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Saving America's Marsh

Coastal wetland loss and degradation are threatening Louisiana's rich hunting and fishing heritage
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by Gary Koehler

Saving America's Marsh The doors to Buras Auditorium are unlocked promptly at five o'clock on a balmy Friday night in February. Byron Prest and a supporting cast of 13 Ducks Unlimited volunteers are ready and waiting. Between 350 and 400 guests are expected, a number almost equal to the entire population of this southeast Louisiana hamlet.

Located adjacent to the Mississippi River 64 miles south of New Orleans, Buras may be best known for its role in a 2005 drama starring Hurricane Katrina, which made its second angry landfall right here. The storm ravaged the area with winds of up to 200 mph. Before long, more than 20 feet of water covered the entire town.

Houses washed away. Businesses were destroyed. Schools closed for the final time. The venerable cement-and-brick auditorium, a landmark for more than 50 years, was damaged to the point where it had to be gutted and rebuilt. People lost their livelihoods. And nearly everything else. Except hope. Overcoming steep odds is a way of life in this part of the world.

"Ever since Katrina, our DU dinner has become as much a social gathering as anything," Prest says. "A lot of people left town and moved away after the storm. They come back here to see old friends and family. It's a big night."

Plaquemines Parish has hosted a DU fundraising event since the 1970s, when Warren Barroif of nearby Port Sulphur founded the first chapter. He later passed the chairman's torch to Leroy "Buddy" Cosse, a high school football coach, who then tapped Prest, one of eight of his former players on the current committee, to take over. 

Prest, who owns a boat dealership, has headed the group for the past 11 years. Natural attrition has taken its toll, but Prest happily reports that three first-year volunteers are in their late twenties. 

"They're young guys who took an interest in what we're doing. We're glad to have them," Prest says. "Most of the people who come to the dinner are from here, or at least used to live around here. There are a few commercial fishermen, oystermen, and those affiliated with the oil field in some way. And this year we have some people who are working in the area because of the oil spill."

The dinner went well, although a portion of the menu may seem foreign to most yankees. Not everywhere does one find an oyster bar, or red bean soup. The final head count was in the neighborhood of 430 DU supporters. The committee raised $98,491, net. Both numbers are likely to be among the state's top 10. Not bad for a community that was all but washed off the map. 

Of course, having a fabulous duck season always helps. "We had a lot of birds this year," Prest says. "There were some issues with water because it was dry and the Mississippi River was down and it was hard to get around. But besides that, it was a great season."

While some brown pelicans, black skimmers, and other birds were victims of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service earlier this year reported finding less than 50 dead migratory waterfowl in affected areas. Gulf Coast wetlands, however, remain under siege. Since 2005, Louisiana has lost 340 square miles—more than 217,000 acres—of coastal marsh and shoreline habitat, including 215 square miles to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. More than 1 million acres of the state's coastal wetlands have disappeared during the past 60 years. The widespread loss of coastal marsh means less food for waterfowl. Research indicates that the Gulf Coast region may no longer have enough waterfowl foraging habitat to support duck populations at North American Waterfowl Management Plan goals.

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