Local organization looks to protect Atchafalaya Basin

Photo provided by Atchafalaya Basin National Park
Tuesday, July 2, 2013 - 6:21pm

"There's an appreciation of the wonders of nature. Look at these trees - the Indians paddling through here 300 years ago were looking at the same trees."

For Harold Schoeffler, the Chair of the Sierra Club of Acadia, appreciating the wonders of nature is easy when he's out on the Atchafalaya.

"I joined scouting at 9 years of age," he said.

He's been fighting to protect the Atchafalaya ever since.

"We've whacked nature pretty bad," said Schoeffler, "and we have to put something back."

Harold's passion for the Atchafalaya's one million acres of swamps, bayous, bottomland hardwoods and backwater lakes is obvious.

"All my life, I've had this concern," he said, "and it's a shame we couldn't deal with things that were happening while they were happening."

Schoeffler is talking about issues such as Cypress deforestation; in some parts of the basin, Cypress tress are completey gone.

"It's a shame that we couldn't say, well let's save 10 percent of them, in these big Cypress swamps."

Eventually, the state of Louisiana did something about this deforestation.

"The fact that these trees are here - the ones we're looking at - is the result of a 1922 law where the Louisiana Legislature said we've gotta save some of them," he said.

Not long after, oil and gas companies came to the area, which meant dredging up parts of the Atchafalaya Basin. Dredging is simply gathering up the dirt on the bottom of the basin and moving it around.

"You've got the oil and gas companies having a big impact, and then you gotta move the stuff around. After WWII, you've got pipelines," stated Schoeffler. "There was a lack of concern of the impact on parts of the canals."

Over time, all that work out there ended up blocking off some of the bayous.

"When you block a bayou, you block a whole ecosystem," explained Harold, "and that's one of the biggest remaining problems with the basin - water quality. These dead zones that were created by levees dammed off the natural hydrology. A dead zone is where the water cannot rise and fall with the flood. The banks are too high for that and during the low water period when the basin is subject to tidal exchange, that can't occur."

The area is called a dead zone for a reason - nothing can live there.

"The oxygen level goes to nothing," he said. "It affects the crawfish and bass and everything else - shrimp and everything that feeds the system. It affects ducks, fish, it affects migrating tropicals. All these critters that need the bountiful life of the basin - that's lost."

And these dead zones aren't just here and there.

"Probably 75 percent of the basin is in that category - it's enormous."

At this point, human nature isn't to blame for all the dams. In many cases, it's mother nature. Dams just build up over time.

"If those dams aren't removed, you continue to lose all the productivity."

Harold said at this point, protecting the Atchafalaya is about helping Mother Nature along.

"To remove a dam is just allowing nature to function and for the most part, those bayous have not filled up. They're still intact. They're still in place. The more we can restore the natural system, the better off we'll be."


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