After Hurricane Katrina, our thoughts at Audubon, like those in the rest of the country, turned to the people who lost everything, including, in hundreds of cases, their lives. As products of human nature, we worried especially about the individuals who we knew were there at the time. Among them was veteran field editor Frank Graham, whom we had sent to the lower Mississippi River to work on a story for a special issue set to run next spring. (Although he managed to avoid the worst-hit areas, Frank was trapped in Mississippi for several days before he could return home to Maine.)

Another writer for our upcoming Mississippi River issue, Chris Hallowell, had visited both the upper and lower parts of the river before the hurricane, and plans to head back in October. Chris, author of Holding Back the Sea: The Struggle for America's Natural Legacy on the Gulf Coast, is one of numerous journalists who warned of an impending disaster in the Gulf. A big reason for their concern was that Louisiana had lost wetlands—1,900 square miles of them between 1932 and 2000—and barrier islands that would have acted as a buffer to the floods (see Field Notes, “The Road to Recovery”). For years conservationists have fought for a $14 billion restoration plan, seeking to build support among the various stakeholders—farmers, fishermen, and even the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the oil and gas industry, which, while they contributed to the problems, stand to gain a lot from fixing them.

Since Katrina, the political situation has changed dramatically, with the question now being not whether the nation takes action but how much and how soon. The first order of business, of course, is addressing the tragedy's human dimensions. But there is another tragedy waiting to happen unless nature is accounted for, too.

One focus of our upcoming special issue will be progressive-minded farmers who are trying to limit agricultural runoff into the upper Mississippi—a problem that has helped cause the 4,565-square-mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Farmers have often been the objects of conservationists' ire, for creating this runoff as well as for beating up the earth and benefiting from a federal farm bill larded with all sorts of destructive programs. Jerry Goodbody, Audubon's managing editor and the editor of our special Working Lands package (see “Green Acres”) writes that conventional agriculture has “created massive amounts of soil erosion and toxic runoff that contaminates streams and rivers.” That spells bad news for the wildlife, including many endangered species, living on agricultural lands. In addition, it underscores the vital importance and the promise of the farm bill's conservation programs, which are featured in our package.

The package also includes profiles of four farmers, in California, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, and Minnesota, who fit the traditional mold, as Jerry writes, of farmers as “heroic defenders of our natural heritage.” Each has an inspiring story to tell. Scott Stone, for example (see “Healing Time"), a rancher in California's Sacramento Valley, is justly proud of the wildlife habitat he has restored by planting trees and shrubs and building ponds. “You have to give something back to the land,” Stone says. “You can't just take and take. We're aiming for harmonic balance.” Today his timing couldn't be better.


© 2005 National Audubon Society

Sound off! Send a letter to the editor about this piece.

Enjoy Audubon on-line? Check out our print edition!