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Losing Ground

Special report: Wetlands' demise ripples across nation

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GANNETT NEWS SERVICE SPECIAL REPORT

Losing Ground

Wetland’s demise ripples across nation

It isn't easy getting the word out, marsh restoration advocates say

By DENNIS CAMIRE
Gannett News Service

NEW ORLEANS — The ecological disaster-in-the-making in Louisiana’s wetlands has been little heard outside the state.

Despite a couple of books, a few TV and radio programs, and newspaper articles, there has been little noticeable outcry, even among the environmental community, as almost 2,000 square miles of wetlands created by the Mississippi River have vanished since 1932.

To gain federal approval and taxpayer money for a $14 billion plan to put the brakes on the losses, the state is trying to drum up national support.

“There has to be, in fact, a will for someone in wherever — South Dakota — to say, ´Yeah, that’s of interest to me and I would like some of my tax dollars to go to fix it,’ ’’ said Fred Caver, deputy director of civil works for the Army Corps of Engineers.

But so far, Louisiana’s wetlands don’t have the visibility enjoyed by areas such as the Everglades, the Chesapeake Bay and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

One problem is that the wetlands are so vast and inaccessible that it is a landscape few know exists, said Robert Twilley, a wetlands ecologist with the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

“We don’t have an I-95 that runs through our landscape. We don’t have a national park that people visit,” he said. “We didn’t have a TV show in the 1950s called ´Wild, Wild Kingdom’ with Jack jumping out and wrestling alligators.”

Even in Louisiana, recognition of what was happening in the wetlands is probably not more than two decades old, said Randy Hanchey of the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

“Once you get into some of the Acadian French areas, historically these are the areas where people to some extent are isolationists,” he said. “I think they really didn’t want a lot of people getting involved in their business.’’

But that has changed. The state has launched an effort, called America’s Wetland, aimed at spreading word nationally about the wetland losses and its impact.

Sponsors include businesses, such as Shell Oil, ExxonMobil, Whitney Bank, the New Orleans Hornets basketball team and McIllhenny Co., makers of the famed Tabasco pepper sauce. Other partners include federal and local governments, business and trade associations and some state, regional and national environmental and conservation groups.

The Shell Oil Co. Foundation already has contributed $3 million to the campaign and the company is involved in several small-scale restoration projects.

“It’s very serious from the amount of resources we’re putting at it,” said Stacy P. Methvin, president of Shell Pipeline Co. of Houston and a member of the governor’s Advisory Commission on Coastal Restoration and Conservation.

That’s because the wetlands erosion is exposing oil and gas platforms and pipelines to the destructive power of the Gulf of Mexico’s waves and storms.

Paving the way for an eventual pitch for help to Congress, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., recently brought Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, to see the coastal area’s problems. After the tour, Domenici endorsed a proposal to target some federal royalty revenue from offshore oil and gas drilling to coastal restoration.

So far, only a few of the major environmental and conservation groups — including Environmental Defense, the National Wildlife Federation, Ducks Unlimited, and the National Audubon Society — have signed on to the wetland restoration effort.

Meanwhile, the Sierra Club is deferring to its state chapter. And the Izaak Walton League of America, which concentrates on wetlands, has not been playing an active role.

“It is true that for the national environmental community, restoring the Mississippi delta has not been a big priority,” said Jim Tripp, general counsel for Environmental Defense. “The environmental community hasn’t been persuaded that Louisiana as a state has a lot of environmental credibility and hasn’t had a whole lot of trust in the Corps of Engineers up until recently to do restoration work seriously.”

But, Tripp said, “Any environmentalist who looks at what has been going on in the Mississippi (River) delta has to be intensely unhappy about it, the loss of that kind of coastal estuarine resource, a resource which is by any measure a national resource.’’