For the past ten months we’ve spent a bit of time prowling the bayous, creeks, swamps, rivers and the gulf waters of Southern Louisiana, working on a film about the relationship between man and water there … a rich subject in a place where any glance over your shoulder and you’re about to fall into the drink. Despite some serious water issues – a booming dead zone caused by fertilizer run-off primarily from the upper Midwest, a land and populace far too accustomed to oil spills and the leave-behind-mess of the $62 billion a year oil and gas industry that dominates the region, Cyprus trees being cut for garden mulch and sold at local box stores, a variety of erosion and pollution issues putting America’s biggest fishery at great risk – the people we’ve met and worked with and filmed couldn’t have been a more vital, full-of-life crowd.
In recent weeks one place we filmed, a beautiful swamp near Baton Rouge called Alligator Bayou used for the past decade as an educational playground for kids from all over the region, has gone through major alterations. Actually, the gates that have made it swampland for the past fifty years have been opened, the swamp largely drained. It’s yet another great modern-day battle between developers (who want access to the land to use as “mitigation” banks – basically a hedge bought by builders who plan to impact other wetlands and will the newly-drained swamp as “credit”) and environmentalists.
Like most developer-enviro fights this has a long and complicated history. Read through Amy Wold’s story in the Baton Rouge Advocate and see if you can get to the bottom of the mess. All I know, from this distance, is that Frank Bonifay and Jim Ragland – who bought the place a decade ago and opened it as a nature center – could have gotten rich over the years by selling off the land. Instead, as they showed us last August when Frank motored us slowly around the bayou watching cranes and alligators, it was clear they truly loved the place for its beauty and uniqueness. That the swamp is now surrounded by encroaching McMansions, whose owners and future-builders want more land to build on and less swamp, appears to have been its death-knell.
That said, Frank is a feisty guy. He may very well figure out a way to close the big gates that have kept the swamp wet these past fifty years and recreate his own personal dreamscape.