Crass as it may seem, there was a time when Hurricane Katrina, even after she struck, looked like south Louisiana's possible savior. “Hopefully, we won't piss away this opportunity,” says Ted Falgout, director of Port Fourchon, the hub of Louisiana's oil and gas support services at the edge of the Gulf of Mexico.
For years state and local officials had appealed to Washington for money to stem the deterioration of the wetlands that skirt much of the Louisiana coast. In 1998 the requested amount had grown to a whopping $14 billion, a sum calculated after years of community and technocrat meetings that culminated in a plan to save south Louisiana. It called for the restoration and stabilization of Louisiana's coastal wetlands through a combined effort: diverting sediment- and nutrient-bearing freshwater from the Mississippi River into the wetlands, pumping sediment from the floor of the Gulf of Mexico, and bolstering barrier islands.
Pre-Katrina, the state's appeal fell mostly on deaf ears in Washington. Three weeks before the vicious hurricane swept through the Gulf, the U.S. Congress signed into law an energy bill that allocated only $540 million over four years for coastal restoration in Louisiana. Reasons for the reluctance to hand over money are several. The state is one of the poorest in the country, and it has a history of corruption. It is known principally for good times—music, food, Mardi Gras—not for serious stuff like producing 25 percent of this country's oil and gas and up to 25 percent of its seafood.
Too, Louisiana is known for squabbles over wetlands-protection policies. Oystermen have sued the state, claiming sediment pumped from the Mississippi has ruined oyster beds; navigation interests fought for the maintenance of destructive canals through the wetlands, as did the oil industry. Everybody with a stake in south Louisiana fought for their interests, not for the good of south Louisiana.
Yet the wetlands are a commons, acting as a buffer against storm surges. Every 2.7-mile swath of wetlands provides enough resistance to dampen storm surges by one foot. Their muck is a bed for the maze of oil and gas pipelines that cross the coast, and they are a vital nursery for crabs, shrimp, and finfish.
For decades Louisiana's coastal wetlands—40 percent of the total in the Lower 48—have been declining by an average of 16,000 acres per year. The reasons are not hard to find. The Mississippi River has been so leveed during the past 100 years that spring's replenishing runoffs have been unable to flood into the wetlands, which, literally starved, have compacted and subsided. The oil and gas industry has dredged miles of canals through the wetlands, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has carved navigation channels. Such assaults have exacerbated erosion as storm surges, tides, and boat wakes have relentlessly torn away at soft banks.
More recently sea levels are rising in the Gulf, in part from global warming, at a rate of one to two feet per century. And the coast, soft and starving, is sinking in places, including New Orleans, at a rate of 1.5 feet per century. It was never a matter of if disaster would strike the Crescent City, but when.
Then, on the morning of August 29, the awful happened: the levees broke. Misery and mayhem washed over New Orleans like a medieval plague; swaths of Mississippi and Alabama were leveled. Suddenly, talk of ecological restoration took an understandable backseat to the wrenching tragedy playing out on American TV screens. Even advocates of wetland repair were left speechless. “We don't know what this means. We will have to rethink the entire coastal restoration business,” says Shea Penland, a geophysicist at the University of New Orleans who has spent years restoring barrier islands.
Today, as the region embarks on what could be the world's largest-ever reconstruction project, costing as much as $300 billion, scientists and environmentalists alike are urging that ecologically sound protection be part of the effort. To this end, the state of Louisiana is requesting that the recovery plan include $14 billion for coastal restoration. “I don't know what to expect,” says S. Jeffress Williams, a coastal geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, who is based at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. “But if you rebuild New Orleans, you are going to have to restore the wetlands and the barrier islands.”
This sentiment is already gaining momentum. “We anticipate a positive outcome as far as wetlands protection,” says David Vigh, co-chair for science and technology for the Louisiana Coastal Area Project, a state and Army Corps partnership. “Our mission is to be innovative in restoration techniques.” One may be the long-distance transport of proper marsh-building sediments to the diminished wetlands, an expensive proposition but one Vigh sees the government now more willing to finance. Another may be installing interlocking rock jetties to protect barrier islands.
It sometimes takes a catastrophe to bring change. “If our response to this storm is not as dramatic and far-reaching as the storm itself, we have failed many generations in the future,” says Bruce Reid, director of Lower Mississippi River programs for Audubon. “I couldn't live with myself if I knew we had not made every effort to change things for the better.”
—By Christopher Hallowell
As day breaks over 112,000-acre Leech Lake in northern Minnesota, a boat lands on Little Pelican Island. Two figures sneak ashore and quickly duck into blinds. Thousands of double-crested cormorants, common terns, and ring-billed gulls, momentarily disturbed, settle again onto their nests. Then begin the muffled yet methodical shots from .22-caliber pellet guns. After two hours the government sharpshooters circulate among the nests and collect as many as 300 cormorant carcasses.
For a month this past spring this scenario played out almost daily as the United States Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services unit killed 3,000 cormorants, about 80 percent of Leech's nesting pairs, to protect the lake's vaunted sport fishery. The cull, one of the most extensive control efforts in North America, will probably resume next spring.
“I think they've handled it real well, though personally, I don't think they've done enough,” says Warren Anderson, owner of Northland Lodge, about three miles from the cormorant colony.
While resort owners and anglers have demanded that the cormorants be controlled, the killing isn't universally supported. “A management decision is being made with no data to back it up,” says Mark Martell, director of bird conservation for Audubon Minnesota. “That's bad for birds; it's bad for fish.”
Leech Lake isn't unique. Under federal permits, cormorants have been shot, their nests destroyed, and their eggs oiled in Arkansas, Georgia, Michigan, New York, and Vermont. In 2004 more than 3,000 cormorants were killed on public lands and water, and thousands of eggs and nests were destroyed, says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Private landowners destroy far more—an estimated 30,000 each year—on fish farms and commercial minnow ponds.
Throughout much of North America, the double-crested cormorant has become a victim of its own success. Cormorant populations declined precipitously in the mid-20th century as the birds were shot and contaminated by pesticides. But as a result of the ban on DDT, protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and a new food source in the form of Deep South fish farms, cormorants proliferated, and they now number an estimated 2 million.
There have been repercussions. Adult cormorants eat about a pound of small fish daily. They congregate by the thousands, spreading their black wings to dry—a pose some people find frightening. “Cormorants have become a scapegoat, I'm afraid,” says Martell. “If loons were blamed, I don't think they would be taking this action.”
On Leech Lake, cormorants went missing for decades. They reappeared in 1992, grew to 73 nesting pairs in 1998, then to 2,524 in 2004. “There was no end in sight,” says Steve Mortensen, biologist for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, which owns the island and is one of several agencies involved. Small walleyes disappeared as the cormorant population soared. “I think there was enough evidence that something was going on,” Mortensen says.
“I would question other mortality factors,” including weather and invasive species in the lake, says Linda Wires, a University of Minnesota research associate who has studied cormorants statewide and nationally. The control program “perpetuates this idea that we have to control nature,” she says. “Really we need to be controlling ourselves. There are a lot of other places people can go and fish.”
—By Greg Breining
There's real bonding here,” Delle Nadler said, taking a break with her chapter colleagues at the Hog Island Audubon Camp just off the Maine coast. “We're opening ourselves to new ideas, learning from others, and finding that our own voice can make a difference. This is a confidence-building experience.”
Nadler, president of the Council of Ohio Audubon Chapters and an advancement coordinator for Crown Point Ecology Center, was one of 26 activists from across the country who gathered here in August for the first Audubon Leadership Workshop. The experimental session was designed to bring these leaders together with key staff members to help raise Audubon's effectiveness, at all levels of the organization. Hog Island, managed by the Maine Audubon Society, holds a special place in the history of environmental education. It has served as a professional-development site for schoolteachers. Legendary field ornithologists, from Roger Tory Peterson to Kenn Kaufman, worked here as birding instructors. August's group of activists were spending a week on the 330-acre island, brainstorming in roundtable sessions, visiting the Atlantic puffin colony on Eastern Egg Rock where Muscongus Bay joins the open sea, and walking through the island's dark forests, meditating on what they had seen and heard.
“For me, new to chapter activities, it's been important to learn about the chapter network,” said Jesse Buff, a board member of the Audubon Society of the District of Columbia, who works in international development. “We're trying to be a more active chapter in local conservation issues, and here I've heard about the wide range of activities chapters are involved in across the country. It's good to see the link between the chapters and the national office. We can't have one without the other.”
The workshop's daily sessions addressed conservation on both the national (protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, for example, and safeguarding the Endangered Species Act) and the chapter level (for instance, using the Audubon at Home program to encourage property owners to plant native species). At the workshop's end, everyone came away with ideas to take home to their chapters. Les Corey, Audubon's chief field operations officer, was especially encouraged by the number of young people who attended, guaranteeing a supply of future leaders. “Audubon's mission is to save birds, to provide habitats in which they can survive,” he said. “That helps other species, too—including people. These leaders are leaving with the sense that chapters need to be more focused on that mission.”
The plan is to continue the workshops in future summers, recruiting perhaps 50 activists next year. As one pumped-up, hardworking participant suggested, with an eye to the spartan conditions at Hog Island: “Tell them to bring cushions!”
—By Frank Graham Jr.
© 2005 National Audubon Society
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