NEW ORLEANS - 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
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
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
"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
"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."