Undiscovered America #5: Atchafalaya Basin
July 4, 2017
One of our most well-known, but also least appreciated, landscapes are our bayous. While the Everglades, Biscayne, and Congaree National Parks all protect environments that people perceive as swamps, each of these wetlands contain very different plants and animals, as well as appearing tremendously different when viewed side by side. The bulk of bayou's are found along the Gulf Coast between Houston and the Florida panhandle, with the highest concentration in Louisiana.
The Atchafalaya Basin is the nation's largest river swamp, containing almost one million acres of America's most significant bottomland hardwoods, swamps, bayous, and backwater lakes. The delta system found here is at the convergence of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atchafalaya River, stretching through parts of eight parishes, which are what the state calls counties due to French heritage. These brackish waters and the island forests that populate the basin foster crawfish, shrimp, catfish, frogs, toads, alligators, crocodiles, herons, turtles, spoonbills, snakes, and many other species.
Over the last two centuries massive dredging and efforts to use the basin as an overflow for Mississippi River floods have reshaped the lands into a spillway and disrupted flora and fauna. Small sections of of the basin have been federally designated as National Wildlife Refuges and a National Heritage Area, which The National Park Service defines as a place designated by Congress where natural, cultural, historic and scenic resources combine to form a cohesive, nationally distinctive landscape arising from patterns of human activity shaped by geography.
The wildlife refuges were established in the 1980’s and 90’s in order to create a sustainable home and management area for local endangered species. Fortunately for ongoing conservation efforts, the basin also includes over 100,000 acres of state lands that have yet to be altered by dams and water management like most of the southern wetlands. Recently a proposal has been made by the local chapter of the Sierra Club to turn the Louisiana acreage into a National Park, with the stipulation that the lands remain under state ownership. There has been surprising success with their proposal, with several state politicians open to the idea of the park.
The proposal calls for a roadless environment that is only accessible by boat. The land is not currently open for resource extraction although it’s hard to see how the basin could remain untouched as populations and energy needs rise, not to mention the current political climate in the United States toward public lands, so it would be important to move quickly and make the proposal a park before someone proposes an alternate use for the land that would take it out of its natural state.