Iconic Gulf Coast Forests Get a Much-needed Boost

Birds in Alabama and Louisiana will benefit from a new $158 million investment to restore wetlands.

The Gulf Coast is known for its dramatic scenery—Spanish moss hanging from cypress trees in a foggy swamp, or pine savannas that are home to carnivorous plants—and this week, those special places are getting the support they need, thanks to the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council.

Last December, the Council announced its plans to spend $158 million in fines resulting from the BP oil disaster on two long-overdue projects to restore wetlands and river ecosystems on the Gulf Coast. Thanks in part to the more than 2,600 Audubon supporters who submitted comments to the Council, both will be funded: the River Reintroduction into Maurepas Swamp project in Louisiana, and the Perdido River Land Conservation and Habitat Enhancements project on the Alabama-Florida border.

The River Reintroduction into Maurepas Swamp project will replenish one of the largest remaining undivided swamps in the lower Mississippi River valley, and the site of an Important Bird Area. Made up of more than 100,000 acres of tall bald cypress and tupelo trees that form a cathedral-like canopy, the swamp has been rapidly deteriorating as humans altered the ecosystem. The swamp was almost completely deforested in the early 1900s, cut off from the Mississippi River by a huge system of levees, and diced up by canals and ditches. Without cycles of flooding and dry periods to replenish its lost trees, the forest succumbed to saltwater intrusion and began to disappear. In some parts, the swamp has been converted into a marsh, which in turn is quickly becoming open water.

Despite this dramatic loss, researchers have found a large population of Prothonotary Warblers and Northern Parulas that breed in the swamp, as well as Bald Eagles, herons, egrets and ibises. Now, Katie Percy, a biologist with Audubon Louisiana, is collecting baseline data before the diversion is built to better understand how birds respond to river diversion projects like this. This diversion, along with others planned in the region, will reverse this loss by reintroducing fresh, oxygenated water and adding new sediment to increase the elevation and support the next generation of trees.

On the Alabama-Florida border, the Perdido River Land Conservation and Habitat Enhancements project will help another iconic type of forest on the Gulf Coast—the longleaf pine forest. Dependent on fires, these pine savannas used to dominate the upper Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas. Longleaf pines host a rich diversity of plants and animals like the secretive Yellow Rail,  the carnivorous pitcher plant, as well as the gopher tortoise.  The project will acquire approximately 10,000 acres of new public lands in the Perdido River watershed, connecting existing public lands across state lines including another Important Bird Area. The project will also promote nature tourism and environmental education along the Perdido River Paddle Trail that is jointly managed by the states of Alabama and Florida. This is a great example of two states working together to preserve and enhance a valuable watershed they share.

The Council is charged with overseeing billions of dollars in fines paid by BP and other responsible parties following the devastating BP oil disaster. In response to the disaster, Audubon and its partners worked to pass the bipartisan RESTORE Act, which created the Council and directs Clean Water Act fines to be spent on projects that restore the Gulf Coast’s environment and economy, not just from the BP oil disaster but from the decades of degradation that these forests and other ecosystems have faced. These two projects will also improve water quality and increase coastal resilience against storms, flooding, and coastal erosion, providing critical buffer areas for our wildlife and coastal communities.

As we approach the 10-year anniversary of the BP oil disaster, we commend the Council for working together across state lines to continue restoring the Gulf. Over the next year, Council members will propose additional restoration projects in other Gulf states, and Audubon will continue to implement our vision to restore the Gulf for birds and people.