Awareness of Wetlands Loss
Captain Thomas “Tom”
Billiot steered the Lafitte Skiff down the murky waters of Bayou Segnette
through the moss-clad Cypress swamps of southern Louisiana. Tourists from all corners of the world listened intently as Billiot,
with a rich Cajun accent, narrated the journey into the vast wetlands.
“Have you seen any
water moccasins?” asked one passenger.
“I guess some of the
best water moccasins I’ve seen, I’ve seen inside gators’ jaws,”
Billiot explained. The boat
captain picked up a jar next to the “feed the captain’s gator” tip
box and showed the amazed passengers a preserved water moccasin. And of course the curious tourists wanted to know all about the
“Over the years, I’ve
been able to name the gators. I’ve
seen the same ones. I feed
the alligators marshmallows,” Billiot said, holding up a bag of the
white puffy treats he keeps for his reptile friends. He explained that alligators stay hidden during the cold winter
months. In early spring and
summer, tourists usually spot numerous alligators during the swamp tour.
Billiot, a native of
Louisiana and a licensed captain for more than 20 years, has also fished
the abundant waters of Louisiana for most of his life. He demonstrated his fishing expertise to his fellow passengers as
he stopped the boat and checked several of his crab nets along the bayou.
From egrets, blue herons,
and nutria to Cajun houseboats, shrimp boats and fishermen in pirogues,
the tourists were able to capture a quick glimpse of Louisiana wildlife
and culture during their two-hour cruise with Cypress Swamp Tours. The swamp tour, which departs from Westwego, is about a 20 minute
drive from the French Quarter.
However, Billiot not only
talked gators, snakes and other swamp creatures most folks expect to hear
about during a typical swamp tour, he also talked storm walls, hurricanes
and coastal erosion.
“You see the hurricane
and flood walls here,” Billiot said, as he pointed to a wall behind the
Cypress trees. “Years ago,
the bayou never used to be this wide. But now, it’s kind of washed out from the storms and all. In another five or six years, you won’t see any of these trees. The water will be all the way up to the wall. It’s not just here on our swamp tour. It’s all over Louisiana, from here to Texas. It’s the whole
bottom of the state.”
Cypress Academy, the
educational division of Cypress Swamp Tours, also offers seminars on a
wide variety of environmental preservation and restoration topics
throughout the year. Cypress
hopes to educate tourists of their mission – to nurture and restore
Louisiana’s wetlands. And
with the growing trend of ecotourism, nature seekers can get a first hand
glimpse of Louisiana’s plight by venturing through the wetlands.
According to the
Louisiana Department of Natural Resources Office of Coastal Restoration
and Management, Louisiana’s coastal wetlands, the vast area where the
Gulf of Mexico blends with the state’s many rivers and bayous to form
one the of the most productive ecosystems in North America, are facing
enormous problems. Louisiana
currently experiences 80 percent of the nation’s coastal wetland loss at
a rate of 25 to 35 square miles per year. Even with the current level of restoration activity, Louisiana
could lose another 1,000 square miles of coastal land by the year 2050. The Gulf of Mexico could advance inland as much as 33 miles in some
areas, transforming open land into open water.
Many towns and cities,
such as Houma and New Orleans, would be exposed to open marine forces of
the Gulf of Mexico without the protective buffer currently provided by the
wetlands. This scale of
wetland loss could potentially cost the State of Louisiana and its
residents not only their homes and livelihoods, but billions of dollars in
commercial and recreational fisheries harvest, mineral revenues, weather
borne commerce, and protection from the impacts of hurricanes and tropical
storms. The economic and
environmental impacts of such a loss would be felt throughout North
America, the Department of Natural Resources said.
“One of the things
I’m working on right now and implementing in the next couple of weeks is
to train our captains to give a very cogent presentation of the issues
that are facing coastal Louisiana and why they’re important to the
nation,” Dr. Bob Thomas, director of Loyola Center for Environmental
Communications and Louisiana naturalist with Cypress Swamp Tours, said.
“We handle about a
hundred thousand people a year on our swamp tour and over a million people
a year go on swamp tours…We know we have a real opportunity to educate
lots of people about the interconnections with their own states and
coastal Louisiana – fisheries, oil and gas exploration, shipping. Also, the fact that coastal Louisiana contains one of the top three
petrochemical plants that provides products which support all types of
fabrication in the United States,” Thomas, who has been involved with
environmental education associated with coastal erosion for the past 25
requirements to preserve and restore Louisiana wetlands are beyond the
capacity of Louisiana or any single state. It would take a national effort to save the Louisiana wetlands,”
Thomas referred to
“Coast 2050: Toward a Sustainable Coastal Louisiana,” a plan which
would guide the spending of the money that comes from the Coastal Wetlands
Planning, Protection and Restoration Act. The plan, which was finalized in December 1998, outlines how the
Louisiana coast should look in the year 2050 and would cost $14 billion
over the next 30 years to implement.
“Coast 2050 means, what
is the coast going to look like in 2050. The whole planning process was how much are we going to lose and it
would take $14 billion to save that. And what does the nation get for that $14 billion? We feel that the total resources that come from our zone is about
$300 billion. But it only
takes $14 billion to conserve that. We’re
talking about a national resource base, not just a Louisiana resource
base,” Thomas further explained.
Burnette of Cypress Swamp Tours agrees. “The best thing that can be done is to educate people, that when
legislative actions come along, they will know. First and foremost you have to have an educated public. Obviously, it’s going to take a huge amount of money. That money can’t be sought after if those people don’t care
what’s going on,” Burnette said.
“The bayou is used by
more and more people. We want
to teach them and let them see. One
of the things I do is with our live animals. When people have a chance to touch a live animal, they start to
connect with living things. They
realize not only is it bad for humans, but there are other things out
there. It’s definitely
strong stuff. They won’t
remember all the things, but they will understand the swamps and marsh are
in trouble. And then they go
back to the Quarter and have some shrimp or other seafood, that’s a way
to impact them. So when their
congressman calls them up to say what do you think about wetlands, they
will have something to say,” Burnette said.
where the travelers actually get involved in the site they are visiting,
continues to rise annually. In
1997, it increased by 10 to 15 percent annually and was anticipated to
account for $12 billion in worldwide tourism-related travel expenditures,
according to information provided by Bo Boehringer, communications
director for the Louisiana Office of State Parks.
“The primary benefit of
ecotourism is that it helps the awareness. It introduces them to wetlands
and tells them it’s the primary nursery for fisheries in Louisiana. If it were not for the wetlands surrounding not only New Orleans to
Lake Charles to Calishu…. All
of those are dependent on the protection that the wetlands give us,”
Carlton Dufrechou, executive director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin
“Until a decade or so,
the common feeling was that wetlands were swamps. It had kind of that dismal connotation that the Bogie Creek monster
lives out there. It’s a
place where tourists can see alligators, but it is much more than that. The wetland tours allow them to see this is not only the home of
the alligator. If we lose
wetlands, we will continue to see a depletion of our wetlands
resources,” Dufrechou explained.
“Coast 2050 project, it
is in my opinion the most comprehensive look we’ve ever done on
Louisiana. It’s not all
roses, it will take a tremendous commitment by not only the state, but
also the country. That is the
thrust of the argument. The
wetlands are very valuable to us here, but also with oil,” Dufrechou
Dufrechou said the basin
foundation sponsors a series of canoe trips and hikes in Pearl River,
Honey Island Swamp, and Alligator Bayou near Baton Rouge at a nominal
cost. And the primary reason for this mode of ecotourism is to increase
awareness on the value of wetlands.
“Even if 2050 were
fully implemented next year, we would still see land loss. The best we can do is at least have enough projects going on
so we can keep up with the land loss. It will not happen overnight. It will take decades to reach that point. And it will take a commitment from the country,” Dufrechou said.
David Frugé represents
the Department of the Interior on the Federal-State Louisiana Coastal
Wetlands Conservation and Restoration Task Force, created in 1990 by
Congressional legislation known as the Coastal Wetlands Planning,
Protection and Restoration Act (CWPPRA or Breaux Act). Frugé agrees that sustaining coastal Louisiana will take a
national commitment. "What
we have here is the Nation's premier coastal wetlands complex, but also
its greatest coastal land loss problem. Thanks to the Breaux Act, we've laid the groundwork for addressing
that problem, but an effective response will require a much greater
commitment of resources." CWPPRA
provides approximately $50 million a year for coastal protection and
restoration projects in Louisiana.
environmental specialist of the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary
Program, said the big problem Louisiana faces in order to restore coastal
Louisiana is lack of funding.
“The people who have
settled here, this gumbo culture, is dependent on the wetlands. And if the
wetlands go, the culture goes as well. And until we get national attention
to this effort, we are not going to get funding,” Schultz explained.
“We’re seeing people
from all over the country come here. And when they go out on a swamp tour,
they’re seeing the real beauty of Louisiana. When they hear the story of how it’s being lost, they have an
emotional attachment from having seen it and they can receive the message
better. It makes more of an impact,” Schultz said.
The Louisiana Department
of Natural Resources Office of Coastal Restoration and Management said
individuals can make a difference by promoting wetland restoration
efforts, attending local meetings, practicing conservation of wetland
resources by following fishing and hunting regulations, not littering, and
by education. They can also help by participating in beach cleanups,
environmental education programs, field trips to coastal wetlands, and
Christmas tree programs.
To learn more about
Louisiana’s wetlands, visit the Louisiana Coastal Restoration Website,