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Coastal Desk

Coastal News Roundup: Burning The Marsh To Strengthen The Coast

Tristan Baurick
/ | The Times-Picayune
McIlhenny Co. land manager Heath Romero lights a fire in the marsh surrounding Avery Island on Dec. 10, 2018. Prescribed burns like these appear to improve marsh health, making them resistant to erosion and rising seas.

This week on the Coastal News Roundup: marshes are usually pretty wet, so you might not think they'd burn -- but near Avery Island, land managers are lighting them on fire. Plus, we discuss conflict of interest accusations around one of the state’s big coastal restoration projects.

WWNO’s Travis Lux talks about the week in coastal news with environment reporter Tristan Baurick from | The Times-Picayune.



The interview transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity.

Q: You went out to New Iberia this week where people were setting the marsh on fire on purpose. Can you describe what that looked like?

It was around Avery Island, where Tabasco is made. The family that owns Tabasco also owns thousands of acres of marsh, and they set about half of it on fire every year. They call them prescribed burns, and the one I was on was this big sweeping fire that moved really fast across the marsh. It burned about 50 acres in about two hours. The fire put up a lot of thick smoke that blocked the sun for a while and it looked like the sun had set, even though it was around noon

Q: How did they start it?

It was really simple. Just a propane torch. Touched it to the tinder, dry grass.

Q: These landowners think this will help with coastal land loss -- what’s the logic there?

There’s a lot of land managers that have been burning marshes for a long time. They’ve been doing it for a lot of reasons. Some say it makes hunting and trapping easier, some people do it for grazing cattle.

But there’s research coming out that these prescribed burns actually make the marsh grow back stronger and healthier. The fires get rid of the old or dead plantlife, and the ash fertilizes the soil. The plants that come back tend to hold the marsh in place, and resist the erosion and subsidence that’s a problem across the coast in Louisiana.

Q: Is this kind of a fringe idea -- in terms of making the land stronger? Or is it becoming more common?

It’s becoming more common for ecological reasons. There are three wildlife refuges in southwest Louisiana that burn around 30,000 acres every year, and they do it just for ecological reasons.  They want to continue doing it, but the more they burn, the more nearby residents complain - so that’s going to be an ongoing conflict.

Q: There’s been this ongoing beef between the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) and Plaquemines Parish. This week, the outgoing president of Plaquemines Parish, Amos Cormier, accused [former CPRA Board chair] Johnny Bradberry of a conflict of interest. Bradberry stepped down from his role as board chair last week to take a job in the private sector. So what is this beef about?

Cormier has been fighting the CPRA’s plan for two sediment diversions in Plaquemines Parish. The diversions are supposed to channel the Mississippi River through gaps in the levees and into marshes. These marshes are starved of river sediment because of the levees, and that’s making the land loss crisis worse there. Cormier has been worried the diversions will hurt shrimpers and oyster growers and that it could increase flood risk in his parish.

This latest dust up is over the job that Bradberry’s taking. He’ll be the president of a company that’s leading part of the diversion’s permitting process.

Q: So the accusation is that Bradberry might have pushed for the diversion partly because he was aiming for a job in that company?.

Yeah, that’s kind of the accusation. Bradberry has pledged to stay out of any project that he might have been involved in at the CPRA. It’s not clear how far Plaquemines is going to push this. Cormier was just defeated at the polls, and his replacement – Plaquemines Councilman Kirk Lepine – is staying quiet about this issue right now.

You can listen to the Coastal News Roundup every Friday morning at 7:45am, and every Friday afternoon at 4:44pm.

Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Walton Family Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Foundation for Louisiana, and local listeners.

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