From the Delta to the Headwaters
We have to push for practices that do what is right for people, industry, commerce, and habitat. In my mind, restoring the Mississippi River Delta is the next piece of the puzzle in a long fight to protect waterfowl habitat.
A few weeks ago I left my home in south Louisiana, as I often do, to travel the country and spread the word about the massive wetland loss we are experiencing on the Mississippi River Delta. More specifically, the purpose of these long nights away from my home and my family is to engage sportsmen’s groups, organizations, and businesses to help them understand how much we all stand to lose if we don’t restore the delta. The ultimate goal is to actively involve them in the fight for restoration.
This is my job. It’s what I do, it’s who I am, and I love it. I don’t love the fact that this national treasure is falling apart before our very eyes, but I do love that I play an active part in working to restore this special place. Admittedly and maybe obviously, I’m focused on and addicted to the delta.
For this particular trip, I was headed to the Anoka Game Fair in Minnesota, a two-weekend gathering of all things waterfowl. I had been looking forward to this trip because Minnesota is where it all begins—the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi. I’ve spent almost my entire life at the southern end of this beautiful river, and somehow, this would be my first time visiting its northernmost reaches.
The Game Fair was great: two weekends surrounded by folks who are passionate about waterfowl hunting. We made new friends, caught up with old ones, and spent a lot of time talking to folks about delta restoration and how we need the help of all sportsmen to make restoration a reality. During the course of my work and travels, I often make the comment that as sportsmen and women across the country, the Mississippi River, the flyway, and the delta connects us all. This is something that waterfowlers understand. After all, the Mississippi River Delta serves as the wintering or stop-over grounds for more than 10 million migratory waterfowl each year. Most folks who pursue ducks and geese understand their migratory nature, and that each section of habitat along the journey is as important as the next. Without the Prairie Pothole region, we wouldn’t have ducks to hunt as they winter down on the delta. Without the delta, there wouldn’t be a healthy return flight to start the process anew each year. This example of waterfowl and the flyway is perhaps the most obvious and easy-to-understand illustration that we as sportsmen are connected by much more than our love of the hunt. Our opportunities depend on the stewardship of others and vice-versa. This idea, that we are all connected by the landscape and the resource, is the foundation of everything I’m doing when traveling the country. I firmly believe this idea to be fact, and while in Minnesota I was reminded just how true this idea is.
To most folks a wetland is just a wetland, no matter where you are. I look at it a bit differently. I’ve been fortunate enough to work on wetland issues ranging from high elevation bogs 9,000 feet above sea level in the Rocky Mountains, to the marshes in Louisiana which are sinking further and further below sea level each day. I have never been in a wetland that is the same as the previous one or the next one. They each have their own character and subtle differences. To me, that is what makes this type of habitat so interesting. Arriving in Minnesota, I was excited to see the differences in wetland habitat between the headwaters and the delta. However, once I arrived it wasn’t the differences that had my attention, it was the similarities.
I found that the wetlands in both areas are struggling against a very similar fight for survival. Both the headwaters region and the delta were once tremendously productive waterfowl habitat. Unfortunately, the wetlands in both areas are disappearing at an alarming rate. As I spent more time talking with waterfowlers during the trip to Minnesota, it became apparent that the loss of wetland habitat binds the headwaters and the delta as much as the flyway or the river.
It’s important to note that when we talk about restoring the delta’s wetlands, you can’t forget that this area is a working landscape. By this I mean that it’s not unimpeded wilderness, void of the influence of man, industry, and commerce. This is the same for the wetlands in the headwaters region. Minnesota has been, and remains, a very important working agricultural landscape, a landscape from which we all benefit.
Down on the delta, the connection between the river and the wetlands has been severed by levees. The annual spring floods of the river and the deposition of its sediment are what built the wetlands of the delta. Now, that water and sediment no longer reaches the rapidly vanishing wetlands. All of that sediment is funneled into the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The purpose of severing this connection is to provide flood control and navigation opportunities. I’m not attacking the idea of protecting communities from flooding or arguing that navigation isn’t necessary; I’ll be the first to admit that we need to manage the Mississippi River for flood control and navigation. In fact my brother and father both make their living on the river in the navigation business. In Minnesota, wetlands are rapidly disappearing as more and more water becomes tied up in agriculture, particularly due to the irrigation practice referred to as “tiling.” The wetlands that would previously flood or hold water after irrigation are now dry. I will also admit that agriculture is incredibly important. Hell, we all have to eat.
We kept hearing from Minnesota hunters that it wasn’t worth the effort anymore to hunt ducks. People we spoke to said that the flyway has shifted west, to the Dakotas, because agricultural practices in Minnesota have all but eliminated once plentiful wetlands found on agricultural land. We often heard comments like, “It’s too late. The water is gone, and the ducks are gone. How are a small number of waterfowlers and conservationists supposed to combat the practices of a powerful industry like agriculture, especially when we depend on agriculture so much?” I can tell you, we hear the same thing on the Delta all the time. Are we supposed to take on flood control—which protects our families and homes? Are we supposed to fight the navigation industry—which many of us rely on for goods, services, and jobs?
So what do we do? Do we go to war with flood control, navigation, and agriculture? That hardly seems like a good idea or a fight that a small group of sportsmen and conservationists could win. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind being the underdog—after all I was a New Orleans Saints fan back when you couldn’t give tickets away! But realistically, I think we can all agree that it’s not the simple existence of these three things that are ruining waterfowl habitat and wiping wetlands off the face of the map. Instead, I believe it is how we go about managing our resources for flood control, navigation, and agriculture. And this is the fight that we must take on without turning our backs on these practices and industries.
Instead we have to do it better and smarter. It is possible to manage the Mississippi River in a way that addresses the goals of flood control, navigation, and restoring habitat. It is possible to manage agricultural operations for production and habitat without choking every last drop of water through a tiling system.
So what’s my point? We have to be attentive to the needs of industries that we rely on, but not at the cost of every last inch of wetlands that we have been given. If we as sportsmen don’t choose the fight and commit ourselves to it we’re going to lose. We’re going to lose wetlands habitat, waterfowl and the tradition that goes with it. I’m a firm believer that protecting and restoring habitat on the delta or in the headwaters region doesn’t just mean building wetlands. It means protecting a heritage and a privilege that hunters and anglers understand.
We have to push for practices that do what is right for people, industry, commerce, and habitat. If sportsmen and women from Minnesota don’t get behind restoring the delta, we won’t win. If sportsmen and women from the delta can’t be counted on when hunters in the headwaters region are fighting for wetlands, we won’t win. In my mind, restoring the Mississippi River Delta is the next piece of the puzzle in a long fight to protect waterfowl habitat. If we don’t band together and get it right, we will look back and say, “That was the one—The one fight that we as sportsmen can’t afford to lose.” And when our friends in the headwaters need us, we’ll be there.