Editor’s Note: this piece, written by Dr. Keith Ouchley, the executive director of The Nature Conservancy in Louisiana and a freshwater expert, was originally posted on The Nature Conservancy’s Cool Green Science blog earlier today. Also check out last Saturday’s Planet Change blog post by the Conservancy’s Frank Lowenstein, which discusses these floods in the context of climate change.
The alligator’s head moved only slightly as he tracked my movements while I walked along the flooded road not 150 yards from my front porch here in south Louisiana. I paused to inspect the ancient reptile that the record high waters had brought close to my home in this small Mississippi River town.
As the alligator floated in the flooded woodlands I thought how perfectly adapted it seemed to a life in the swamps of the Delta. Its ancestors had perfected its form nearly 100 million years ago and they had survived through shifting continents, myriad ice ages, and an entire host of other environmental changes through an amazing span of time. How is it that a species such as the alligator could survive through such major planetary changes?
I thought about the events of only the past several years that I had seen in my home state – epic hurricanes, an oil spill of historic proportions, and now a raging flood on the nation’s largest river of which the likes hadn’t been seen in nearly 100 years. It can be challenging sometimes to live along the Mississippi Delta, whether you are an alligator or a human.
Unlike the alligator, humans have only been here for a short span of geologic time, perhaps less than ten thousand years. Earlier in the morning I had stood with my brother at a site known as Poverty Point. Three thousand years ago humans had constructed the second largest earthen mound in North America on a ridge along the rich delta bottomlands. They were a hunter-gather society and no doubt the inhabitants of Poverty Point knew the alligator well.
Through time the human cultures of the Delta flourished. The native populations gave way to a wave of Europeans. But through it all the big river and its system of tributaries and distributaries shaped and re-shaped the natural environment in which the humans and alligators have lived. But while the alligator modifies its environment by making thin trails or modest “waller holes” in the swamps, humans have the capacity to completely alter the natural environment in which we live.
We have leveed the big river and, for the most part, isolated it from its once wild natural floodplain. We have channeled its flow away from its wetlands and dumped the land-enriching sediments it carries into the deep waters of the Gulf. We have transformed its rich floodplain into one of the most productive agricultural areas on the planet. The world depends on it for food and fiber and we have built our towns and cities throughout it.
When major floods or hurricanes threaten today, millions of human lives and billions of dollars of assets are at risk. We have extracted hydrocarbons from the big river’s deltaic plan to fuel the economy of our nation. Last year those same hydrocarbons spilled across the coast of the river’s delta impacting human communities and natural communities alike while the world watched in amazement. It was an event that the neither the people of Poverty Point nor the alligator could even begin to comprehend.
While we have changed the environment, and in many ways made our own society more susceptible to both natural and man-made disturbances, we also have the capacity to heal and help restore the Delta. I am proud of the fact that we have helped protect tens of thousands of acres of remaining forests in the Delta. We have planted millions of trees back to the rich bottomland soils. And, in strategic places, we have begun to reconnect the floodplain back to the river and restore the bayous and creeks that are an integral part of this amazing system.The system is resilient and given the help, it can heal.
Through loss of habitat and persecution, the alligator was an endangered species not too long ago. Today, through conservation efforts the alligator numbers in the millions. Like the humans of the Delta, the alligator is a resilient species. As I watched the head of the alligator slowly sink beneath the backwater of the flooding Mississippi near my home, the events of the past several years again flashed through my mind. I hoped that we could both somehow continue to co-exist along America’s largest river.
Dr. Keith Ouchley is the executive director of The Nature Conservancy in Louisiana. Dr. Ouchley is a native of Louisiana and has been involved in various forms of conservation throughout his life. He holds a Bachelor of Science and Master of Science in Biology from the University of Louisiana, Monroe and a Ph.D. in Wildlife Ecology from LSU.
Image © Carlton Ward, Jr. (an alligator glides through the reflection of green cypress trees in a pond on Babcock Ranch, Charlotte County, Florida)
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