Louisiana seeks to save its coast by portraying it as a national treasure

Friday, June 6th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Louisiana is sending out a desperate message: If the United States doesn't do something soon to stop coastal erosion, 40 percent of its wetlands will wash away, oil prices will rise and the Cajun swamps will disappear.

That plea is part of an intensive awareness campaign that repackages the state's marshy Mississippi River Delta as "America's Wetland" and explains why it's in the nation's interest to spend $14 billion to save it.

Coastal environmentalists and scientists have been warning for years that Louisiana is experiencing an unfolding catastrophe from the loss of 24 square miles of coast a year and more than 1,900 square miles since 1932.

What's new about the "America's Wetland" push is that it links the demise of Louisiana's wetlands directly to oil and the national economy. And the attempt to get as much as $14 billion in federal restoration money comes at time when the Bush administration is taking a favorable stance on domestic oil production.

"The coast is really about money, aside from the ecological value of it," said outgoing Republican Gov. Mike Foster, who launched the effort last fall.

Already, the Shell Oil Co.-backed $3 million campaign -- "America's Wetland: The Campaign to Save Coastal Louisiana" -- has picked up steam. Some Tabasco hot sauce bottles now carry its logo, and the Louisiana Legislature is talking about changing the slogan on the state license plate from "Sportsman's Paradise" to "America's Wetland."

The campaign makes the case that coastal erosion has threatened the network of oil and natural gas rigs, pipelines and refineries throughout south Louisiana.

And, the argument goes, oil prices would go up if south Louisiana disappears under rising seas and hurricanes. Add to that the loss of Louisiana's ports, its fisheries that supply 30 percent of the nation's catch and the threat of New Orleans getting flooded by a major hurricane.

It's taken a while, but Louisianians are starting to agree that coastal erosion is right up there on the list of woes to tackle in this struggling state, from rampant illiteracy to crippling cronyism.

"A lot of people, like myself, are saying that unless we do something in the next five years, then we'd better just start moving out," said Len Bahr, the governor's executive assistant in charge of coastal activities.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the lead agency in restoring the vast wetlands of Louisiana, is laying out a comprehensive restoration plan, and a draft of the report is due for public review by October. The goal is to submit a final report by 2004 to Congress, said Troy Constance of the Corps of Engineers.

Meanwhile, Louisiana lawmakers are discussing 44 new bills concerning wetlands policy.

"By far the biggest theme in all these bills is to limit the state's liability in coastal restoration projects -- basically to protect itself from being sued out of the coastal restoration business," said Rex Caffey, a coastal and wetland resources specialist with the Louisiana State University AgCenter.

In addition to trying to raise the awareness of Louisiana's wetlands to the same level of the Chesapeake Bay and Florida Everglades, Foster's campaign also seeks to dispel the stereotype of south Louisiana as a corrupt and useless alligator-infested backwater.

"Our job is really now to convince the federal government," Foster said. "I think we're coming along on the image of Louisiana as a state that is run properly and fiscally run properly."

What Louisiana has going for it is that it's a "working coast," Bahr said.

"We're not a pristine coast to be looked at," he said. "It's essential to work with the Bush administration because it understands natural gas and oil issues."

Related websites:

America's Wetland campaign Web site

Louisiana Comprehensive Coastwide Ecosystem Restoration Feasibility Study

LA 1 Coalition Web site focused on showing the importance of Louisiana's oil industry