Saving Louisiana

Louisiana is disappearing. Every year, land mass equal to the size of Manhattan is lost--simply washed out to sea off the continental shelf in the Gulf of Mexico.

Louisiana's crisis is out of sight and out of mind. When Katrina roared into New Orleans with no natural wetlands barrier to slow that killer storm, America cared for a hot minute.

But after that catastrophe and even after the BP oil disaster, there's just no sense of urgency about the disappearance of America's Gulf Coast.

That's stunning when you take a giant step back: The Mississippi River Delta in Louisiana is the seventh-largest system of its kind in the world and one of only two in the Western Hemisphere. And the truly remarkable opportunity in front of us is that we have a chance to make amends, a once-in-a-lifetime chance to restore this magical, productive ecosystem of coastal wetlands.

It's not just Louisiana's people, economy, culture and wildlife that are at risk. The Mississippi River Delta is connected to a vast network of waterways throughout the heartland of America, contributing tens of billions of dollars to our national economy every year and supporting millions of jobs.

Nearly half of America's bird species use the Gulf Coast at some point in their migration. And those birds are the indicators of the health of places. The imperiled Piping Plover flies across the entire country to the Gulf Coast from nesting grounds on the Canadian border, the Great Lakes and New England. A large number of those Piping Plovers depend on the Gulf Coast wetlands and the Mississippi River Delta for their winter survival.

Louisiana has developed a bipartisan coastal master plan that identifies 109 different projects that should be completed over the next half century to help preserve and expand existing wetlands.

We need to be far more careful about the slicing and dicing of coastal wetlands with canals and industrial infrastructure. We need to set up a structure of state and federal agencies with the authority to end the bureaucratic turf wars that have left some restoration efforts in limbo for years. Louisiana politicians and citizens need to keep the state's ambitious master plan on track.

Federal and state authorities need to make sure the money from all sources--public and private--intended for coastal protection and restoration goes to protecting our wetlands, not to building civic centers and highways or to plug other holes in the state's budget.

A recent study by Audubon underscores the urgency for preserving the coastal wetlands for birds. Nearly half of the birds in North America could lose over 50 percent of the areas where they live before the end of this century, according to 30 years of data collected and analyzed by Audubon. In addition to the Piping Plover, threatened species include Louisiana's state bird, the Brown Pelican, and the Roseate Spoonbill, a showy pink wading bird with an oversized spoon-shaped bill.

The coastal plains of Louisiana and neighboring Texas are going to be critical "strongholds"--places that in the future will provide the right habitat for birds that are forced out of other ranges because the weather becomes too wet or too dry, too hot or too cold. These "strongholds" will give vulnerable birds a fighting chance to hold on in the face of climate change.

This is not Louisiana's problem; this is America's Great Delta. To see how you can take action, visit here.

David Yarnold is President and CEO of the National Audubon Society.