Thriving Yet Vulnerable Louisiana Estuary Takes Steps to Join Federal System

Public input sought to help define Atchafalaya National Estuarine Research Reserve

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Thriving Yet Vulnerable Louisiana Estuary Takes Steps to Join Federal System
Nearly three dozen white ibises—large white birds with long, arcing, yellow beaks—alight on trees in a swampy, forested area.
White ibises, which can typically be found in shallow wetlands and estuaries in the southeastern United States, are often in Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin during nesting season. Federal and state officials are seeking to protect a portion of the basin by having it designated as a National Estuarine Research Reserve.
Philip Gould Getty Images

On April 20, one of Louisiana’s most vibrant and biodiverse natural habitats could move a step closer to gaining protection as a National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR). Two public meetings—on April 20 and 25—will help shape the proposed reserve, which is in the vast Atchafalaya Basin. The sessions will help inform the NERR’s environmental impact statement (EIS), a foundational document that will settle critical details of the site, including its precise boundaries.

If designated, the site would be the 31st NERR in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, and the first in Louisiana.

The first of the two scoping meetings, led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA), will be held in person on April 20, at 5 p.m. CDT at the Morgan City Auditorium, 728 Myrtle St., in Morgan City, Louisiana. The second meeting will be held virtually on April 25, at noon CDT, on CPRA’s YouTube channel. Meeting documents are available on the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority’s website and at a federal website

The Atchafalaya Basin is home to hundreds of species of fish, birds, plants, and other wildlife, while also generating significant economic contributions to local communities. It encompasses the largest area of forested wetlands in North America with nearly 1 million acres, and is one of only 36 global “biodiversity hotspots,” meaning it is one of the world’s most rich and diverse—but also threatened—terrestrial areas.

In 2022, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards (D) nominated a portion of the basin to be designated as a reserve, which would support educational programs and research of the area and its vital yet vulnerable resources. Sites within the National Estuarine Research Reserve System benefit from technical and financial support from NOAA but are managed either by a state agency or a state university or other public entity, often with help from local, regional, or statewide nongovernmental organizations.

Louisiana is experiencing greater coastal wetland loss than all other states in the contiguous U.S. combined—at a rate equal to the area of a football field every 100 minutes—and has lost approximately 25% of its wetland area since 1932. However, while every other basin in Louisiana has lost land, the Atchafalaya Basin is unique in that it has a growing delta system and has gained more than 4,000 acres of wetlands since 1932.

The National Estuarine Research Reserve System is a growing network of coastal and Great Lakes areas that currently cover nearly 1.4 million acres of estuaries in 24 states and Puerto Rico. Congress created the system under the Coastal Zone Management Act in 1972, with the aim of protecting and studying the country’s estuaries. Today, NERRS sites are used for education, recreation, training, research, and monitoring of ecosystems, and are popular with local communities.

State and federal officials encourage public comments about the proposed Louisiana reserve and its EIS, and strongly prefer that they be submitted online via NOAA’s portal. (Click the green “Submit a Formal Comment” button and follow the instructions.) Comments also may be submitted by mail to: Kristin Ransom, Stewardship Division, Office for Coastal Management, NOS, NOAA, 1021 Balch Blvd., Stennis Space Center, MS 39529, ATTN: LA NERR. The deadline for both online and written comments is May 15. Questions about the hearings may be addressed to Ransom at the address above or via email at [email protected].

Tom Wheatley manages ocean conservation in the Gulf of Mexico, and the support and expansion of the National Estuarine Research Reserve System, as part of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ conserving marine life in the United States project.

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