Bayou Baptiste Collette is a shortcut used by fishermen and offshore supply boats to get from the Mississippi River at Venice in Plaquemines Parish to Breton Sound. The willows, the tall roseau cane and marsh grass that cover the wetlands here offer a patchwork of greens that contrasts with an unusually blue June sky. Our 27-foot boat leaves the rock jetties of Baptiste Collette and heads due east across the open bay. Ten minutes later, biologist Nancy Walters of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service points to the horizon: “There it is, Breton Island.” It takes a few moments to begin to see the land forming in the distance. Breton is a crescent-shaped island that separates the bay from the Gulf of Mexico. The island’s only inhabitants are sports fishermen who sometimes stay for a few days on one of several floating camps.
Today, Walters is leading an expedition of high school students from Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes. Most of the teens are members of 4-H clubs who will spend the day planting grass and building picket fences on the island’s low sand dunes.
“One of the goals is restoration of the island,” Walters explains. “But another purpose is to get the kids out here and get them connected with the island.”
Michael Fabian, a graduate of Buras High school, starts the gasoline engine of a power auger. This is the second year that Fabian has traveled to Breton to dig post holes for a sand fence. “Man, putting it up like this is hard work. It’s a workout,” he says. Last year, the teenagers built 2,500 feet of picket fencing. Already, the older fencing is demonstrating its effectiveness in trapping sand and adding to Breton’s dunes. The fences that were placed on a flat sand beach a year ago are partially buried beneath a mound of sand that crests at a height of 6 feet. Fabian is impressed with the results of last year’s labor. “The sand builds up, man – it’s amazing.”
The goal is to extend the sand dune and rebuild a weak point in the island that was breached by recent hurricanes. “It was cut by Hurricane Georges . It was cut by Isidore and Lili . So it’s slowly rebuilding,” Walters explains. “And what we’re trying to do is just accelerate that with sand fencing and also vegetation.”
Other volunteers are planting sea oats. The roots of these grassy plants will help strengthen the growing dune. Lindsey Davis, a freshman at Mount Carmel Academy in New Orleans, says she needed service hours for school. “We really wanted to help [prevent] coastal erosion,” Davis says. This is Davis’ first trip to one of Louisiana’s barrier islands. She is surprised to see the dunes and the sandy beach. “I think it’s really pretty. It’s really hot. I think it’d be a fun place to just come and go to the beach.”
This same beach impressed another first-time visitor on a hot June day 89 years earlier. In 1915, President Theodore Roosevelt traveled to Breton Island with his friend John Parker, who five years later would be elected governor of Louisiana. During his five-day visit to Breton, the former president marveled at the abundance of pelicans. “The sky above was alive with the graceful, long-winged things,” Roosevelt wrote in a journal he named A Book Lover’s Holiday in the Open.
While he was president, Roosevelt signed an executive order dated Oct. 4, 1904, creating the Breton National Wildlife Refuge. The Louisiana island chain is the second-oldest refuge in the United States. President Roosevelt, an avid sportsman and conservationist, created the wildlife refuge at the urging of the National Audubon Society as a way to protect Breton’s birds from poachers. “Our duty to the whole, including the unborn generations, bids us restrain an unprincipled present-day minority from wasting the heritage of these unborn generations,” Roosevelt wrote.
The Breton National Wildlife Refuge includes all of the islands in the Chandeleur chain off the coast of southeast Louisiana. Two thousand years ago, the Mississippi River was on a different course and created the islands as part of the river’s St. Bernard delta. The largest of the islands is Chandeleur, a 20-mile-long sliver of sandy beach and low dunes on the Gulf of Mexico that serves as a barrier for the fragile wetlands of St. Bernard and eastern Plaquemines parishes. Below Chandeleur are the small islands of Grand Gosier and Curlew. The southernmost island is Breton.
The refuge has long been popular with fishermen who wade in the surf of its beaches and anchor their boats in the shallow marshes that face away from the Gulf. Breton also houses the Gulf Coast’s largest nesting colony of the endangered brown pelican. The wildlife refuge provides sanctuary for a variety of seabirds. The laughing gulls and the smaller royal, Caspian and sandwich terns nest in abundance on the islands. Colonies of colorful skimmers, with their long orange beaks, white breasts and black feathers, stand at attention along the water’s edge.
The scene today is similar to the description written by Roosevelt during his 1915 visit. The president detailed the nesting habits and interaction between the different species of birds: “The laughing gulls and the black skimmers were often found with their nests intermingled, and they hovered over our heads with the same noisy protest against our presence.”
SWARMING WITH BIRDS
In June 2004, the refuge’s greatest concentration of nesting pelicans and seabirds is on West Island. This small island used to be the western tip of Breton Island. But hurricanes and storms have severed any connection between the two land masses.
The sky above West Island is swarming with birds. On the ground, thousands of large pelican nests, twisted mounds of twigs and cane, are packed into thickets of black mangrove shrubs. By late June, most of the pelican eggs have hatched. The awkward young pelicans, now a few weeks old, are covered with white down. The rich green landscape of the island’s interior is speckled with thousands of white infant pelicans and the taller brown and white heads of their parents. The air is warm and thick with the odor of birds. An adult pelican stays with each nest while the other parent searches for food. When humans approach, the larger birds fly a short distance and circle overhead. The young birds are exposed and appear nervous, but they are unable to fly or walk. As the parents return to the nests, their young offspring probe inside the adult pelican’s long beak, retrieving scraps of food from the large pouch that hangs from the bird’s neck.
One must be careful when walking on West Island. The laughing gulls have nests scattered everywhere along the low-lying dunes. The gulls’ small straw nests lay on the ground, often hidden behind the sea oats. Closer to the water’s edge, the royal terns lay their eggs in tiny holes in the sand. The number of bird nests on West Island is astounding. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates the island is home to 7,500 pelicans nests, 30,000 nests of royal and sandwich terns, and up to 50,000 laughing gull nests.
DIGNITARIES BY BOAT
On June 25, 2004, this scene of birth and regeneration of endangered species becomes the backdrop for a small group of dignitaries who arrive at West Island by boat. Before the crew boat is close enough for its passengers to wade to shore, one of the guests, an investment banker from New York, jumps into the water and swims to the island. The impetuous visitor is Theodore Roosevelt IV, the great-grandson of the president who created this refuge 100 years earlier. Roosevelt, along with the grandson of former governor John Parker and the president of the National Audubon Society are at Breton to commemorate the refuge’s 100th anniversary. “I couldn’t think of a better way of coming here,” Roosevelt explains. “To come out of the water, watching the pelicans wheel over me, looking down and I’m sure a little quizzical – what in the devil is he doing in the water?”
The beach celebration is marked with ice chests, portable canopies and lawn chairs. A lectern is placed in the sand. A battery-powered microphone and speaker help the small crowd hear comments about the refuge over the constant and monotonous screeching of laughing gulls. Sam Hamilton, a regional director with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, explains that when the Breton National Wildlife Refuge was created in 1904, the big issue of the day was the obliteration and decline of birds. “The plume industry was very hot,” Hamilton says. “And people were going out and indiscriminately taking tens of thousands of these wonderful birds for the plume industry.” Those birds are now protected on Breton and in other refuges. “Today, 100 years later, there is a whole new set of concerns. In coastal Louisiana, it’s the importance of protecting these barrier islands and the importance of protecting Louisiana wetlands.”
Despite President Roosevelt’s love of the outdoors and his creation of the national refuge system, Breton is the only wildlife refuge that Roosevelt visited. There are photographs and film of that 1915 trip to Breton Island. The moving images show the president wearing his trademark cowboy hat, walking among the mangroves with pelicans and gulls circling overhead. Another picture shows Roosevelt sitting on the beach with his legs crossed, looking toward the Gulf of Mexico. One can imagine that Roosevelt is watching a pelican soaring above the surf, hesitating in midair to eye its prey, then diving like a spear and crashing into the water. Moments later, the pelican lifts its head, clutching a fish in its beak.
Today, it’s the President’s great-grandson who’s wearing the wide-brimmed hat of an outdoorsman. Roosevelt IV refers to his famous ancestor by his initials. “T.R. loved what America’s remarkable and diverse lands fostered, a remarkable and diverse people. T.R. loved these places, and he loved the people shaped by the places.” But unlike the concerns about poachers that led to the creation of the Breton Wildlife Refuge in 1904, the younger Roosevelt recognizes a new threat, the loss of barrier islands and wetlands. “When I see what Louisiana is facing, my heart goes out to this state because [it’s] not getting the kind of national attention that Louisiana deserves.” Roosevelt, who like his great-grandfather is a Republican, is an ardent conservationist and serves on the governing council of the Wilderness Society. “This is a national problem,” Roosevelt insists. “It’s a problem of how we manage the great Mississippi River, our agriculture practices, and we have to change the practices that we have today. Business as usual is no longer acceptable.”
THEN CAME IVAN
Less than three months after Roosevelt IV stood on West Island and spoke those words, nearly half the island disappeared. At that June celebration, Roosevelt helped unveil a granite marker that commemorated the creation of the Breton Refuge on Oct. 4, 1904. The stone was washed away two weeks before the refuge reached the century mark. On Sept. 15, 2004, while New Orleans was being evacuated in advance of Hurricane Ivan, the winds and waves of the category 4 hurricane were pounding southeast Louisiana’s barrier islands.
The day before Ivan tore through Gulf Coast communities from Alabama to the Florida Panhandle, the hurricane was whipping up 60- to 80-foot waves and battering Gulf of Mexico drilling platforms off the coast of southeast Louisiana. The hurricane’s storm surge and waves ripped through the barrier islands of the Breton National Wildlife Refuge.
A few days after Hurricane Ivan strikes land, University of New Orleans geologist Shea Penland is flying over Chandeleur Island in a seaplane. Ivan has devastated the 25-mile-long barrier island. “We’re looking at an area that was solid barrier island, solid dunes and solid marsh. Now it’s been washed away.” Penland looks down at an island that has been cut in more than 100 places. The hurricane’s relentless, towering waves consumed the island. The sandy beach is gone and the gulf has moved hundreds of feet inshore, often washing completely through the island. “The landscape looks like it’s been combed by the storm surge,” Penland observes. “It’s these islands that provide a speed bump to the waves of the storm surge of hurricanes. And as these islands erode away, the vulnerability of New Orleans increases.”
South of Chandeleur Island, the smaller islands of Curlew and Grand Gosier have vanished. Waves breaking over submerged sandbars offer the only hint of where the islands were located. Breton Island is breached and severely eroded. Volunteers will have to start a new restoration effort of sand fences and grass plantings. And West Island is nearly half the size it was before the storm. Dense black mangroves hold together some of the island’s interior. But all of the pelican nests and the sandy beach and dunes have been washed away.
Amid all of the destruction, Penland sees positive signs from past restoration efforts. The portions of islands with heavy vegetation suffered the least damage. And that same vegetation will speed up the islands’ recovery by trapping more sand. “We have to be resilient in our restoration program. We have to take these storms on the chin, never say never and [get] back out doing additional restoration.” There is a sense of urgency in Penland’s voice as he talks about restoration. The barrier islands have been crippled, and that leaves coastal communities even more vulnerable if another hurricane strikes before the islands can heal.
GALLERY OF THE MASTERPIECES
What about the thousands of pelicans and seabirds that nested on West Island? Biologists don’t know where the birds will colonize next spring. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is already predicting a 30 percent reduction in nesting pelicans next year. Restoring the barrier island habitat is crucial for the brown pelican, which is on the verge of getting off the federal government’s endangered species list.
When he visited Breton Island in 1915, President Roosevelt wrote about pelicans winging their way homeward and the myriad terns flashing in the bright light of midday. Roosevelt said that the birds should be saved for reasons beyond their utility, unconnected with any return in dollars and cents. The founder of the Breton Wildlife Refuge wrote that the loss of these birds “is like the loss of a gallery of the masterpieces of the artists of old time.” A century ago, it was man that threatened these birds. Now, the work of human hands may be the only way to save a vital wildlife refuge from the brutal forces of nature.
Dave McNamara is a reporter for WWL-TV in New Orleans.
This article appears in the Winter 2004 issue of Louisiana Life