what their responses were, you had the facts through your science.

You knew him as a friend, as well. What was he like?

Woody was a very short guy. He was like 5'4'' or 5'5'', and very diminutive in stature, but huge in personality and energy. When he began talking about the things that he loved — the coast, science — you could almost feel the energy. You could see him getting taller and taller and filling a whole room. This little short man could fill an entire auditorium as his enthusiasm began to grip him and he could express it so well. He was infectious.

What do you think will be Woody's legacy?

His legacy will be all of the great scientists and researchers that have followed him. Because he really opened that door. He showed us this is happening and everything that's come since then. We've had fabulous scientists and researchers and programs. It really all goes back to Woody. If he hadn't done that first work and then stood up for it and defended it, we'd be decades behind right now.

Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.

Tegan has reported on the coast for WWNO since 2015. In this role she has covered a wide range of issues and subjects related to coastal land loss, coastal restoration, and the culture and economy of Louisiana’s coastal zone, with a focus on solutions and the human dimensions of climate change. Her reporting has been aired nationally on Planet Money, Reveal, All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, BBC, CBC and other outlets. She’s a recipient of the Pulitzer Connected Coastlines grant, CUNY Resilience Fellowship, Metcalf Fellowship, and countless national and regional awards.

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