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Resilient Habitats: Ecosystems

Gulf Coast


brown pelican (Pelicanus occidentalis)
The Brown Pelican, Louisiana's state bird, is unique among pelicans in that it is a plunge diver, tucking in its wings and hurtling beak-first into the water to catch its prey. Using its bill and pouch like a net, it scoops up fish, strains the water out of its bill, and throws its head back to swallow its catch. Watching the Brown Pelican hunt is a thrilling sight.

But the loss of coastal barrier islands and wetlands habitat where pelicans nest and raise their young has been accelerated by global warming and a series of devastating storms. Among the pelican's favored nesting grounds are the Chandeleur Islands, where they find safety in numbers and in the isolation of this island chain. But one catastrophic event can destroy an entire colony, and the Chandeleur Islands experienced three calamities in 2005.

First, Tropical Storm Arlene inundated the islands when many flightless juvenile pelicans were unable to escape and many eggs were still in the nests. Then an oil spill from a production platform washed directly into pelican nesting areas, coating the birds with oil. And two months later the islands took a direct hit from Hurricane Katrina, obliterating beaches and marshes and destroying much of the vegetation that stabilizes the islands.

Long before Katrina, however, coastal wildlife in Louisiana was suffering due to cypress swamp logging in the Atchafalaya Basin. Used for garden mulch and sold at major retail outlets like Walmart, Lowes, and Home Depot, much of the cypress forest was harvested illegally until the Sierra Club's Delta Chapter helped end the practice in 2008.

But after Katrina hit, it became clear that healthy cypress swamps are beneficial to human safety as well. All discussion of failing levees aside, it is widely accepted that the damage wreaked on New Orleans would have been greatly reduced if southern Louisiana's historic wetlands had been intact to act as a storm buffer.

Making matters worse, the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet Canal, a 75-mile-long channel completed in 1965 to provide a shorter shipping route from New Orleans to the Gulf, channeled Katrina's flood surge straight to the heart of central New Orleans. Among the Sierra Club's specific conservation objectives on the Gulf Coast over the next decade:

  • Secure initial funds for lands acquisition and ecosystem restoration of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet Canal
  • Obtain funds to protect 10,000 acres in the Pearl River and Pascagoula River Basins and buy off federal leases within the Gulf Islands National Seashore
  • Pressure Interior Secretary Salazar to reform the Minerals Management Service to require restoration after oil and gas exploration and production to ensure that extractive industries replace and/or restore impacted landscapes and resources
  • Secure funds to purchase 10,000 acres of coastal cypress forests in Louisiana
  • Secure introduction and co-sponsorship of a new Gulf Coast-wide federal wilderness bill to establish a network of new and expanded conservation areas
  • Build congressional support for reform of the National Flood Insurance Program

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