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Louisiana's Wetlands On Assignment

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Louisiana's Wetlands
Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you about the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.

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The Lost Coast

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Gone with the Water (continued)

Photograph by Tyrone Turner    
By Joel K. Bourne, Jr.
Photographs by
Robert Caputo and Tyrone Turner

The Louisiana bayou, hardest working marsh in America, is in big trouble—with dire consequences for residents, the nearby city of New Orleans, and seafood lovers everywhere.

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Denise Reed, however, proposes doing just that—letting the river run. A coastal geomorphologist at the University of New Orleans, Reed is convinced that breaching the levees with a series of gated spillways would pump new life into the dying marshes. Only three such diversions currently operate in the state. I catch up with Reed at the most controversial of the lot—a 26-million-dollar culvert just south of New Orleans named Caernarvon.
"Caernarvon is a prototype, a demonstration of a technique," says Reed as we motor down a muddy canal in a state boat. The diversion isn't filling the marsh with sediments on a grand scale, she says. But the effect of the added river water—loaded as it is with fertilizer from farm runoff—is plain to see. "It turns wetlands hanging on by the fingernails into something quite lush," says Reed.
To prove her point, she points to banks crowded with slender willows, rafts of lily pads, and a wide shallow pond that is no longer land, no longer liquid. More like chocolate pudding. But impressive as the recovering marsh is, its scale seems dwarfed by the size of the problem. "Restoration is not trying to make the coast look like a map of 1956," explains Reed. "That's not even possible. The goal is to restore healthy natural processes, then live with what you get."
Even that will be hard to do. Caernarvon, for instance, became a political land mine when releases of fresh water timed to mimic spring floods wiped out the beds of nearby oyster farmers. The oystermen sued, and last year a sympathetic judge awarded them a staggering 1.3 billion dollars. The case threw a major speed bump into restoration efforts.
Other restoration methods—such as rebuilding marshes with dredge spoil and salt-tolerant plants or trying to stabilize a shoreline that's eroding 30 feet (10 meters) a year—have had limited success. Despite the challenges, the thought of doing nothing is hard for most southern Louisianans to swallow. Computer models that project land loss for the next 50 years show the coast and interior marsh dissolving as if splattered with acid, leaving only skeletal remnants. Outlying towns such as Shell Beach, Venice, Grand Isle, and Cocodrie vanish under a sea of blue pixels.
Those who believe diversions are the key to saving Louisiana's coast often point to the granddaddy of them all: the Atchafalaya River. The major distributary of the Mississippi River, the Atchafalaya, if left alone, would soon be the Mississippi River, capturing most of its flow. But to prevent salt water from creeping farther up the Mississippi and spoiling the water supply of nearby towns and industries, the Corps of Engineers allows only a third of the Mississippi's water to flow down the Atchafalaya. Still, that water and sediment have produced the healthiest wetlands in Louisiana. The Atchafalaya Delta is one of the few places in the state that's actually gaining ground instead of losing it. And if you want to see the delta, you need to go crabbing with Peanut Michel.
"Peanut," it turns out, is a bit of a misnomer. At six foot six and 340 pounds, the 35-year-old commercial fisherman from Morgan City wouldn't look out of place on the offensive line of the New Orleans Saints. We launch his aluminum skiff in the predawn light, and soon we're skimming down the broad, café au lait river toward the newest land in Louisiana. Dense thickets of needlegrass, flag grass, cut grass, and a big-leafed plant Michel calls elephant ear crowd the banks, followed closely by bushy wax myrtles and shaggy willows.
Michel finds his string of crab pots a few miles out in the broad expanse of Atchafalaya Bay. Even this far from shore the water is barely five feet deep. As the sun ignites into a blowtorch on the horizon, Michel begins a well-oiled ritual: grab the bullet-shaped float, shake the wire cube of its clicking, mottled green inhabitants, bait it with a fish carcass, and toss. It's done in fluid motions as the boat circles lazily in the water.

But it's a bad day for crabbing. The wind and water are hot, and only a few crabs dribble in. And yet Michel is happy. Deliriously happy. Because this is what he wants to do. "They call 'em watermen up in Maryland," he says with a slight Cajun accent. "They call us lunatics here. You got to be crazy to be in this business."
Despite Michel's poor haul, Louisiana's wetlands are still a prolific seafood factory, sustaining a commercial fishery that most years lands more than 300 million dollars' worth of finfish, shrimp, oysters, crabs, and other delicacies. How long the stressed marshes can maintain that production is anybody's guess. In the meantime, Michel keeps at it. "My grandfather always told me, Don't live to be rich, live to be happy," he says. And so he does.
After a few hours Michel calls it a day, and we head through the braided delta, where navigation markers that once stood at the edge of the boat channel now peek out of the brush 20 feet (six meters) from shore. At every turn we flush mottled ducks, ibis, and great blue herons. Michel, who works as a hunting guide during duck season, cracks an enormous grin at the sight. "When the ducks come down in the winter," he says, "they'll cover the sun."
To folks like Peanut Michel, the birds, the fish, and the rich coastal culture are reason enough to save Louisiana's shore, whatever the cost. But there is another reason, one readily grasped by every American whose way of life is tethered not to a dock, but to a gas pump: These wetlands protect one of the most extensive petroleum infrastructures in the nation.

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Special Edition
Find coverage on Hurricane Katrina and learn how you can help.
Should the federal government spend billions of dollars to stem the tide of wetland loss in Louisiana? Cast your vote then join the Forum.

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Flashback to 1938 when an ivorybill woodpecker jumped from its nest in a Louisiana swamp, climbed up guide J. J. Kuhn's arm, and perched on his cap.

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Loiusiana's Department of Wildlife and Fisheries estimates that currently over 63,000 acres (25,000 hectares) of coastal wetlands have been demolished, or chomped, by the now ubiquitous nutria. The large, marsh-loving rodent, somewhere between a muskrat and a beaver, was brought to Louisiana from South America in the 1930s for the fur industry and has since claimed Louisiana's coastal wetlands as home. The Department of Wildlife and Fisheries is hoping to control nutria populations by encouraging Louisianans to trap them. And eat them.
Nutria meat, also called ragondin, is likened to rabbit or dark turkey meat. It is higher in protein and lower in both fat and cholesterol than beef, chicken, and even turkey. Though nutria is difficult to find on menus, the department hopes it will one day become a popular dish and has even posted recipes on its website: So remember, "Nutria: Good for You. Good for Louisiana."

—Mary Jennings
Did You Know?

Related Links
Maintained by the National Wetlands Research Center, this is an excellent site for articles, newsletters, and general background information on Louisiana's disappearing coastline and the restoration efforts to save it.
Save Louisiana Wetlands
Find out more information about this program run by Louisiana's Department of Natural Resources.
Louisiana Coastal Area Ecosystem Restoration Plan
A comprehensive site that includes history and statistics on the coastal area, land change maps, and a link to the LCA draft plan.
National Wetlands Research Center
Read factsheets, news releases, and hot topics on Louisiana's coastline and wetlands in general, from this research center of the U.S. Geological Survey.


Barry, John. Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America. Simon and Schuster, 1998.
Hallowell, Christopher. Holding Back the Sea: The Struggle for America's Natural Legacy on the Gulf Coast. HarperCollins Publishers, 2001.
Streever, Bill. Saving Louisiana? The Battle for Coastal Wetlands. University Press of Mississippi, 2001.
Tidwell, Mike. Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana's Cajun Coast. Vintage Books, 2004.


NGS Resources
Swain, Christopher. "Then & There." National Geographic Adventure (September 2002), 42-3.
Tourtellot, Jonathan B. "The Wealth of Marshes." National Geographic Traveler (July/August 1996), 24, 26-7.
Rinard, Judith E. "Down by the Riverside Supersize." National Geographic World (October 1993), 15-22.


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