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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Bringing back the crawfish means bringing back the freeflowing water. In 1986, after years of legal and political wrangling, Congress gave the agency that had done so much to damage the Atchafalaya a bold new assignment: fix it. And now after much planning, the Corps, working with state and federal agencies, is ready to restore the natural water flow by unplugging bayous and eliminating sediment by cutting gaps into high banks along pipelines and canals. The agency is also trying to preserve more than 337,000 acres of wooded swamp land by buying up environmental easements to control development.

There’s more at stake than crawfish. Louisiana is betting that tourism will be the swamp’s next big boom. Not only is the state spending $85 million on boat ramps, recreationalvehicle facilities and hundreds of miles of trails; a regional group is promoting travel in the so-called Atchafalaya Trace Heritage Area, hoping to coax visitors into Cajun dance halls, restaurants and historic sites. Some officials believe visitation could double in the next 15 years.

But if it’s easier for tourists to get into the Atchafalaya these days, it’s harder for locals who’ve been using the place for generations. That’s because large private and corporate landowners are selling exclusive leases to hunting clubs and individuals and keeping just about everybody else out. Rudy Sparks is a vice president of Williams Inc., a lumber company that manages oil and gas leases on some 35,000 acres of Basin lands. “We’ve had to do this to manage the lands in a sustainable way,” he says.

“But access to the Basin is one of the Cajuns’ last links to our heritage,” says Patrick Deshotels, a curly-haired biologist with the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. “So much of the bayou culture revolves around this ecosystem— squirrel hunting, crawfishing, going to houseboats with your kids. If we can’t even get in there anymore, then that part of our culture is lost.”

As the head of a local crawfishermen’s group, Bienvenu often attends meetings like the one held on a warm night not long ago in Catahoula, by the Basin’s west levee. In a fishing camp, 15 crawfishermen sat, arms crossed and caps pulled low over their brows, telling of padlocked iron gates across bayous they’ve fished for years and of hand-lettered signs warning, “Keep Your Ass Out.” There were stories of harassment. “They threatened to throw us in jail until we filed a lawsuit,” Bienvenu says. All he and his fellow fishermen want, he insists, is to do “what we’ve always done.”

Most Cajuns hope that restoration of the Atchafalaya will grant crawfishermen that fond wish—to continue fishing the swamp as their ancestors did—but many, like Roy Blanchard, worry that it may be too late. Early on a cool, quiet morning, he slips his skiff into Lake Fausse Pointe, a 6,000-acre swath of water and swamp woods adjacent to the Basin. He steers through serpentine channels into open water, where rafts of white pelicans take to the air. “Oh, yes, boy,” he tells his companions. “This is the place to see what the Basin used to be.”

For nearly four decades, Blanchard worked with his wife, Annie, setting gill nets, catfish lines and crawfish traps. A few years ago, he gave it up and took a job at a motel. Now he returns to the swamp to hunt, and uses his boat, modified with extra seats, for tourist trips. “As for making a good living out here in the Basin,” he says, cutting the motor in a grove of soaring cypress trees, “it’s almost gone.”

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