MSU beach project earns Gulf Guardian Award

Contact: Bob Ratliff

A low-maintenance beach landscape design for Biloxi is earning two Mississippi State University faculty members a 2002 Gulf Guardian Award.

Professors Tom Cathcart and Pete Melby are among 18 being honored this year. Cathcart is a biological engineer; Melby, a landscape architect.

The awards are presented annually by the Gulf of Mexico Program at the John C. Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis. A partnership of public and private organizations, the program was formed in 1988 to develop strategies to protect, restore, and maintain the health and productivity of the gulf ecosystem.

The MSU team project began several years ago as part of the Biloxi Bay Chamber of Commerce's efforts to beautify a section of the U.S. Highway 90 median at Miramar Park. It since has grown to include an adjacent three-acre beachfront site.

"Our goal is to create a natural beach landscape in which plants would be allowed to grow without the interference of beach maintenance equipment," Melby said. "The site has remained untouched by beach equipment now for seven years and the upper beach area is attractive, stable, and biologically diverse."

During the past year, students under Cathcart's and Melby's direction have planted cabbage palms, black needle rush, smooth cord grass and other native plants to create a saltwater marsh.

"The plantings have been designed to protect the beach from erosion while making what was an empty stretch of sand and water more attractive," Melby said. "The marsh also is providing an aquatic habitat for blue crabs and other sea life."

The Mississippi State project is being carried out through the university's Center for Sustainable Design, which Cathcart and Melby established in 1997 to give landscape architecture and biological engineering students the opportunity to work on real-world projects.