Saturday, November 23, 2013

Volunteers try to restore cypress swamp

Photo credit: Katelyn Clift Forsberg
Darryl Malek-Wiley, Sierra Club’s local organizing representative, has lived in New Orleans since 1982, but never heard about Bayou Bienvenue till after Hurricane Katrina.
Older Lower Ninth Ward residents remember the freshwater cypress swamp from the time they were children in the 1950s, he said, but many others didn’t know it was there.
“There were rumors of snakes and alligators and many people were afraid to go,” recalled John Taylor, wetland specialist for the Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development (CSED), who has spent his entire life near the place that once was a dense cypress-tupelo swamp.
As kids, Taylor and his brothers would sneak over to explore the bayou. After a while, their mother stopped worrying.
“I made money catching rabbits, snapping turtles and nutria for the hide,” he said. “I could go in the swamp and make more money than my daddy did.”
The Bayou Bienvenue Wetland Triangle, a 427-acre body of open water, was the “back of town,” a natural wonderland where residents could survive off hunting and fishing.  The bayou is all that remains of a once great Mississippi River Delta swamp extending from New Orleans to Lake Borgne.
“When I was a boy, you didn’t need a paddle for the boat. The trees were so close together, you could pull yourself by grabbing a tree,” Taylor said.
In 1956, the construction of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (MRGO) Canal was authorized by an Act of Congress to create a shorter shipping route between the Port of New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico, but also changed the bayou’s fresh water to brackish.
“Salt water intrusion killed the vegetation, including the cypress trees, and eliminated protection from high winds, water surges and wakes,” Taylor said. Loss of the cypress trees made the Lower Ninth Ward more vulnerable to flooding from hurricanes.
After Hurricane Katrina, a surge barrier and a rock dam closed the MRGO canal, halting the influx of salt water and allowing restoration of the ecosystem to begin.
“That’s gonna be the laboratory and we’re going to figure out how to fix this,” Taylor said of the complex environmental project. “Once we fix that, we’ll know how to fix the rest.”
Several community groups are actively working to restore natural vegetation through labor-intensive and experimental projects. Common Ground Relief has shifted its focus from home construction to wetlands restoration.
Photo credit: John Taylor
James Stram, Common Ground Relief's wetlands project manager, supervises cypress tree plantings in wooden boxes placed in the shallow water. Without protection, nutria or rabbits would quickly devour the young plants.
Last month, the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana and The Sierra Club organized 31 volunteers to plant 6,000 plugs of California bulrush grass in an effort to prevent further erosion and create wildlife habitat.
In 2007, community groups and volunteers built a 30-foot wide, wooden viewing platform so environmentalists, tourists, volunteers, legislators and celebrities could bear witness to the degraded swamp with cypress “ghosts” and open water that still host abundant wildlife. A new, interpretative sign was recently erected at the platform.
“It has become an incredibly powerful spot to get an environmental perspective on the city’s woes,” said Joshua Lewis, a research analyst for the Tulane/Xavier Center for Bioenvironmental Research. There is a multibillion-dollar plan to restore the damage done by the MRGO, but no funding, he said.
Taylor spends much of his days standing on the platform, giving informal tours. “That place is full of birds in the summer, but the species have changed,” said.
He paddles his pirogue to the other side to observe and photograph wildlife.
“Wetlands are restorative,” Taylor said.

This story was originally published in the New Orleans Advocate.

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