Trouble in the Gulf Part 3: Regaining Paradise

As you read this, the first of perhaps 10 million waterfowl that winter in Louisiana’s coastal wetlands are flying south. Each year, fewer acres of marsh and barrier-island habitat await them. This year, some of them will encounter crude oil from the Deepwater Horizon/BP disaster. As we have seen in Parts 1 and 2 of this series, oil is only part of the picture. Here, in Part 3, we look at efforts to restore coastal wetlands and raise the question on the minds of waterfowlers across the northern states: How will the long-term habitat loss and short-term contamination from oil and other chemicals affect the birds raised in the prairie potholes, lakes, and marshes of our region, this year and in the years ahead?

Ryan Lambert’s GPS unit reveals quite graphically what has been lost here in the coastal marshes of Southeast Louisiana. As he motors his bay boat across an expanse of open water that to a visitor looks as if it has been this way forever, Lambert points to the little boat icon, whose path traverses a wide area of solid green.

“According to the GPS, we’re running across dry land,” he says.

Lambert’s GPS takes its data from satellites, whose readings are precise. The electronic map that appears on the GPS unit’s screen is contained in a chip that dates back to the early days of domestic GPS, at the end of the Vietnam War. Newer chips that show current maps are available, but Lambert doesn’t want to update his GPS.

“This older map makes it easier to tell my story,” he says.

It is the story of gradual loss of some of the most valuable wetlands on the continent, punctuated by brief periods of accelerated loss caused by hurricanes, tidal surges, or oil spills.

Lambert has told his story to countless visitors to Plaquemines Parish, from fishermen to media and politicians, both local and national. In June, he testified before the Congressional Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife of the House Natural Resources Committee, telling members that oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster is compounding decades of habitat destruction caused by dams, dredging, and drilling. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers needs a new mission, he said, “a mission that is at least equal to the navigation of the lower Mississippi, a mission of restoration.”

“Had we taken control of our river and sediment years ago, we would not have to protect ourselves from the large plumes of oil lurking off the coast,” he said.

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