Restoring the Gulf Coast is also a critical business issue, as R. King Milling, chairman of the governor’s Advisory Commission on Coastal Protection and Restoration and the former president of Whitney Bank, explains.
Bob Marshall: What is your association with coastal issues in Louisiana?
R. King Milling: Today, I am the chairman of the governor’s Advisory Commission on Coastal Protection and Restoration; I’m a member of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority; I’m a director of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Finance Corporation; I’m the President of America’s Wetland Foundation; and I’m a recent member of the board of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
BM: How did you get involved in these coastal issues?
RKM: Well, originally there was a guy, and is a guy, by the name of Jim Tripp — whom I went to Deerfield with — he was a year ahead of me. And when I was practicing law, I used see him down here in the 70s. Couldn’t figure out what he was doing in New Orleans, and he described these issues to me at that juncture and I was, quite frankly, far too busy to worry about. And I kept seeing him when I went to the bank. Finally, I had a conversation with Jim, and got then to know Mark Davis and people like that, and we began to talk about the issue; I had hunted a lot — ducks and geese in the past — so that I was familiar with the issue; and of course, practicing law I knew that we were having a deteriorating condition, as well with the bank. And I remember we talked one time and we said, you know the question, we were discussing the fact that, I think among us — and probably others, too — that it was quite apparent that the effort being undertaken then by the state and the federal government was totally inadequate. We were still losing in the neighborhood of 25-35 square miles a year, and that just raised the issue that something had to be done in a more large scale, comprehensive basis.
And I guess those conversations continued, and I got deeper and deeper into it, and on top of that one day — when I knew I’d really been hooked — Mark Davis (I can’t remember who else) came to my office one day, without an appointment, said they had to see me about, and that was fine, I was busy as hell about something. And they sat down and started telling about what they were doing and how they were doing it, and this could have occurred before or afterwards, I don’t know, whatever — they were telling me about the birds and the bees and the fish and all this stuff, and finally I looked up, and I said, “Look I’m busy as hell, and by the way what you all are talking about is a bunch of foolishness. This is about losing all commerce and all navigation in Louisiana; it’s about losing millions of people (I didn’t know how many at the time), and I said, you know, and billions of dollars of infrastructure. And that’s what this issue’s about. Yeah, these other things are very important, but it’s the whole thing. You gotta talk about the whole… Now get out of here.” And they started laughing.
BM: So, some bells went off?
RKM: Some bells went off!
BM: It amazes me, even today — given that we do have, besides yourself, some pretty astute businessmen in the state — that no one else, up to that point, in your sphere of influence, had stepped forward and said, “Holy Smoke!”
RKM: Well, I think there were some who felt that way. I think to me it was always a function of the fact that there’s an environmental issue out here, and there is an economic and cultural issue. And it’s always been my belief — even as I fought from afar of some of the environmental questions that are raised — that, generally speaking, these struggles that occur between the environment on the one hand and corporations on the other — there is a middle ground because one generally impacts the other, even if they don’t want to understand it. And, so I guess from that point I was ready to deal with it, and of course, the fact of the matter is, once you get too deep into this thing you’ve got the alligator by the tail, and if you let him go he’s going to turn around and bite the hell out of you. So I was hooked. My wife says I’m still hooked.
BM: There was a conference. You gave a speech… I wrote a column about it at the time.
RKM: That was in Baton Rouge?
BM: Yeah, it was in Baton Rouge.
RKM: That’s the first speech I ever made. That was a “Brown Marsh” speech.
BM: It was directed at these businessmen, and you were basically saying, “This is more than just an environmental issue, and you need a healthy environment to have a healthy business in this area.” So, what was the reaction? You were still working at the bank then.
RKM: That was early… That was 2000 I think.
BM: Yeah. What was the reaction from other businessmen at the time? Did they think you’d gone green on them?
RKM: No, I never heard that. But you know, if you think about businessmen who are in business, their business is to do their work — to perform a function — and with a good one that’s about 100% of their time and effort, for God’s sake. Some of them have an interest in the other issues, but it is somewhat rare for them to kind of step out, because they don’t know the implications of it. I think that, over time, they’ve become more and more convinced that these issues are the ones that have to be dealt with. So, I mean, it’s not a question of them jumpin’ up and down and saying this is what we’ve got to do. If they just remain quiet for some time that’s almost as good, and that’s proven to be the case.
BM: If you were a doctor and the southeast Louisiana coast was your patient, what condition would you describe the patient to be in?
RKM: Oh boy. We’re on a respirator.
BM: Respirator? So – past critical?
RKM: It is. Maybe that’s too harsh, because I do believe we can do some major things. But I mean, so much of the damage has been done, and we’re in a position now where — and the Master Plan clearly establishes it — we’ve got to do dramatic things to handle the implications of a damaging factor that has been inherent in our operation here for 80 years. And the sooner we begin to deal with these long term issues, the sooner we will be able to see the beginnings of recovery. Even so, that recovery may not really mark itself truthfully until 20 or 30 years down the road, but you’ve got to be there. After all, the Mississippi River made us — the sediment and fresh water and nutrients are what created this massive ecosystem out there that has protected everybody in this part of the world for years and years — and we’re losing it.
Support for The Louisiana Coast: Last Call comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, an organization that addresses the challenges facing people who live and work in the coastal communities of Southeast Louisiana.
The Louisiana Coast: Last Call is written and reported by Bob Marshall of The Lens, and produced by Fred Kasten.