Sitting in solitude, cross-legged, with the Gulf waters gently rolling onto shore, former president Theodore Roosevelt seemed at peace on the remote Louisiana barrier island. One can see why — he worked to save it, after all, and he had done well. When Roosevelt visited in 1915, nesting birds’ eggs were no longer being destroyed on Breton Island, nor were they being harmed on the rest of the Chandeleur Islands to the north. Roosevelt heard during his presidency that this was happening, and used his authority to stop it, creating in 1904 what would become the Breton National Wildlife Refuge, to protect all the Chandeleur Islands. His visit 11 years later, with a political career largely over, would be the only one Roosevelt made to any of the National Wildlife Refuges first started under his presidency. For Roosevelt, seeing the conservation success in person surely served as a crowning achievement. A fragile ecosystem saved, he must have thought. Oh Teddy, if only you knew.
That island, that historic island — the one visited by the original conservationist president — could cease to exist in 10 years. Yes, you read that right — cease to exist in 10 years. That’s according to Alex Kolker, a professor at Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium.
“Could it disappear entirely? The answer to that is absolutely yes,” Kolker said of the Chandeleur Islands, where Breton Island serves as the southern end.
On a Louisiana map, there’s little more recognizable along the coast than the Chandeleurs — their crescent shape well off mainland St. Bernard Parish representing the easternmost point in the state. But Kolker said we might need to start redrawing those maps, since even with the best coastal restoration efforts, the Chandeleurs stand little chance of a future that doesn’t involve becoming open water. Diversion plans bringing land-building sediment from the Mississippi River to deteriorating coastal areas likely won’t make it to the Chandeleurs, Kolker said.
The biggest factor in the islands’ near-term future is whether any major hurricanes come through, which pose the most immediate threat. But even in the best-case scenario, Kolker doesn’t give the Chandeleurs more than 50 years. Should a hurricane like Katrina hit, which significantly eroded the islands and destroyed a century-old lighthouse — the last remnant of a long-lost fishing community there — the islands might not withstand the next decade. And, before it’s glossed over, perhaps there’s the most important point. Not Teddy Roosevelt and not the Louisiana map — the fishing village. Yes, while it’s hard to believe now, there was a fishing community on the Chandeleur Islands. Small farms, and a schoolhouse, too. The last of those permanent residents left soon after Roosevelt’s trip in June of 1915, when they evacuated for a hurricane and never came back, showing — even then — the power hurricanes have over the islands’ future.
It’s one thing to lose a presidential photo-op. Losing a community is another step entirely.
Without learning from past coastal management mistakes, more communities will follow the one on the Chandeleur Islands — not just gone, but largely forgotten. So if the islands must be lost to history, we should at least learn lessons so others aren’t.
Bio: Nick Reimann is a staff writer for The New Orleans Advocate and frequently freelances for other publications in the city. His stories focus on environmental issues, government and crime.