Audubon in Action

Plans to Build an Airport in a Louisiana Bird Refuge Canceled After Outcry

Elmer's Island Wildlife Refuge hosts almost 200 species of birds annually. That seems like a bad place for airplanes.

The plan to build a commercial airport on critically important bird habitat along the Louisiana coast hit some unexpected turbulence in late September after Nola.com published a story about the deal. 

According to the report, in mid-August, the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries had “quietly approved” an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) with the Grand Isle Independent Levee District (GIILD) to build the airport. According to Erik Johnson, director of bird conservation at Audubon Louisiana, the agreement between the the two allowed GIILD to explore the potential for an airport, but plans were far from finalized. Still, the agreement had shocked conservationists and scientists throughout Louisiana. Johnson, whose Coastal Stewardship Program includes Elmer's Island Wildlife Refuge, told Nola.com that the move “came out of nowhere.”

“Birds and airports just don’t mix,” Johnson said. "The idea is pretty bizarre." 

Indeed. With planes sharing the same air space as millions of birds, the potential for dangerous and deadly collisions would be great. Fortunately, that possibility is already no longer an issue. After the Nola.com story shed more light on the plans, a public comment period—and uproar—ensued. This past Thursday the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries officially announced that it would rescind the agreement. 

Images of the airport's proposed design showed that two half-mile-long airstrips would have extended across Elmer's Island Wildlife Refuge, a 1,145-acre tract of critical habitat for migratory birds. The narrow strip of natural beach, dunes, and wetlands is a stopover for more than 5 million migratory birds that cross the Gulf of Mexico each spring and continue north through the Mississippi River Basin.

Of the 170 bird species that Louisiana's Department of Wildlife and Fisheries identifies as reliant on the island, 40 of them are of conservation concern in Louisiana, including the Mottled Duck, Wilson’s Plover, Least Tern, and Seaside Sparrow. Some of Audubon Louisiana’s work on the refuge includes installing protective fencing for beach-nesting birds.

This is not the first time the island has been the target of development projects. In the 1990s, there was talk of building a casino, a convention center, and even a theme park. But in 2008, Wildlife and Fisheries acquired much of the island and established the Elmer’s Island Wildlife Refuge. The airport, which proponents said would increase tourism to the refuge and surrounding areas, was set to be build over top an old airstrip that outdates the refuge. 

Once Audubon Louisiana discovered the plans to build a new airport, the group immediately let the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries know it did not approve of the agreement while taking to social media to help raise public awareness. According to Cynthia Duet, deputy director at Audubon Louisiana, plenty of other groups and individuals were also disturbed by the news. 

“When we learned about airport plans, so close to the beach where we work to protect sensitive beach nesting bird areas each summer, a couple of us met with leadership at the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries to discuss our concerns,” Duet said in an email. “After further consideration and review, the state made a wise decision to rescind the agreement to lease the property.”

The decision isn't only good for birds and other wildlife. Construction and infrastructure can hasten landscape degradation. As a healthy barrier island, Elmer's serves as an important natural buffer between people living along the coast and rising sea levels and increasingly stronger storm storms caused by climate change—both of which are likely to only get worse in the coming decades. And in that regard, building a new commercial airport on a coastal island might be a bad idea for a lot of reasons these days. 

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