December 1997, Volume 4, number 10
Keep the Atchafalaya Wet and Wild
If the Mississippi River had its way, it would take a short cut
to the Gulf of Mexico. Over the past 5,000 years, the river has shifted course through
southern Louisiana at least seven times. Now it's set to shift again, take a westward turn
at Old River, 150 miles northwest of Baton Rouge, and surge through the Atchafalaya River,
its main distributary, to the gulf. Hydrologists say the Atchafalaya
("ah-CHA-fa-LIE-ah") wants to "capture" the Mississippi and become the
Since the last time the Mississippi changed course, however, a
non-movable civilization has been built on its banks -- the cities of New Orleans and
Baton Rouge and, between them, a huge industrial infrastructure that's home to Dow
Chemical, Exxon, Du Pont and Texaco, among others.
Letting nature take its course is unthinkable. Fifty years ago,
when evidence first indicated this course shift was impending, the U.S. Congress sent in
the Army -- the Army Corps of Engineers, that is -- which today, through a series of
structures like dams and locks, controls the flow of almost all the water in southern
This was the backdrop for the Sierra Club's Atchafalaya Heritage
Festival, which took place on Oct. 25 in Henderson, La., on the western edge of the
Atchafalaya Swamp. The all-day event started with a sunrise photography workshop at
McGee's Landing and culminated with three Cajun bands playing dance music deep into the
By the time darkness fell and the first band played its last
number, practically everyone there -- the Cajun couples circling on the concrete dance
floor, the musicians and the hundreds of others -- was wearing a button that read,
"Louisiana Wildlife Need Wild Places -- Sierra Club."
That's because landscape architecture professor and longtime
Delta Chapter volunteer Charlie Fryling had been working the crowd, describing the Club
and its concerns about the Atchafalaya's ecology. "I told them we want to keep the
basin wet and wild -- to protect the wildlife, to maintain the culture and to allow people
to keep supporting themselves fishing and hunting."
The impetus for the festival started last summer when Club field
staffer Sarah Craven and Environmental Public Education Coordinator Maura Wood were
seeking ways to reach the communities surrounding the swamp. They first met with the owner
of a swamp-boat dock and pretty soon pulled together cooks, quilters, canoe builders,
Cajun bands, representatives from the Army Corps, photographers, restaurants as well as
the mayor and sheriff.
More than 200 people explored the basin in the morning -- bicycling,
canoeing, hiking, taking photographs -- and close to 1,000 attended the festival, despite
intermittent thunderstorms. At a nearby restaurant, Fryling presented a slide show
promoting ecotourism in the basin. Inside one of the five tents, geologist and Club
activist Barry Kohl educated participants about mercury contamination in Louisiana's
waterways. In the cooking tent, Cajun cooks prepared crawfish etoufe and rabbit sauce
The Atchafalaya Basin, 20 miles wide and 150 miles long and
confined by levees on both sides, is slowly filling up with silt. The Army Corps' plan,
which the Sierra Club helped develop 20 years ago, would pump more water into the basin,
but the Corps has been dragging its feet on its implementation. "To keep the
Atchafalaya wild, we need to keep it wet," said Fryling.
With the help of its new allies in Henderson, the Club is working
to create the Atchafalaya Trace -- a scenic byway around the swamp, which will include
hiking trails and bicycle paths. The Club wants to promote this kind of project because it
brings jobs and money into the basin while preserving its unique character.
Dozens of Club volunteers contributed to making the Atchafalaya
festival a success, including Harold Schoeffler of the Acadian Group, who led the morning
canoe tour; Chapter Chair Barbara Vincent and Political Chair Jay Vincent; Margaret Smith,
Lorri Moore, Jeri Becnel and David Lindenfeld of the Baton Rouge Group; and Jeanne de la
Houssaye of the New Orleans Group.
For more information: Contact Sarah Craven at (504)
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