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The Planet

December 1997, Volume 4, number 10

Keep the Atchafalaya Wet and Wild

by John Byrne Barry

If the Mississippi River had its way, it would take a short cut to the Gulf of Mexico. Over the past 5,000 years, the river has shifted course through southern Louisiana at least seven times. Now it's set to shift again, take a westward turn at Old River, 150 miles northwest of Baton Rouge, and surge through the Atchafalaya River, its main distributary, to the gulf. Hydrologists say the Atchafalaya ("ah-CHA-fa-LIE-ah") wants to "capture" the Mississippi and become the "master stream."

Since the last time the Mississippi changed course, however, a non-movable civilization has been built on its banks -- the cities of New Orleans and Baton Rouge and, between them, a huge industrial infrastructure that's home to Dow Chemical, Exxon, Du Pont and Texaco, among others.

Letting nature take its course is unthinkable. Fifty years ago, when evidence first indicated this course shift was impending, the U.S. Congress sent in the Army -- the Army Corps of Engineers, that is -- which today, through a series of structures like dams and locks, controls the flow of almost all the water in southern Louisiana.
This was the backdrop for the Sierra Club's Atchafalaya Heritage Festival, which took place on Oct. 25 in Henderson, La., on the western edge of the Atchafalaya Swamp. The all-day event started with a sunrise photography workshop at McGee's Landing and culminated with three Cajun bands playing dance music deep into the night.

By the time darkness fell and the first band played its last number, practically everyone there -- the Cajun couples circling on the concrete dance floor, the musicians and the hundreds of others -- was wearing a button that read, "Louisiana Wildlife Need Wild Places -- Sierra Club."

That's because landscape architecture professor and longtime Delta Chapter volunteer Charlie Fryling had been working the crowd, describing the Club and its concerns about the Atchafalaya's ecology. "I told them we want to keep the basin wet and wild -- to protect the wildlife, to maintain the culture and to allow people to keep supporting themselves fishing and hunting."

The impetus for the festival started last summer when Club field staffer Sarah Craven and Environmental Public Education Coordinator Maura Wood were seeking ways to reach the communities surrounding the swamp. They first met with the owner of a swamp-boat dock and pretty soon pulled together cooks, quilters, canoe builders, Cajun bands, representatives from the Army Corps, photographers, restaurants as well as the mayor and sheriff.
More than 200 people explored the basin in the morning -- bicycling, canoeing, hiking, taking photographs -- and close to 1,000 attended the festival, despite intermittent thunderstorms. At a nearby restaurant, Fryling presented a slide show promoting ecotourism in the basin. Inside one of the five tents, geologist and Club activist Barry Kohl educated participants about mercury contamination in Louisiana's waterways. In the cooking tent, Cajun cooks prepared crawfish etoufe and rabbit sauce piquant.

The Atchafalaya Basin, 20 miles wide and 150 miles long and confined by levees on both sides, is slowly filling up with silt. The Army Corps' plan, which the Sierra Club helped develop 20 years ago, would pump more water into the basin, but the Corps has been dragging its feet on its implementation. "To keep the Atchafalaya wild, we need to keep it wet," said Fryling.

With the help of its new allies in Henderson, the Club is working to create the Atchafalaya Trace -- a scenic byway around the swamp, which will include hiking trails and bicycle paths. The Club wants to promote this kind of project because it brings jobs and money into the basin while preserving its unique character.
Dozens of Club volunteers contributed to making the Atchafalaya festival a success, including Harold Schoeffler of the Acadian Group, who led the morning canoe tour; Chapter Chair Barbara Vincent and Political Chair Jay Vincent; Margaret Smith, Lorri Moore, Jeri Becnel and David Lindenfeld of the Baton Rouge Group; and Jeanne de la Houssaye of the New Orleans Group.

For more information: Contact Sarah Craven at (504) 383-7900.

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