Professors' book details causes, consequences of environmental transformation of Manchac Swamp
Contact: Christina Chapple
HAMMOND – The first European to set foot in the Manchac Swamp – explorer Pierre Lemoyne, Sieur d'Iberville in 1699 – called it “one of the prettiest spots I have seen.”
In a new book that borrows the explorer’s quote for its title, two Southeastern Louisiana University history professors have documented the environmental transformation of the wetlands from prehistoric times to the present.
“One of the Prettiest Spots I Have Seen: Politics, Industry and the Destruction of the Manchac Swamp Ecosystem” illustrates how “war, greed and ignorance” have produced an ecological catastrophe carrying huge implications for the region in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, said authors Samuel C. Hyde Jr. and Keith M. Finley of Southeastern’s Center for Southeast Louisiana Studies.
“We’re trying to understand what happened so we can correct the abuses of the past and create a blueprint for rebuilding in the future,” said Hyde, Southeastern’s Ford Chair in Regional Studies and the center’s director. He said the book “will hopefully serve as a wake up call to policy planners and the general public suggesting that the time to act to save the ecosystem is now, while also reminding them of the dire consequences of inaction.”
The product of more than two years of research, “One of the Prettiest Spots I Have Seen” is one of a trio of related projects funded by a $63,000 grant from the university’s Lake Pontchartrain Basin Research Program and the Environmental Protection Agency. Its companion pieces are an award-winning 30-minute video and an interactive exhibit – each illustrating the causes and consequences of the ecosystem’s decline.
“The film, the exhibit and the book were designed to reach as broad a base as possible, the youngest kids with the exhibit, more passive observers with the film. The book is the most detailed aspect,” Hyde said.
“We go back to Iberville’s first written account, when it was a lush swamp, very much like a rain forest with parakeets flying around, birds, buffalo, deer in abundance,” he said. “We start with that day and identify all of the stressors, human and non-human, that have impacted the transformation of the environment.”
These include Andrew Jackson’s sealing off Bayou Manchac, a frequently used shortcut connecting the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, to deter the British during the War of 1812; post-Civil War technological advances that made possible the wholesale harvesting of cypress forests; and the introduction to the area of environmentally harmful nutria and water hyacinths.
“One of the things we try to stress is that if people do not wake up and take action right now, it’s going to be too late,” Hyde said. “As we say in the book and the film, if we do not arrest the corroding tendencies that are occurring down there, that majestic swamp is going to eventually turn into a marsh and then to open water.”
The importance of action, Finley said, was crystallized by devastation caused in August 2005 by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. “We finished the manuscript and the film shortly after the hurricanes,” he said. “It added a whole new sense of purpose to what we were doing.”
More than half of the 1,000 copies of “One of the Prettiest Spots I Have Seen” have already been distributed to public officials and other policy makers, Hyde said. Copies are available to the general public at the Center for Southeast Louisiana Studies, located in Southeastern’s Sims Memorial Library.
With a new $65,000 EPA grant, Hyde and his staff are now partnering with wetlands scientists, including colleagues from Southeastern, to produce another film that will address the future, detailing what can be done to arrest coastal erosion and restore the swamplands and the Lake Pontchartrain Basin.
“We can only do so much as historians,” said Finley. “We can find out what happened and how we got to where we are right now. We’re asking the scientific community to fill us in on the possibilities for changing things – what can we do to reverse the process.”
“We will write the narrative and put the research that we’ve done and the research the scientists are doing into a cohesive narrative that can both entertain and educate,” said Hyde, who has written and produced six films.
Although the new film will not have a companion book, it will have a traveling, interactive exhibit, he said.
“If there is a silver lining in a very dark period in our state, this may be it,” Finley said. “The catastrophe of Katrina may compel lawmakers to finally pay attention to Louisiana and the problems that we face here. If we can keep pushing the subject, getting the issues out there, maybe we can finally affect some kind of change.”