While the Mississippi was walled off, the Atchafalaya River remained mostly natural. Now its cypress swamps show that commerce and wetlands protection can co-exist.
Part 8 of Losing Louisiana, a series originally published in onEarth.
DEAN WILSON CUTS THE ENGINE. Stillness surrounds us in the Atchafalaya Basin, two hours west of New Orleans. Cypress trees draped with Spanish moss rise from both sides of this canal, and a raft of invasive water hyacinth and other aquatic plants spreads from the banks. There’s a fertility to this swamp that I have only experienced here in South Louisiana: it is neither lake nor forest but somehow both, dense and open all at once. And it’s brimming with large birds that crosshatch the canopy. So many birds sit in front of us that Wilson doesn’t want to get any closer and risk scaring them off.
He reaches down for his binoculars and passes them back so we can get a better look. On the cypress stumps and low-lying branches are dozens of white ibises, wetlands-loving nomads with red bills that curve and point like crescent moons during an eclipse. Across the canal, we see even more distinctive creatures: a cluster of roseate spoonbills, their feathers deep pink from their crustacean-rich diet. They have pale green heads and spatula-like bills, which they swing from side to side underwater while feeding.
“They were nearly eradicated in North America,” says Wilson, who lives at the edge of the swamp in a community called Bayou Sorrel. “They were killed for their feathers, for ladies’ hats.” The spoonbills are protected now, and their numbers have rebounded from double digits in the early 20th century to more than 30,000 today continent-wide. Still, seeing them is treat: Wilson tells us that finding roseate spoonbills on one of his swamp tours is a hit-or-miss proposition. The other day, a customer offered Wilson a $25 bonus to find some, to no avail.
The Atchafalaya Basin, a 1.4-million-acre landscape that includes the nation’s largest river swamp, is a phenomenal wildlife habitat. “It’s the doorway of the Mississippi Flyway,” Wilson says. “Nearly the entire eastern population of neotropical migrants comes through Louisiana’s coastal forests, including this one.” Wilson is not your average guide: he is the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, one of about 200 like-minded individuals who patrol rivers, deltas, swamps, and sounds on six continents. Wilson’s organization is a part of the Waterkeeper Alliance, a coalition founded in 1999 by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
For environmental advocates, the Basin has another distinction beyond its wildlife: it is the only part of the Louisiana coastline that is gaining, rather than losing, wetlands. The Atchafalaya River, which feeds the Basin, was never fully leveed, which means fresh water containing land-building sediments can wash over its banks during floods. By contrast, the Mississippi River is walled off for navigation and flood protection, which means it cannot replenish the surrounding wetlands as they naturally sink. Because of leveeing and other factors, Louisiana has lost more than 1.2 million acres since the 1930s, 10 times the land area of New Orleans.
The fact that the Atchafalaya is building land — while also supporting navigation and other commerce — is why scientists and activists had urged me to visit the Basin. “It’s an example of hope,” said Denise Reed, a professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of New Orleans. “It shows us that navigation and delta-building can co-exist. For so long, the future of the Louisiana coast has been set up as navigation versus restoration. And that is not the case. The Atchafalaya shows that absolutely graphically.”
For sure, the Atchafalaya offers inspiration and operating instructions for those looking to restore the rest of the coast. But the Basin is also threatened — not only by loggers who want to turn its cypresses into garden mulch, but also by human activity that is causing South Louisiana’s distinctive swamp to disappear.
The history of the Atchafalaya is complicated and fascinating. Fortunately, one of its biggest champions is also a colorful storyteller. So one Saturday morning, I drive to Oliver Houck’s house in Uptown New Orleans to hear about a battle that consumed 18 years of his life ensured there would still be a Basin left for me to visit.
“ONCE UPON A TIME,” HOUCK SAYS, “the Mississippi River had total freedom. It was just a wild, natural creature.” The director of Tulane University’s Environmental Law Program is sitting in his breezy kitchen, recounting the struggle to save the Atchafalaya Basin during the 1970s and ’80s. He begins, though, with a few thousand years of natural history.
As the Mississippi River flowed south, it carried in its fresh water enormous amounts of sediments, which got deposited at its delta. “It splayed back and forth across Louisiana like a hose, making land,” Houck says. One area would fill up, and the river would shift courses, and then the process would repeat itself until it found its current alignment through New Orleans. “But every time it wagged, it left a channel where it had been,” Houck said, “so you had relic Mississippis. And the last and greatest relic Mississippi was the Atchafalaya River.”
Both rivers nourished floodplains that were inundated in some months, dry in others. The result was Louisiana’s unique coastal ecosystems — and particularly its cypress-tupelo swamps, whose namesake trees required that oscillation between wet and dry. As humans settled Louisiana, they drained most of the swamps for development, leaving only the Atchafalaya in its natural state.
In 1953, the Army Corps of Engineers observed that more and more of the Mississippi was shifting back toward the Atchafalaya, which offers the straightest and steepest path to the Gulf. The Corps predicted that the Mississippi could change course as soon as 1990 without intervention. New Orleans would lose its port, and the concentration of industry that lines the river south of Baton Rouge would find itself stranded along a tidal creek. To prevent this upheaval, the Corps built a complex of engineering structures near the junction of the rivers to keep 70 percent of the flow headed toward New Orleans and the rest down the Atchafalaya. The first phase of the Old River Control Project went online in the early 1960s.
Using the Atchafalaya as a floodway was a “beautiful flood-control-cum-environmental solution,” Houck tells me. But under pressure from local landowners, whose property was far more valuable dry than wet, the Corps was already working on a project that was separate from the Old River control structure: digging a deep channel into the center of the river and building levees along its banks. This would help shoot water straight through to the Gulf. Unfortunately, in the process, it was also destroying swamp. By the early 1970s, the northern part of the river had been channelized and leveed, and its environs turned into soybean fields.
In 1971, Houck became the general counsel for the National Wildlife Federation. His very first phone call came from Charley Bosch, executive secretary of the Louisiana Wildlife Federation. Bosch invited Houck to come visit the wetlands that were in danger of decimation. “Charley took me out on his boat, and it didn’t take me much longer than that to realize this was a prehistorically beautiful place,” Houck says. “You could hear its biology. You could hear in the evening fish jumping all over its lakes — whap! whap! whap!” There were fish Houck had never seen before: “fish that looked like alligators, fish that looked like soccer balls.” The cypress, he says, “reached to the stars” like cathedrals.
After a decade of conversations, Houck convinced the Corps that drying the swamp was counterproductive: if people moved into the area, it could no longer be used as a floodway. David Treen, Louisiana’s Republican governor from 1980 to 1984, also came to support that position. Eventually Houck negotiated a deal with the landowners’ attorney: most of the basin would stay in private hands, and the owners would hold onto their oil and timber rights. There would be some restrictions to ensure extraction took place in a sustainable fashion. In addition, the government would buy 30,000 acres of the best virgin cypress swamp. Neither environmentalists nor property holders applauded the compromise, and there have been plenty of conflicts since. But it did stifle the landowners’ push for levees, making it, in Houck’s words, “the deal that saved the Atchafalaya.”
DEAN WILSON WAS A CHILD in his mother’s native Spain when the Atchafalaya struggle was first gearing up. But he was always drawn to wilderness. When Wilson was in his early twenties, he planned to move to the Amazon and live in an indigenous community. First, though, he wanted to acclimate himself to someplace hot and mosquitoey. He looked at a map of the United States, saw an empty space west of Baton Rouge, and decided to move there from Europe before he knew anything about the Atchafalaya.
“I found a landowner in the southern part of the Basin and he let me stay there,” Wilson recalls. He is 48, with shaggy salt-and-pepper hair and a serious style that emphasizes bluntness over niceties. “There were gates in the canal, so nobody could go there. I was by myself for four months. I stayed with my boat, a few arrows, a spear, and a few hooks. And I fell in love with the swamp. Just the idea that I could make a living hunting and fishing that beautiful place really attracted me. When I saw the trees with the new green in the spring, the water, and the blue sky with white egrets flying like angels, I fell in love with that.” Wilson ditched his Amazon plans, renovated a fishing shack in Bayou Sorrel, and fished commercially, mostly for crawfish, for 16 years.
In the 1990s, Wilson grew enraged by plans to log the basin’s cypresses to produce mulch for gardens. He contacted various environmental groups but couldn’t get much traction, he says. When the logging began in 2000, Wilson started leading boat tours through the swamp and became an activist himself. One of his tour-guide customers turned out to be a friend of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Not long afterward, Wilson received a call from Kennedy himself, and in 2005 he officially became the Basinkeeper.
In his new role, Wilson set his sights on stopping cypress logging: not just the live trees, but also the hollow shells that serve as animal habitat. The Basinkeeper program (along with many others) helped sideline an amendment proposed by U.S. Senator David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, to curtail the Army Corps’ enforcement powers on private land. Yet cypress removal continued, Wilson says, and “by the time we could prove it was illegal, the logging was over.” Wilson teamed up with SouthWings, a conservation group of volunteer pilots, to survey logging activity from the sky. He also followed and photographed logging trucks. Wilson knew that reporting his findings to enforcement agencies wasn’t enough, so he and others started meeting with giant retailers to educate them about the issue. In 2007 — the same year the Waterkeeper Alliance launched a public-education campaign — Wal-Mart agreed not to sell cypress mulch from Louisiana, while Lowe’s and Home Depot made more modest pledges. Wilson says that, to his knowledge, illicit logging in the Basin has slowed down considerably, if not completely stopped.
He worries, though, about a more intractable problem: while the Basin receives enough sediment to build wetlands in the deltas at its southern edge, not all the sediment ends up in the right locations. Some of it builds land too far north, in places that should be dominated by water. As a result, the Atchafalaya’s swamp — the ecosystem that gives South Louisiana its most distinctive character — is disappearing and being replaced by bottomland hardwood forest. Of all the threats to the basin, Wilson says, this is “the main one, the number one, the king of all of them.”
Others share his concern. Ecologist Bryan Piazza, director of freshwater and marine science for the Louisiana chapter of the Nature Conservancy, says the biggest culprit in this conversion of swamp to bottomland forest is the construction of canals for navigation and oil-and-gas extraction. “If a canal takes sediment directly into a cypress swamp, and it’s shooting it in like a pipe, you actually build mini-deltas in the swamp. These are unnatural. They’re not supposed to be there. The sediment is supposed to be going to the coast to build wetlands.”
Bottomland forests are not inherently bad, Piazza says. But Louisiana’s cypress swamps are ideal for hurricane protection — not to mention “American treasures.” Elsewhere along the coast, cypresses are dying off from saltwater intrusion into the wetlands. This makes the Atchafalaya all the more important. Besides, Piazza says, “can you picture Louisiana without cypress forest?”
THE FIRST STOP ON MY BOAT TOUR of the Atchafalaya with Wilson is an area that’s in no way natural. It’s an abandoned industrial complex rising from the water on wooden pilings: wide tanks for oil, narrow tanks for natural gas, pipelines and platforms and rusting buildings. Though he has passed this spot many times before, Wilson cannot contain his outrage.
“The oil companies, they’re going to go after the oil and natural gas the cheapest way possible,” he says. That means not only dredging canals through the swamp, but also finding legal ways to abandon the infrastructure. “When they finish drilling, they’re supposed to clean up their act. Oil is not like a big lake underneath the ground. They’ve got different reservoirs at different depths.” Big companies extracted the easiest pickings, he says — and then, “when there was very little left, they sold the mineral rights to smaller oil companies.” On signs posted in the basin, owner names change with enough frequency that “if you see breaking pipes or tanks falling into the water, you try to make the companies clean it up and you can’t.”
As we pull further away from Bayou Sorrel, the evidence of human intrusion gets more scant, though it never disappears. Wilson points out fresh alligator tracks on a muddy bank, and we see kingfisher and great blue heron. Eventually he spots an anhinga, also known as snake bird for the serpentine neck that sticks out from the water when its lower body is submerged. This one has gotten some frayed trotline caught around its beak, and appears to be weak from starvation. Wilson approaches the frightened bird, but it dives under the water and reappears elsewhere. He tries again without success. “It would be so easy to fix him up,” Wilson said. “If only he knew.” He approaches again and again, trying to corner the anhinga against the bank without startling it any more than he needs to. After about 10 attempts, he announces, “I’m going to have to let it go. I don’t think I can catch him.”
Still, he tries 10 more times. He looks frustrated.
Wilson doesn’t like to steer away from a challenge, and the Atchafalaya Basin throws him many. “This is the world where I live today,” he says. “I do not want to die knowing that my generation was responsible for the destruction of the forest forever and I didn’t do anything about it.”