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Florida has the Everglades National Park and Louisiana has… (part 1 of 2)

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finalrangercapmap1Editor’s note: Some LaCoastPost readers who watched the recent 12 hour PBS film series on the National Parks may have been as dumbstruck as I that the largest delta in North America was totally ignored. For example I waited in vain to hear Percy Viosca’s name mentioned.

I was so struck by this exclusion that I asked David Muth, my friend, colleague and senior staff member of the National Park Service (NPS), to write a guest post on what turns out to be a tragi-comic political history between Louisiana and the National Park system. The omission of the delta was not an oversight by Ken Burns, however; Louisiana interests opposed inclusion in the National Park system.

This is the first half of David’s essay.

by David Muth, Chief of Planning and Resource Stwardship, Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, New Orleans

Getting No Respect

I’ve worked for the NPS here in coastal Louisiana for more than 25 years at Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve. What follows is my analysis and opinion – it is completely personal, and should not be taken in any way as the opinion of the NPS or of Jean Lafitte Park.

Most readers of LaCoastPost don’t have to be told that the alluvial and estuarine ecosystem that forms perhaps a third of Louisiana is a biological wonder – probably the most productive terrestrial system on the continent. But, let’s face it, we get no respect.

Ask a knowledgeable American chosen at random to name the country’s most important wetland ecosystem and you’ll likely hear, “The Everglades.” Why is it that Americans don’t think of the Mississippi River Birdsfoot Delta, or the Barataria Estuary, or the Atchafalaya Basin, or the Manchac swamp, or the Chenier Plain?

The Everglades is not the largest wetland, even if you define the Everglades as the entire wetland drainage north to the Kissimmee Prairie in the interior and to Tampa Bay along the coast; even if you include the St. John’s River drainage.

America’s largest wetland* is actually the interconnected complex including Louisiana’s Deltaic Plain, Chenier Plain, Pearl River and other Pleistocene alluvial bottoms, wet long grass prairie and the Mississippi-Red-Atchafalaya-Ouachita alluvial valley.

Indeed, Louisiana has lost more landscape since 1930 (2,300 mi2) than the current official size of the Everglades National Park (2,200).**

Alternatively, if the comparison is based on productivity and species abundance, Louisiana’s wetland complex is far more significant than the Everglades.

In fact, each part of Louisiana’s wetland complex is biologically more productive than the Everglades National Park – more alligators, more ibis and egrets and more mink and otter. And each component is only a subset of a greater whole that stretches along the coast from Texas to Mississippi and up the alluvial valley to Arkansas. This contiguous wetland ecosystem is larger than the entire south Florida wetland ecosystem – both inside and outside of Everglades National Park.

So how did the Everglades and not the delta of the Mississippi River become the gold standard of American wetlands? The answer is complex, but at its heart I’d say it comes down to one thing: Congress made the Everglades, and not the delta, into a National Park.

I hasten to add that the Everglades is a magnificent place, with a diversity of Caribbean and tropical flora and fauna not found anywhere else in the country. But if you want to grow lots of creatures, choose a system built on alluvium fed by muddy nutrient rich rivers, not one built on porous limestone and fed by clear water percolating through sand and virtually devoid of dissolved nutrients.

A National Park for Louisiana?

Now just imagine that in 1934 Congress had created Barataria National Park (to pick just one possible example) instead of Everglades National Park. Its gateway communities would have been places like New Orleans, Lafitte, Thibodaux, Golden Meadow, Empire and Grand Isle, rather than Miami, Homestead, Key Largo, Naples and Everglades City. In 1930, Miami was our 78th largest city with 111,000 residents; New Orleans was 16th and the largest city in the south with 459,000 souls.

Is it conceivable that the gradual disappearance of the very land that made up Barataria National Park would have gone essentially undetected for the next 35 years, or that once detected it would have been allowed to go on disappearing for another 40 years without any serious effort to reverse the process? Not likely. Not with the millions of visitors that would have come – the books, the photo spreads in National Geographic, the Hollywood movies set in the wilds of Barataria and the documentaries chronicling its wildlife. Not a chance.

Now, I’m not being naïve. Making a substantial part of Louisiana a National Park would have been much more problematic in 1934 than carving out the Everglades NP in Florida. This has largely to do with population differences, and the number of people already making a living off of Louisiana’s wetland resources in the 1930s.

But in the 1930′s the nation was not averse to the challenge of creating National Parks in places with strong local resident and user opposition. Having already set aside most of the crown jewels on Federally-owned western lands, a very difficult task, the attention shifted east, especially in the 1930s, to the last big contiguous wild lands east of the Rockies.

Landscapes of interest included Acadia in Maine, Isle Royal in Michigan, Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, Shenandoah in Virginia, Big Bend in Texas, Cape Hatteras in North Carolina, the Everglades in Florida and, one of the biggest fights of all, Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the Tennessee-North Carolina border.

Close but no cigar

Believe it or not, the nation seriously considered preserving part of coastal Louisiana as a National Monument but the effort was apparently about five years too late.

I have in my hand a 1939 memorandum and report to the Director of the National Park Service, Conrad Wirth, titled A Cypress Swamp National Monument prepared by NPS staff. They visited Manchac, Honey Island and suggested further study of other areas, including the Atchafalaya. The report concludes:

After only a few days in central and southern Louisiana, it was felt the region has much of natural interest and offers definite possibilities for the selection of a national park or monument. The most important forest type and animal habitat to be preserved is the cypress swamp. This must be done very soon as the best examples of the type are certainly doomed to extinction. Also the service has no area on which longleaf pine forms an important element. This is a beautiful forest and makes rapid growth and recovery when protected from fire and overgrazing. Nor are there any sizable examples of the southern hardwood forests capable of supporting large numbers of upland “game,” such as deer, turkey, bear, and squirrels. None the less interesting and typical are the gum swamps, both black swamp gum and tupelo gum, and the several types of marshes. These last include the tall grass species of freshwater, the brackish water marshes, and the salt marshes of shorter growing vegetation. The desirability of an area is increased in proportion as it contains more of these ecological types. Louisiana has the natural areas and if the Service will indicate the location and type of area it desires, it is believed local support will not be wanting. It is important that investigations be made as soon as possible, because of the rising land values largely due to the discovery of oil and the recent development of oil fields near several of the strategic areas (italics added).

There in one paragraph is a summation of almost everything worthy of park status in coastal Louisiana – baldcypress/tupelo gum swamps, bottomland hardwoods, long-leaf pine savannahs, associated black gum sloughs, and fresh, brackish and saline marshes.*** To their credit, NPS staffers recognized that the combination of habitats increases the richness of a given area.

But I suspect that the final sentence gives us the clue as to why nothing happened: oil. Well, that and the date – the report was transmitted on August 25, 1939, seven days before the beginning of World War II in Europe.

I can’t know, but I seriously doubt that the presence of trappers, hunters, oystermen, shrimpers, crabbers and commercial fishermen would have stopped the uncaring city folk in the northeast from carving out a National Park in Louisiana. Nor would it have kept the landowners from willingly selling their “worthless” real estate to the Federal Government.

I suspect that what killed the idea was the distraction of war – and the fact that there was oil underneath ”them thar’ reeds.”

To be continued…

Edited by Len Bahr (len.bahr@gmail.com)

*We’re leaving the tundra out of this discussion.

**Everglades National Park acreage – as of September 23, 2000

  • Federal Land – 1,398,617.13
  • Non-Federal Land – 461.13
  • Gross Area Acres – 1,399,078.26 (2,186 mi2)

***The most important elements overlooked were the coastal prairie and barrier islands, headlands and cheniers.


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