July 19, 2013 06:00 AM
Scouts launch eco-tourism initiative that could mean millions for Acadiana. Scouts launch eco-tourism initiative that could mean millions for Acadiana. By Cherry Fisher May

Friday, July 19, 2013

Earlier this summer, 140 intrepid Boy Scouts and leaders turned out for the christening of Atchafalaya Swamp Base, a 60-mile kayaking and camping excursion down the western edge of the middle basin. Trekkers from Minnesota, Texas, Illinois, Georgia and Louisiana each paid about $450 for the six-day high adventure challenge, organized in small teams over a series of five weeks. Coordinated by The Evangeline Area Boy Scouts Council, the freshwater trailhead begins at Bayou Courtableau and ends at Grand Avoille Cove.  

As part of the pre-trip orientation at Vermilionville, the adventurers are queried: how do you describe a swamp? Base director Ben Pierce says the standard answers are less than flattering: "Dirty. Smelly. Muddy. Hot. Mosquitoes. Impenetrable." But, Pierce says, after a week in the soggy Southern wild, the explorers emerge with a much different perspective: "Vast. Diverse. Majestic. Amazing."

At a time when eco-tourism is skyrocketing worldwide, the Atchafalaya Basin remains one of North America's best-kept secrets. With nearly 1.4 million acres, it comprises the nation's largest swamp wilderness and eclipses the Florida Everglades in land mass and productivity. Yet our relatively diminutive coastal counterpart is more famous (and thus better protected) largely due to its national park designation. By some accounts, the basin was also once destined for national park status, waylaid by WWII. By every account, the competing interests of its many stakeholders - including landowners, hunters, crawfishermen, drilling companies, a variety of state agencies - have prevented a cohesive tourism development plan, a situation that may be changing, thanks to the Boy Scouts.

In 2009 the local council announced a 100-year plan to plant trees, clean trash and essentially adopt the Atchafalaya Basin as a legacy project. This led to a meeting convened by Scott Angelle, then Louisiana's secretary of natural resources, which drew triple the expected attendees, including representatives of the long-feuding stakeholders. In short, the scouts' plan has earned broad support for the development of a seasonal scouting adventure program designed to expand into a potentially profitable full-time eco-tourism operation with guided tours, academic research, fishing and photo safaris, and school field trips.

Acadiana tourism professionals have long touted the potential for eco-tourism in the basin as the demand for new, challenging adventure travel destinations is exploding. Currently the vacation of choice for more than a billion travelers globally, eco-tourism is projected to grow to 1.6 billion by 2020. A new study prompted by the BP spill values the industry on the Gulf Coast at $19 billion annually, and this initiative will improve Acadiana's competitive position substantially.  

A $21 million fundraising campaign is under way to pay for construction of a welcome center, lodging, dining and storage facilities, and a $7 million maintenance endowment. (One anonymous donor has pledged to match the first $3 million raised.) Once complete, local scout executive Art Hawkins projects 12 full-time staff jobs, 40 seasonal positions, the opportunity to tap into millions of new tourism dollars for Acadiana and innovative product development. Already a Baton Rouge-based custom kayak company has introduced The Atchafalayak, designed especially for this unique sojourn. To see what the scouts are up to, including the proposed design for the operations center, check out our photo gallery at theind.com/atchalafayaboyscouts.

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