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Nature Conservancy Begins Long-Term Restoration Effort In Atchafalaya Basin

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Ann Marie Awad
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The Atchafalaya Basin is a wedge of wetlands that stretches south to the Gulf of Mexico between the Atchafalaya and Mississippi Rivers. At a million-plus acres, it's America's largest freshwater swamp--and it's long been at risk. But with a new land purchase, The Nature Conservancy will experiment with fixes to those problems.

Bryan Piazza and Jim Bergan are scientists for The Nature Conservancy. Floating in a boat through the heart of the Atchafalaya Basin near Bayou Sorel, they quietly name the birds chirping overhead.

"We're hearing Prothonitary Worblers, Carolina Wrens, Red Bellied Woodpecker, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, red shouldered hawk...did I miss any, Jim?" Piazza asks.

"Cardinal," Bergan says.

"Ah, Northern Cardinal."

The Nature Conservancy just bought over 5,000 acres of land here.

Before The Nature Conservancy, A. Wilbert's Sons owned this property for generations. As Vic Blanchard explains, Wilbert’s has a long history:

"The company was formed way back in 1850 or so, when a German immigrant by the name of Anton Wilbert came over from Copelands, Germany. He was by trade a coffin and a cabinet maker, so he was interested in buying cypress timber to have a resource for his occupation. He had nine children, hence the name A. Wilbert’s Sons, which took the business over after him."

Blanchard is the company’s land manager. Today, Wilbert's uses their land for a lot of things, chiefly timber harvesting, oil and gas exploration, and hunting leases. According to Blanchard, Wilbert's has owned the property sold to The Nature Conservancy for 128 years—the company doesn't sell much land. They manage their properties to be sustainable.

But that sustainability is getting tougher to achieve.

"The main problem I see with the Basin is the hydrology now," Blanchard says. "It's just inundated for too long, too frequent. Many of your timber stands are actually dead or dying at this time, because of the amount of water inside the Basin."

Riding in the boat, you can see what Blanchard is talking about. Downstream, along the banks of Bayou Sorel, a row of shrubby trees crowd out some cypress—or maybe they're tupelo, it's not clear from this distance. Either way, shrubs can take over when high water drowns young cypress and tupelo trees.

Piazza says the Atchafalaya Basin's plumbing is broken, largely because of flood control projects dating back nearly 90 years. 

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Credit Ann Marie Awad
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Brian Piazza is the director of Freshwater and Marine Science for The Nature Conservancy in Louisiana.

"If you look behind the boat, you see that Bayou Sorel stops being a curvy bayou and is a straight canal," Piazza says.

After the disastrous Mississippi River flood in 1927, Congress re-evaluated the nation's approach to flood protection. They ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to tame the Lower Mississippi River. As part of that program, the Corps redesigned the Atchafalaya Basin.

"This canal was dredged here to get water more efficiently out of the Atchafalaya River and into Bayou Sorrel and down to the Gulf of Mexico for flood control," says Piazza.

As a result of all that construction, the banks of many channels are higher than they would be naturally. And, according to Piazza, because Atchafalaya waters move so slowly and the land is so flat, it doesn't take much of an obstruction to turn that water or stop it.

That's why flood waters get trapped in the woods—harming cypress-tupelo forests in the process. Piazza says young cypress and tupelo trees need the forests to drain from time to time. That way they can grow tall enough so they're not drowned during the next flood.

The Nature Conservancy isn't sure exactly how to restore this part of the Basin yet. That will take more research and monitoring. But the general idea, Jim Bergan explains, is "Moving the water across these floodplain forests…the way it was naturally before the construction of a lot of these canals and pipeline right of ways and so on."

Getting that water to move naturally is the goal of the East Grand Lake Project, The Nature Conservancy's first restoration effort on their new preserve.

"This is just the beginning," Bergan says. "We’re hopeful that a lot of folks are going to say if The Nature Conservancy is working with Wilbert’s and Wilbert’s is working with The Nature Conservancy, it’s got to be a positive thing."

Gaining the trust of private of private land owners is key, because the vast majority of the Atchafalaya Basin is privately owned. But The Nature Conservancy is hopeful this deal with Wilbert's will be a model for future projects.