Cover Story

Pushing the Basin's Boundaries

by Jeremy Alford

Millions of federal dollars could help clear a better path toward economic development and ecotourism for the Atchafalaya Basin.

Shiny strips of moon reflect off of Bayou Teche and onto an old man cleaning fish bones by the bank. A long cane blow-gun is balanced on his knees. Over his silhouette a dozen or so fires burn inland, casting long shadows over a set of palmetto huts.

A woman helps her husband place their canoe under a cypress tree while children playfully jump and reach for the hanging moss. Scorched wood and cooking meat pops in the night air, joined by an orchestra of frogs and crickets and south winds. The village belongs to the Chitimacha Indians and, more than 350 years ago, it was the first residential outpost in the Atchafalaya Basin.

The Chitimacha were able to live peacefully along Bayou Teche until the French declared war on them in the early 1700s, forcing many to become plantation slaves. Today, hundreds from the original tribe still live in St. Mary Parish. Some 65 years later, following their expulsion from Nova Scotia, Acadians first set foot in the basin at Attakapas Post, near modern-day St. Martinville. The city even has a monument listing the original pioneers, with names any self-respecting local would know: Aucoin, Babin, Bergeron, Boudreau, Chevalier, Daigle, Gaudet.

But it wasn't until the Acadians claimed the freshwater marshes as their own ' it remains the largest contiguous tract in Louisiana ' that the basin's unique characteristics began to be used for commercial purposes. Cajun fishermen and trappers started using it for their livelihoods. The early 1900s saw landowners logging the basin's trademark cypress for record profits, or handing over mineral rights to oil companies. Other parts of the wide expanse were drained to become fertile ground for soybeans and corn.Today the basin has become the proverbial sportsman's paradise, with weekend warriors and locals alike putting in for boating trips or buying camps in and around the waterways.

Alongside this escalation in development a burgeoning tourism scene has sprouted up, bolstered largely by swamp tours, seasonal festivals and kitschy restaurants adorned with oversized crawfish. It's a growth industry with attractive potential when it comes to jobs, money and stature. Nationally, tourism generates roughly 7.3 million jobs with a collective payroll of $162 billion, according to the Travel Industry Association. In Louisiana, the numbers are impressive as well. Based on a formula composed by the state Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, every single tax dollar invested returns a profit of $5.86, which is then deposited into the state treasury. But with an ecosystem as delicate as that of the basin, money must also be invested in conservation, which can be more competitive than it seems.

The basin has been completely overshadowed in recent years by the state's push to bolster its coastline. If it wasn't for ruinous hurricanes and evaporating land, the Atchafalaya Basin would be a top priority for the state when it comes to natural resources. At 595,000 acres, it is the nation's largest swamp wilderness, and is five times more productive than the Florida Everglades. Only this past October did President Bush finally recognize the basin as a National Heritage Area, a designation that will channel as much $10 million to the state over the next 15 years for preservation, conservation, education and cultural efforts for the region.

Officials hope this new revenue stream will help transform the Atchafalaya Basin into an ecotourism engine and a working example of experimental economic development. The basin's residents created historic towns, beautiful music, original art and diverse cultures which offer ample opportunities for the state to invest the money in unprecedented ways. Over the next few months, the state tourism department will be meeting with shareholders to devise a master plan. Ten million dollars is a substantial amount, but it will only go so far.

The basin first received state recognition in 1997 when the Legislature created the Atchafalaya Trace Commission to oversee it when it was just a state heritage area. Consisting of members from each neighboring parish ' Concordia, Avoyelles, Pointe Coupee, St. Landry, Lafayette, St. Martin, Iberia, East Baton Rouge, West Baton Rouge, Iberville, St. Mary, Assumption and Terrebonne ' the commission was given broad legal authority. It can sue, as well as be sued, and solely enter into cooperative endeavor agreements. The membership serves without pay, although members can reimbursed for travel, and a full staff is provided. When it comes to tourism and economic development, the commission is at the heart of the Atchafalaya Basin.

Among its more innovative initiatives is the Atchafalaya Trace Heritage Area Development Zone, a pilot tax credit program intended to boost activity in the region. The program is directed at small businesses that make use of the natural, cultural and historic assets of the basin. It's the first tax credit of its kind, and similar wildlife areas around the country are implementing such programs. The $750 annual credit can be granted to businesses that meet the criteria ' it's somewhat general ' or hire on new full-time workers. Last year, more than $52,000 in tax credits was granted from the state general fund to assist local businesses.

But the crown jewel of the commission and state has always been to have the Atchafalaya Basin declared a national heritage area by the federal government, which occurred a few months ago. The designation is bestowed by Congress on areas that have a natural and historical significance. Recreational resources must be at the center of the area and work toward forming a "cohesive, nationally distinctive landscape arising from patterns of human activity shaped by geography," the law states. In theory, a national heritage area pulls together collaborators, like residents, businesses, nonprofits and the state, to implement a plan to strengthen the surrounding region.

Typically, Louisiana would have to match the $10 million that comes with the recognition, but Rep. Richard Baker included a waiver in his original legislation excluding the state from that requirement. He says enough money is already being dedicated to recovery and the federal portion alone is enough to get the ball rolling in the basin. "My concern was that as Louisiana devotes resources to recovering from last year's hurricanes, it should not miss out on the opportunity of receiving federal recognition," says Baker, a Republican from Baton Rouge.

Along with the commission, Angelle Davis, secretary of the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, is overseeing the planning process that will determine how the money will be spent. The legislation allows national heritage areas to use up to $3 million over several years for planning, but Davis says only a few months and roughly $700,000 will be needed since there is a guiding document that was drafted in 1999. Additionally, the legislation calls for setting up an entity like the commission, so that's done as well. "We've already been working on a management plan over the last few years, and we will review that and update it as needed," Davis says. "And we'll put it on a fast-track, too. We're very optimistic."

However, the alterations the 1999 plan will need are far from minor. For starters, that "master plan" is obscure at best. It's filled with flowery language describing the basin and offers little or no recommendations for actual programs or projects. The new plan will also have to be changed to address the devastation left behind by Katrina and Rita, and to accommodate for Ascension Parish, which was added to the heritage area via the legislation.

Yet even when a plan is crafted, and hopefully approved by the Secretary of Interior, its objectives will have to be carried out in baby steps. Based on the law, the $10 million will be sent to the state over a 15-year period, and no annual sum can be greater than $1 million. Technically, though, none of that cash is in hand yet. It has to be appropriated each year by Congress. Normally, such a phrase would send shivers up any bureaucrat's spine, but $1 million is a nominal figure on the Hill. Unless the entire heritage area program comes under fire, Louisiana should start receiving money in the 2007 federal budget. "I don't think that will be a problem," Davis says.

One of the more staggering challenges involves touching base with every shareholder in the basin, meaning people who work and live in the region. Specifically, that means fishermen, business owners, local officials, residents, museums and the like. Conservationists and historians will also want a say, as will zoologists and biologists. Fortunately, many of these groups have been collaborating for years. Many realize that no one organization can take on the breadth and depth of actions necessary to stabilize the Atchafalaya region's economy, or ensure that it grows in a fashion that reflects the region's heritage values. No matter how daunting, a broad, regional approach must be taken. "We will be partnering with everyone who wants to partner," she says. "The most important thing now is that the president has signed the bill recognizing the basin, and it will be a catalyst to preserving and revitalizing the region."

Ecotourism can and does work in the Acadiana region, according to Gerald Breaux, director of the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission. His shining example is the Cycle Zydeco, a 200-mile bicycle festival that is entering its fifth year. For four days participants follow a route that offers up Cajun and Creole food as well as traditional music. Along the way, bikers can soak in Acadiana's postcard views and bayous. The first year saw only 20 states represented, and the competition was never fully booked. In April, approximately 35 states will be represented on the ride, which sold out in early December. It has also been named to top ride lists by various magazines and bicycle organizations.

"We've proven beyond a doubt that this can be a successful mix," Breaux says.

As such, more money for ecotourism is welcome in Lafayette. In fact, Breaux already has a project singled out: birding trails. The state hired a firm two years ago to build birding trails below Interstate 10, and already it's drawing large crowds, Breaux says. There are access points to the trails in certain places and the paths have been cut out, but that's about all the work that has been done. Infrastructure, such as signage and more viewing areas is needed, as well as better promotions. It would be a smart investment, he adds, because bird-watching has become a major sport ' competitive in some circles ' and the numbers are huge. Furthermore, one-half of the migratory species in the North American flyway can be found in the basin each year.

According to the New York Times, bird-watchers spend more than $25 billion annually on feed, binoculars, travel forays and high-tech innovations like winterized birdbaths and television "nest cams" to track plumage over the Internet. Birding draws a certain type of visitor, usually college-educated with disposable income, or those coveted silver seniors. "That's the kind of tourist we want," Breaux says. "They're not littering, they don't destroy the habitat, and they will enjoy everything the region has to offer."

People also visit the Atchafalaya Basin in astounding numbers to fish. Ironically, professional fishing charters are sparse in the region compared to other hot areas along the coast and further north like Toledo Bend, largely due to the expanse of water available. But it is also one area that is ripe for expansion. Commercially, the needs are endless, as are the resources: catfish, crab, crawfish, alligator, turtle, nutria, just to name a few. Most notably, the basin is home to the lion's share of wild crawfish distributed in the state. But due to Chinese imports, weather and other factors, pond-raised crawfish have taken over the live market as a whole, representing up to 85 percent of the marketable mudbugs out there.

That's why Steve Minvielle, a crawfish farmer from New Iberia, says one idea might be to use some of the federal money to help Louisiana's crawfish industry market live product to more out-of-state sources. This could be beneficial to live and wild farmers. A huge promotional campaign about the state's recovery has already been launched, featuring crawfish, among other images.

"Demand is off the scale," says Minvielle, chairman of the Louisiana Crawfish Promotion and Research Board. "And get this: Roughly 35 percent of the acres were not planted this year statewide. The market for outside the state is growing tremendously. They want to talk like us, dance like us and now they want to eat like us."

Davis says the commission "will try to help everyone," but some areas will have to be overlooked. An old hand at how federal money works, Minvielle concedes as much, which is why he only briefly brings up the basin's environmental challenges. To know these dilemmas, though, is to know the landscape: the Atchafalaya River is the heart of the basin, serving as a major distributary of the Mississippi and Red rivers. An 18-mile elevated section of Interstate 10 spans the basin, which is enclosed with artificial levees on the east and west. During major floods, it serves as a containment area for rising waters.

The levees, however, have cut off freshwater flows, harming fishing and creating silltation. The logging of cypress has been a building issue as well, but dredging and the subsequent creation of spoil banks is the real monster. It has changed the basin's natural hydraulics, accelerated siltation and created oxygen-deprived dead zones where no aquatic life can survive. In some cases, siltation, which is the accumulation of land-based soils and sediments, has created dry land from wetland.

Most of these problems are handled by the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources' Atchafalaya Basin Program, which was created in 1999 to oversee another pot of money ' roughly $250 million ' from Congress for expanding public access, dealing with environmental easements, water-management and restoration. Davis says the DNR program is a partner in the planning process and will be there to assure no duplication takes place between the agencies.

Obviously, the national heritage area program can only do so much and is very limited. For instance, no part of the $10 million can be used to purchase "real property." Additionally, a tightly-draw provision in the legislation prohibits the state from doing anything to private property without the written permission of the landowner, and they can pull out at any time. This may allow the state to wiggle out of the ongoing argument about public access to the basin through private holdings, which the basin is largely comprised of. On the flipside, it limits what the commission can do with the money.

But Davis says the master plan will be more interested in private entities than private property. An integrated, strategic framework for action is being constructed, she says, to guide the regeneration of the Atchafalaya's environment, economy and people.

It's a lofty set of goals, and the plan calls for giving each equal importance. Building understanding and identity will be the first step, but then the action comes, which is always better than words. Getting people to visit is one thing; but getting them to come back is another.

"The region is ripe for expanded opportunities throughout the area," Davis says. "We will focus on providing the tools entrepreneurs and existing companies in the area need to increase their competitiveness and look for tourism development initiatives. We want to help everyone, and we will do what we have to do to put into place the major elements that will give the Atchafalaya heritage area a strong national presence in the eyes of visitors."

Where is the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area?

As defined by its enabling federal legislation, the Atchafalaya Heritage Area comprises 14 parishes in and around the Atchafalaya Basin in south-central Louisiana ' Ascension, Assumption, Avoyelles, Concordia, East Baton Rouge, Iberia, Iberville, Lafayette, Pointe Coupee, St. Landry, St. Martin, St. Mary, Terrebonne, and West Baton Rouge. Bounded by parish lines, the heritage area encompasses 8,108 square miles with a population of more than 1.1 million. The Atchafalaya Basin itself is now a massive 20-mile-wide floodway and is some 150 miles long, stretching from Old River in the north to Morgan City in the south.

The Ethnic Groups of the Atchafalaya

One of the reasons Congress named the Atchafalaya Basin a national heritage area is because it reflects so many different cultures ' well beyond the traditional Cajuns and Creoles. Here's a look at your neighborhood:



Anglo-American and Scotch-Irish (les Américains)
Colonial Spanish and Isleno

American Indians:


SOURCE: Atchafalaya Trace Commission

Tourism that Pays Off

If the Atchafalaya Basin national heritage area were to increase its overnight visitors by 300,000 people as a result of the master plan, the boost would generate:

â?¢ $17.7 million to $24.4 million in new visitor expenditures

â?¢ Upwards to 350 new jobs, collectively paying as much as $5 million annually

â?¢ Approximately $1.5 million in new state and local tax revenues

â?¢ A significant additional impact from indirect economic activity

SOURCE: Atchafalaya Trace Commission