Film By: UNO
Editor’s Note: NolaVie partners with students of UNO professor László Zsolt Fülöp, pairing them with artists, non-profits, environmental groups, and cultural entities to facilitate a live curriculum, that results in a short documentary. Dean Wilson, the founder of Atchafalaya Basin Keepers, provides detailed insight into the mission of the organization created to save the basin for future generations. The organization has successfully stopped cypress logging in the basin but continues to face several formidable challenges that have the potential to impact wildlife, humans, and the entirety of the region.
[Read the full transcript of the interview below]
Hey, my name is Dean Wilson. I’m here at Atchafalaya Basin Keepers. I came here in 1984 to Louisiana on my way to the Amazon rainforest. I wanted to train to go to the Amazon, and I stayed in the swamp for four months with my bow, a few arrows, a spear, and a few hooks. I ate whatever I could catch in the swamp for four months and fell in love with the basin, so I decided to stay in the Atchafalaya basin. I made my living off the land for over 20 years. I was a commercial fisherman. I made my living hunting and fishing. In the year 2000, they started cutting down all the cypress trees in the Atchafalaya Basin and coastal Louisiana to Mexico’s coast, and that’s when I decided to get involved and try to protect these amazing ecosystems. I founded Atchafalaya Basin Keepers in the year 2004, and I’ve been working ever since as the Atchafalaya Basin Keeper.
The Atchafalaya Basin contains the largest wetland forest in North America. The main three ecosystems are the Battle Harbour Forest, Cypress-Tupelo swamps, and marsh. The Atchafalaya Basin has the most productive wetlands in the entire world. The reason they’re so productive is because of the production of crawfish. Crawfish is the best food for almost everything in the Basin, so when the water is hot, the Atchafalaya Basin becomes a crawfish buffet. Everything goes after crawfish, like otters, minks, raccoons, birds, fish, and alligators. There are big frogs called bullfrogs, and they feed on crawfish and can grow to over two pounds. We have a spider called fishing spiders that eat crawfish. Owls catch crawfish. Crawfish feed more animals per acre than any other in the world, and that’s very important because as sea levels rise, the Atchafalaya Basin will have the last big wetlands where those animals can feed, especially migratory birds. Nearly the entire eastern population of migratory birds coming from the tropics to North America come through coastal Louisiana and the Atchafalaya Basin.
The Mississippi Delta is one of the largest in the world. Most of the delta will be gone at some point because sea levels are rising. That will be the last big area where the birds can feed so you can imagine the importance on the planetary scale. The Atchafalaya Basin contains the most important wetlands for migratory birds in the whole Western Hemisphere. Also, the Atchafalaya Basin is very important for protection. The Atchafalaya Basin is the base of the Atchafalaya River which comes from the Mississippi River. It is designed to protect millions of people from flooding. As the Mississippi River rises, it will overtop the levees from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. Then the Morganza Spillway will be opened, and spill water from the river will go into the Atchafalaya Basin to protect all these people from flooding. But also, we have 150 industrial plants between New Orleans and Baton Rouge that can be flooded, and the basin protects all of that. Also, we have the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, and it is one long port, the largest in the country, which the basin protects. The economic importance of the Atchafalaya Basin cannot be understated. Now, as a matter of fact, if the basin cannot handle a major flood and all those plants flood, the port of Baton Rouge and New Orleans will go underwater for several months, and that can create an economic impact on the nation that will be very hard to recover from. So, as you can see, the Atchafalaya Basin is very important for many different reasons.
The Atchafalaya Basin is severely threatened. One threat is cypress logging. When you cut the cypress trees down, they won’t come back. They don’t regenerate, so you lose them forever. The basin is one of the most beautiful ecosystems on the planet. It’s amazing — beautiful forests. The cypress are very important for the ecosystem.
In the year 2000, when they started cutting down all the cypress trees in coastal Louisiana, that’s when I decided to start working to try to protect the forests. I could not see myself walking this planet in a time of history where they would destroy that forever and do nothing, so that’s what drew me in to get involved. I learned about the Water Keeper Alliance in the year 2003, and I saw it as a good platform to use to protect the Atchafalaya Basin. In the year 2004 was when our proposal to start the Atchafalaya Basin Keeper program was born.
My main work at the very beginning was to stop the cypress logging. We stopped most of the cypress logging in coastal Louisiana in the year 2008. The last logging operation that was in the Atchafalaya Basin was stopped in 2012.
There are multiple threats to the Atchafalaya Basin. Companies were dumping heavily polluted water. They were dumping brine full of salt, benzene, and heavy metals. They were doing that in different places in the basin, and we stopped all of it. One of the problems is that there is no enforcement of environmental laws. The core of engineers is the primary enforcer of these environmental laws. There is no enforcement of the permits. They build pipelines and all access canals. So, enforcement has become the cornerstone of our work.
Without enforcement, our environmental laws are not only useless, but they also make things worse because companies that try to do it the right way cannot compete because it is more expensive. Companies that do work in the basin cannot compete with companies that cut corners and do it cheaper. So, you can imagine the importance of enforcement for protecting not only the Atchafalaya but any ecosystem in North America.
We’ve fought many different things, not only cypress logging. At one point, they wanted to bring all the frack waste from Pennsylvania and Ohio into the Atchafalaya Basin, and we stopped that. There were illegal dams and illegal roads, and all other kinds of different developments, and we’ve pretty much stopped most of it, but they’ve been keeping us really busy.
If I had to pick one main threat to the Atchafalaya Basin, it would be sediment. When you hear about coastal Louisiana, everybody talks about the land loss. They’re working on construction projects to protect the coast and protect the coastline wetlands. In the Atchafalaya Basin, those wetlands are far away from the coast and have nothing to do with the coast. If you build land on those wetlands, then you don’t have wetlands anymore. If you own a wetland and you bring trucks with dirt, and you fill the wetland to put a house, then you don’t have a wetland anymore. So, the way they’re doing it is by river diversions or using canals. Companies will dig a canal, and the canal becomes a conduit for sediments, such as sand and silt. All the water in the Atchafalaya River comes from the Mississippi River, so it’s full of sand and silt. Many of the canals have created deltas and destroyed all the wetlands. Also, the government is doing projects for river diversion, and they call it water quality projects. They divert that polluted water straight into the swamp, and it can build up very quickly. We find that those projects create a huge bathtub in the Atchafalaya Basin holding all that water. Now, what happens when you fill your bathtub in your house with dirt? You put 500 gallons of water in your bathtub, and you fill it up with sand halfway. You cannot put 500 gallons anymore. You can only fit half the water. So, every year, we’re losing flood capacity in the Atchafalaya Basin, and the ability of the base to protect from floods is diminished year after year after year.
That damaging effect is going to be incremented by the fact that sea levels are rising. So, the incline to the gulf is decreasing over the years. So, by filling those wetlands with sand and silt, they put the safety of all those chemical plants and ports of Baton Rouge and New Orleans and all the people that live in this part of the country in jeopardy. Without a deeper Atchafalaya Basin, we cannot safely live here. Eventually, the flood will get them.
So here at Atchafalaya Basin Keepers, we do a huge amount of work with very few people. We only have two full-time employees and a part-time attorney, so we depend heavily on volunteers to be able to do all the work. Today, we are here with Preston. Preston is a member of the Atchafalaya Basin Keepers and a volunteer. He is a drone pilot. We will be going into the basin to document some things by drone from the air. One of the tools that they use on projects that will fill wetlands is by manipulating science, so the drone will be very important to show the reality on the ground of what is going on in the Atchafalaya Basin. The drone will show the effects of this on the basin. It will also show what future projects will do to the Atchafalaya Basin.
Right now, we have a house I live in on the historical lots of the Atchafalaya, not too far from the levee. We are about to pack our equipment and get in the boat and do our work. I’ve been living in Louisiana since 1984, in the same house since 1987.
I want you to imagine a world without Atchafalaya Basin Keepers and what would happen if those wetlands were destroyed the way they’re trying to destroy them today. What would happen to the planet? Imagine a world where all these birds that migrate through the Mississippi Delta would have nowhere to go. Massive extinction would happen. Imagine the misery of a huge flood because the Atchafalaya Basin couldn’t handle the flood because it has been filled with sand and silt. Imagine all the suffering: kids, babies, mothers, cars underwater, houses underwater. Imagine all that would be without Atchafalaya Basin Keepers. Our work is essential. New work is important. We need to do this together.
We need funding; everything costs money. As a keeper, I want to say for the record that we don’t make money out of lawsuits. People think when suing someone, it is because it is for money, but it costs us money to go to court. We don’t want to go to court. All that costs money. We are very dependent on volunteers. You may be able to volunteer like Preston today, who will be our drone pilot. That’s critical for us. We do mailouts, and we get eight to ten people together who help us do the mailout to over 6,300 members. That is how all the letters are sent. There are a lot of ways that you can be engaged in protecting these wetlands through Atchafalaya Basin Keepers.
Atchafalaya Basin Keepers is two things. We have full-time employees, but also it is a platform for anybody that wants to make a difference. If they have gifts or knowledge, they can make a difference. It is a platform for these people to get engaged and make a difference.