Where the Buffalo Roamed

by Jeremy Alford

As Louisiana's rural plains and prairies continue to fade, conservationists are working on new plans to stop land loss.

Just a few generations ago, around the turn of the 20th century, Louisiana's grasslands originated out of portions of Acadiana and unfurled like massive green carpets through western parishes and beyond. In the heart of the immense plains, flocks of 5-foot-tall whooping cranes with glowing white plumage soared on long flights powered by their gigantic wingspans.

Further north in the prairie lands of Caddo Parish, hordes of buffalo traveled the Sabine River from as far south as Cameron. The monstrous animals were once abundant in Louisiana's grasslands, roaming free alongside other curiosities like the prairie vole, a hamster-like creature that lives in colonies, and the so-called Greater Prairie Chicken, which is more like a quail on steroids, complete with spiky head and tail feathers.

Industry and agricultural began to claim these lands in greater numbers during the 1950s, when its original inhabitants started disappearing at a shocking rate. Prairie land still exists in Louisiana, but it's dwarfed by neighborhoods, interstates and chemical plants. If you want to see a 5-foot-tall Louisiana whooping crane, try the LSU Natural History Museum in Baton Rouge, where a specimen donated by the federal government sits stuffed inside a glass diorama. Still wondering about those prairie chickens, which once numbered in the millions in Louisiana? They're endangered now, so visit the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge in Eagle Lake, Texas, which boasts a few birds of Louisiana lineage.

The problems started when multi-acre farms began dividing the prairies. Farming has come to at least partially define Louisiana and offers a culture that many residents still cling to, but there are now 100,000 fewer farms in Louisiana than there were in 1950, according to the most recent U.S. Census. The culprit of land-loss above I-10 nowadays is urbanization, which is shuttering historic farms and covering up Louisiana's plains.

When city populations pour into rural areas, they have a wide range of sociological, cultural and economic impacts. The global proportion of urban population rose dramatically from 13 percent in 1900 to 49 percent in 2005, according to a 2005 United Nations report, and urban population could continue to grow to 60 percent by 2030. That's also a local worry, says Keith Ouchley, director of the Nature Conservancy in Louisiana. He points to a pre-Katrina federal study that estimates Louisiana loses 27,000 acres of forest, farm and prairie each year due to urban and suburban development.

To put that figure in context, consider that Louisiana's coastline loses up to 25,000 acres annually due to erosion and other natural and manmade causes. "Everyone knows about the challenges facing the coast, but you never hear about the pressures that are gobbling up farmland," Ouchley says. "We're losing wildlife habitats and much more. Additionally, I think the acceleration is only going to become greater in the near future as Katrina's and Rita's diaspora forces more people away from the coast. I see the development every day driving around Louisiana."

While coastal erosion and restoration issues are finally receiving desperately needed attention and support, Louisiana's overall conservation efforts lag behind. Yes, Louisiana has maintained $1.5 million in annual funding in recent years for the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries to preserve a long list of open spaces and farmland, but other states have gone much further, creating huge funds dedicated solely to the cause.

Alabama, for instance, earmarks money from offshore oil and gas royalties and has spent $83 million on conservation efforts since 1992. Arkansas has spent $325 million over the past decade; Florida raised $3 billion for a quasi-state fund in 2000 through bond sales; and Georgia's program has protected more than 100,000 acres. Ouchley is presently working on a Pelican State fund for next year's regular session in association with the Louisiana Wildlife Federation and other groups. "This is something we are very interested in," he says. "And on a local scale, parishes like St. Tammany, West Feliciana and Tangipahoa are drawing up plans for smart growth and taking these concerns into consideration."

As for more immediate responses, state Sen. Robert Barham, a Republican from Oak Ridge, a small Morehouse Parish village that is home to a few hundred residents, amended legislation earlier this month that was specific to coastal restoration and broadened it to include conservation money. "I'm worried we might get tunnel vision," Barham says. "We need to protect our forests and other natural lands, and we may be hamstrung by this if we want to do something in that area in the future."

That may mean creating new wildlife refuges to stave off development, or offering developers incentives to mitigate losses. Barham, who is term-limited and undecided on future election plans, says coming generations will have to create momentum for the cause and increase awareness ' and hope people pay attention. "Some other group of lawmakers is going to have to pick this up soon enough," he says, "and you never know, you can never predict, what issue is going to catch people's attention. But this might be it."