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Saving Atchafalaya

A more than 70-year effort to "control" America's largest river basin swamp is threatening the Cajun culture that thrives on it

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“You got him, Alice?” It’s a little after midnight deep in the heart of Louisiana’s fabled AtchafalayaBasin. Mike Bienvenu is yelling good-naturedly from the back of his 18-foot aluminum skiff. “You missed that last one, so if you want frog, you better have him good!” Dressed in camouflage, Mike’s blonde, ponytailed wife hangs over the bow, arms buried in goo. For the past two hours, the Bienvenus have been on the lookout for supper, their powerful headlamps illuminating herons, white-tailed deer and the orange-red eyes of alligators. Now Alice grunts and rears back, gripping a foot-long bullfrog in her muddy fists. “I’ve been froggin’ since I was 5 years old,” she says defiantly. “I knew I had him.”

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The Basin, as locals refer to America’s largest river swamp, is a near million-acre maze of picturesque meanders and quiet bayous in south-central Louisiana, just west of Baton Rouge. It’s a fascinating, spooky, dangerous place, especially for those who don’t know it. Fishermen drown, hunters get lost, trappers suffer violent mishaps. “Accidents happen here all the time,” Alice Bienvenu says. “The sport fishermen are always in a hurry to catch a fish. They hit a log or something and fly out of their boat.”

The Bienvenus, like most of their neighbors, are Cajuns, descendants of the French-speaking Acadians who were expelled from eastern Canada by the British in 1755 and subsequently settled here. Many depend on the swamp year-round for hunting and fishing, but they fear it all may soon come to an end. Silt is filling in the swamp, and private landowners are cutting off access to traditional fishing holes. Basin fisherman Roy Blanchard, 63, says, “It’s a way of life that is now dying.”

Not that the Atchafalaya isn’t still swarming with critters. Gators 12 feet long share its murky depths with 80- pound catfish, venomous water moccasins and gaspergou, silver fish that make a loud “croak.” Roseate spoonbills soar above woods filled with more than 250 other species of birds. There are crawfish by the millions, a handful of Louisiana black bears (a threatened subspecies) and ducks beyond counting.

Yet the Basin today is a mere shadow of what it once was. During the past several decades, it has been engineered into an artificial flood-control structure—a 125-mile-long chute, 15 miles wide, surrounded by 25-foot-tall levees. Its waters have been dredged and straightened. Much of what’s left is choking in silt and blotched with stagnant ponds. “The Atchafalaya has suffered wave upon wave of degradation,” says Oliver Houck, director of the environmental law program at TulaneUniversity in New Orleans. Charles Fryling Jr., a professor of landscape architecture at LouisianaStateUniversity in Baton Rouge, agrees. “It’s so big, it’s easy to think there’s nothing people can do to harm it,” he says. “But we’ve cut down the trees, we’re suffocating the crawfish and we’ve replumbed the natural flow so it practically works backwards.”

The good news is, help is on the way. State and federal agencies have launched a $250 million project to restore the Atchafalaya to its former glory. One aim is to make it a magnet for tourism. Along Interstate 10 between Baton Rouge and Lafayette, a $5 million welcome and environmental-education center is slated to open early next year. Crews are repaving miles of rutted levee roads and clearing new canoe, bird-watching and biking trails. Sandra Thompson, who heads up the state’s Atchafalaya Basin Program, says the swamp would be lost otherwise. “If we don’t move the sediment out,” she says, “it will eventually fill the Basin in.”

The idea is to make the swamp work the way it used to— like a colossal sponge. For untold centuries, the Basin soaked up the Mississippi River’s annual floodwaters and distributed them throughout its river, bayous, lakes and marshlands. That brought much-needed nutrients to fish and wildlife and laid down rich natural levees of soil where oak trees can grow. “It was a beautifully balanced system,” says Greg Guirard, a crawfisherman, writer and photographer who lives near St. Martinville. “Water flowed in and spread all around. There was nothing to hold it back or hem it in.”

By the time the Acadians arrived in the 1760s, France had ceded Louisiana west of the Mississippi to Spain; Britain controlled the lands east of the river. Although Spanish officials were only too happy to welcome Catholic settlers with a grudge against the British, the Spaniards could not afford to be generous. “Each family received one land-clearing implement— a saw, ax or hatchet—one rooster, six hens, a gun and ammunition, and enough corn to last for approximately three months,” says Carl Brasseaux, a historian at the University of Louisiana. “Then they were turned out into an alien land.” The first groups settled along the Mississippi River and in the present-day St. Martinville area, while later arrivals mostly scattered into the prairies west of Lafayette or on the high grounds near Bayou Lafourche, which formed the Basin’s west and southeast boundaries. The prairie Acadians raised cattle. The so-called bayou Cajuns grew cotton and sugar cane.

For decades, the Atchafalaya’s mysterious interior repulsed all but the most intrepid hunters and trappers. By the 1840s, a few small communities of Acadians, free blacks and others had cropped up on ribbons of high ground, and steamboats plied regular seasonal routes. But the main body of the Atchafalaya remained impenetrable—a “weird and funereal” place, in the words of one visitor.

Mishaps were common, and medical attention was hard to come by. Fishermen injured by sharp fish spines often got blood poisoning. Says Jim Delahoussaye, a 65-year-old biologist who lives in the middle of the Basin and fished it commercially for years: “When they saw that red line crawling up their arm or legs, they took ‘whisky roaches,’ which was the cheapest whisky you could find with drowned black roaches in it. They would take that liquor by the teaspoonful and they would be cured.”

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