Recently, Bryan Piazza pointed out a swath of the Atchafalaya River with venerable cypress trees mirrored in clear, dark waters and told his sons, with quiet satisfaction, that he had helped to protect this place.
The Atchafalaya River Basin is an area of almost 1 million acres that forms the heart of Cajun country — a culture so popular it has a music genre, a dance, a language, a cuisine, a region, and a mindset named after it. This vast area is mostly swamp: 850,000 acres is forested wetland, which includes America’s largest remaining coastal cypress swamp. It supports a variety of fisheries, including the fabled crawfish, and abundant wildlife including Louisiana Black Bear, Florida Panther, white-tailed deer, mink, and over 250 species of birds. The river’s mouth at the Gulf of Mexico is one of the few places in Louisiana where land is actually being added to the delta, rather than subsiding away. Yet, even with all these superlatives, the region may be on the brink of a renaissance of sorts.
One symbol of this renaissance is the birth of a Nature Conservancy preserve —5,359 acres of protected land purchased on July 2, 2015 and christened the Atchafalaya Basin Preserve. Piazza, the Conservancy’s Director of Freshwater and Marine Science, explained the need for the preserve. “More than a century’s worth of flood control and industrial development in the region have resulted in a network of levees and canals that have transformed the natural hydrology of the Basin. In many areas, water flow is impeded, resulting in standing water that creates hypoxia (low oxygen conditions) and inhibits regeneration of cypress. Our answer to this complex set of problems is the Atchafalaya River Basin Initiative, which is based on three foundational components: science, restoration, and community.”
Yvonne Allen and TNC staff amidst
blooming yellowtop in Atchafalaya bottomlands.
Common desires for restoration
Restoration will occur through land acquisition and projects designed to improve hydrology, along with scientific monitoring of results for continuous improvement to the methods. “In addition to restoration on the Preserve, we are working closely with Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin Program to implement the East Grand Lake Restoration Project, something that has been in their annual plan since 2012,” said Piazza. “This will be the first example of a partnership between landowners and the Basin Program that is focused on building a restoration project, and we hope this is the first of many.”
The aim of the project is to connect the river with the floodplain at lower water levels, the way nature intended, so it does not take a huge flood to allow water to move through the forested wetlands. A series of relatively small cuts and gaps in levees and canals will allow more unimpeded flow. The inflow provides essential nutrient inputs to the foodweb, while outflow prevents hypoxia and flooding that is excessively prolonged — something that even cypress seedlings cannot survive.
Looking at the value of forested wetlands
The science part of the initiative will learn from restoration to inform restoration. “We have a lot to learn,” said Piazza. “In addition to comprehensive monitoring, which will include continuous-recording instrumentation to determine the extent and effects of changes in water flow patterns, we have a research component. The research program will be staffed by a conservation fellows program that partners with area universities to fund masters and Ph.D. students and post-docs. They will focus on specific questions, and chief among them will be investigating the value of restoring hydrology in a degraded forest.”
The Conservancy’s hypothesis is that restoring more natural, slow, and continuous flow through the Basin will increase denitrification (removal of nitrogen from the water), and thereby improve fisheries and forest health. A growing forest will also sequester more carbon. If this hypothesis is correct, then it will be possible to put a dollar value on these “bioreactor” functions, which are indicative of a healthy system.
“What is the value of nitrogen removal to those trying to decrease the size of the Gulf of Mexico dead zone?” asked Piazza. “What is the value of the greenhouse gas (carbon dioxide) that a growing forest can remove from the atmosphere? We are also interested in the value of phosphorus removal, fisheries, crawfish production, forest health, and tree health. These are all questions we have in common with a number of our partners.”
Keeping people on the land
Engaging the Atchafalaya community in the conservation and restoration of the Basin is the last, and perhaps most crucial component of this initiative. “We not only want to use the Atchafalaya Basin Preserve as a platform to highlight the work we are doing, we want to get other stakeholders — landowners, fishermen, hunters, agencies, and researchers — involved so that we can learn from each other,” explained Piazza.
“There are very few places in the delta for people to come together on the land. We hope to remedy this by opening the Atchafalaya Conservation Learning Center. This will be a facility on the preserve where we’ll house grad students and visiting scientists, have meetings, and reach out to others. Never underestimate the power of a nice big wooden table with some chairs and a beautiful view and some coffee! It’s how people gain trust. We are deeply committed to the culture. We don’t want to change it, but help move it to a better trajectory. There are divisive issues, yes, but we all agree the Basin is not on the trajectory that we want right now.”
The power of this particular approach in this particular place extends well beyond U.S. borders. On a recent visit, one scientist with a lifelong career working in the Amazon expressed his amazement to Piazza, saying, “I’m excited because the issues you face are many of the same that we face on the Amazon. We come from different places, but we speak the exact same language.”
The birth of a preserve, with LCC science in a supporting role
Just as it takes years of sedimentation for a delta to finally raise its landform above water, the Conservancy’s initiative in Louisiana is built upon years of science and restoration experience, as well as the support of the state director, TNC’s philanthropy and marketing departments, and key partners. The Atchafalaya Basin Preserve is the first visible evidence of this foundation.
The initiative began in earnest in 2009, and the Conservancy has worked closely with Dr. Yvonne Allen that entire time. Allen is currently Aquatic Habitat Analyst with the GCPO LCC/USFWS and sits on a technical committee advising the initiative. Prior to joining the LCC in 2013, she worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Engineer Research and Development Center and the U.S. Geological Survey.
Piazza extols the virtues of Allen’s work, saying, “Not only is she a valued colleague but also a very good personal friend. She has helped this initiative a lot. One of the largest efforts she undertook was to develop a spatial understanding of inundation frequency across the Basin, using remotely sensed data, and tied to the Butte Larose river gage. We wanted to know where to invest, and her dataset helped us identify the largest areas where cypress regeneration could occur, as well as those areas that could potentially be restored to support regeneration. Her information helped us zone in on where to put our conservation: we identified six priority conservation areas, which can also be connected with a network of large blocks of private and state-owned land.”
Allen pointed out that her collaboration with TNC has benefited the LCC as well. “The results and interest from that early application of the inundation frequency dataset really helped me realize the potential application for it on a much broader landscape scale. Right now, I feel like we are reaping the rewards from TNCs early interest and support.”
The Atchafalaya Basin Initiative’s combination of restoration, science, and community in today’s hyper-politicized world is an approach that takes guts, but ultimately, it may be the only approach that works in such a complex milieu. “We want to keep people on the land,” states Piazza. “We are finding a lot of common ground with the hunt clubs, the fishermen, and others who are out here all the time.”
Healthy cypress tupelo is the initiative’s benchmark. Working with its partners, the Conservancy is building the groundwork to take advantage of future opportunities that could provide incentives for further restoration. “If eventually a voluntary or regulatory driver is enacted that puts value on nutrient reductions to the system, then we can turn that into a dollar value and use it to provide incentives to landowners for easements and restoration,” said Piazza. “We all have something to gain by finding common ground, and the science is showing us that ground is vast. Everybody wants a healthy Basin. We want it for ourselves and for our children.”