Scorched wood pops in the night air, joined by an orchestra of frogs and crickets and south winds. Cooking meat mingles with the bayou's distinctive funk, and a foreign tongue underscores it all. 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 wall listing the original pioneers, with names any self-respecting local would know: Aucoin, Babin, Bergeron, Boudreau, Chevalier, Daigle, Gaudet. On a side note, the Choctaw Indians never inhabited the Atchafalaya region, but they did name it "hacha falaia," meaning "long river." The tribe was also a gumbo innovator, having first taught the Europeans about fil.
After the Acadians claimed the freshwater marshes as their own -- it remains the largest contiguous tract in Louisiana -- the basin began to take on its unique modern characteristics. Cajun fishermen and trappers first defined the Atchafalaya Basin in a popular sense by using it to support their livelihoods. Although people once lived in the swamps and along the Atchafalaya River, it has largely gone unpopulated for generations.
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 became fertile ground for soybeans and corn. Most recently, relatively speaking, the basin has become the proverbial sportsman's paradise, with weekend warriors and die-hard locals alike "putting in" for day trips or buying camps in and around the waterways.
A burgeoning tourism scene has accompanied the escalation in development, bolstered largely by swamp tours, seasonal festivals and kitschy restaurants adorned with oversized crawfish. It's a growth industry, one with attractive potential in terms of jobs, money and stature.
Nationally, tourism generates roughly 7.3 million jobs and a payroll of $162 billion a year, according to the Travel Industry Association. In Louisiana, the state Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism (CRT) estimates that every tax dollar invested in tourism promotion returns $5.86 to the state treasury as a result of increased visitor spending. But the state's investment should go beyond tourism promotion. An ecosystem as delicate as the basin requires that some state revenues be re-invested in conservation, and the competition for state environmental dollars can be fierce.
For example, the basin has been completely overshadowed in recent years by the state's push to bolster its coastline. Wetlands restoration is a noble effort by any account. But for ruinous hurricanes and vanishing wetlands, the Atchafalaya Basin would no doubt be a top priority for the state. At 595,000 acres, it is the nation's largest swamp wilderness -- and it's five times more productive than the Florida Everglades. In October, President Bush finally recognized 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.
The basin has been many things to many people, and the watery legend shows no signs of slowing its continuous morph. For the next generation of Louisianans, it could become an epicenter for ecotourism, which is fancy phrasing for natural attractions -- and a working example of experimental economic development. The basin's historic towns, beautiful music, original art and diverse cultures offer ample opportunities for the state to invest money in unprecedented ways. Storytelling and bird watching could be tested as economic engines. The federal money is also a means for the state to supplement and extend existing programs dedicated to serving the basin.
Over the next few months, state tourism officials will meet with basin stakeholders to devise a master plan for the region, but already it's obvious that some areas of need will be overlooked. While $10 million is a lot of money, it will only go so far. Conservation efforts will be small in scale, and commercial fishing problems may be skipped over completely. An integrated revitalization strategy for the 13-parish region has been put forth in the past, but that was before Hurricane Rita changed the landscape and Katrina increased population numbers. The goal now is to come up with a way to harness a local economy that defies standard sector definition and define a region that has already been defined by its people and their culture.
The basin first received state recognition in 1997, when lawmakers created the Atchafalaya Trace Commission to oversee it as a state heritage area. Consisting of members from each component and adjacent 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. Commission members serve without pay but can be 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 adopting comparable programs. The $750 annual credit can be granted to businesses that meet general criteria or hire on new full-time workers. Last year, more than $52,000 was doled out from the state general fund to assist local businesses.
The commission's crowning achievement was seeing the Atchafalaya Basin declared a national heritage area, which occurred several months ago. The designation is bestowed by Congress on areas that have a natural and historical significance. Recreational resources must be the area's focus, and it must 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 -- 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 Congressman 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, CRT Secretary Angele Davis oversees the planning process that will determine how the federal money will be spent. The legislation allows up to three years of planning, but she says only a few months will be needed because a guiding document 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."
Upwards of $700,000 will be needed for the study period, Davis says, a mere fraction of the $3 million the state is eligible to use. Moreover, anticipated changes to the 1999 master plan could be significant. For starters, the 1999 plan is filled with flowery language describing the basin and offers little or no recommendations for actual programs or projects. The new plan must fill in those gaps and address the devastation left behind by Katrina and Rita -- and account for Ascension Parish, which was not included in the state heritage area but was added to the national area.
Ultimately, after approval by the U.S. Secretary of Interior, the plan will be carried out in baby steps. The federal law sends the $10 million to the state over a 15-year period, and no yearly sum can be greater than $1 million. Technically, none of that cash is in hand just yet. It has to be appropriated each year by Congress. The good news is that $1 million is a nominal figure on Capitol 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 program's biggest challenges involves touching base with every stakeholder in the basin -- fishermen, business owners, local officials, residents, museums, conservationists, historians, zoologists and biologists. Fortunately, many of them have been collaborating for years, and they realize that no one organization can take all the actions necessary to stabilize the Atchafalaya region's economy or ensure that it grows in a fashion that reflects the area's heritage.
"We will be partnering with everyone who wants to partner," Davis 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 Bureau. His best example is the Cycle Zydeco, a 200-mile bicycle festival now in 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 not fully booked. This April, approximately 35 states will be represented during 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.
Cycle Zydeco could lead to more money for ecotourism in Lafayette. Breaux already has another project in mind: birding trails. The state hired a firm two years ago to build birding trails below Interstate 10, and already they are drawing large crowds, Breaux says. Access points lead to designated trails in some places and paths have been cut, but that's about all the work that's been done so far. The idea needs more promotions and infrastructure, such as signage and additional viewing areas. That would be a wise investment, Breaux adds, because bird watching has become a major sport -- competitive in some circles -- and the numbers are huge. Best of all, half of the migratory species in the North American flyway can be seen 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 also draws a more highbrow visitor, usually college-educated with disposable income.
"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 areas along the coast or farther north in Toledo Bend, mostly because of the expanse of water available. But that means guided fishing trips are also an industry that can be expanded. Commercially, the needs are as bountiful as the resources: catfish, crab, crawfish, alligator, turtle and nutria, just to name a few. Most notably, the basin is home to the lion's share of wild crawfish distributed in the state. Because of cheaper Chinese imports, weather and other factors, however, pond-raised crawfish have taken over the market, representing up to 85 percent of the mudbugs sold hereabouts.
That's why Steve Minvielle, a crawfish farmer from New Iberia, says one idea might be to use some of the money to help Louisiana's crawfish industry market live crawfish to out-of-state buyers. A huge promotional campaign about the state's recovery features crawfish, among other images, and Katrina's diaspora has dispersed thousands of crawdad fans who will eventually turn their new neighbors into tail-pinching, head-sucking mudbug gourmands.
"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 go it alone. An old hand at how federal money works, Minvielle concedes as much. To know these dilemmas, though, is to know the landscape: the Atchafalaya River is the heart of the basin, serving as a major offshoot of the Mississippi and Red rivers. An 18-mile elevated section of Interstate 10 spans the basin, which is enclosed by man-made levees to the east and west. During major floods, it serves as a containment area for rising waters.
The levees, while helping control floods, have cut off freshwater flows, harming fishing and creating saltwater intrusion. The logging of cypress is another issue, but dredging is the real controversy. 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.
Overall, the national heritage area program can only do so much. For instance, none of the $10 million can be used to purchase land. Additionally, a tightly drawn provision in the legislation prohibits the state from doing anything to private property without the written permission of the landowner, and participating landowners can pull out of the program at any time. This may let the state avoid the ongoing debate about public access to the basin across private land, which comprises much of the basin. On the flip side, it limits what the commission can do with the money.
Davis says the master plan will focus more on private entities than private property. She predicts that an integrated, strategic framework for action will guide the regeneration of the Atchafalaya's environment, economy and people.
"The region is ripe for expanded opportunities," she 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."
SIDEBAR-Q&A Frequently Asked Questions Q: Where is the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area?
A: As defined by federal legislation, the Atchafalaya National 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 a massive, 20-mile-wide floodway running some 150 miles from Old River on the north to Morgan City on the southern end.
Q: What are the ethnic groups of the Atchafalaya?
A: 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, according to the Atchafalaya Trace Commission:
Anglo-American and Scotch-Irish (les Amricains)
Colonial Spanish and Isleo
Sidebar-Tourism 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:
• $17.7 million to $24.4 million in new visitor expenditures
• Upwards of 350 new jobs, collectively paying as much as $5 million annually
• Approximately $1.5 million in new state and local tax revenues
• A significant additional impact from indirect economic activity
SOURCE: Atchafalaya Trace Commission