Jul 26, 2014 1:29 PM by KATIE DE LA ROSA
LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) - It's not so much a proposal, really, as a plea.
"This is all about preservation," said Harold Schoeffler, chairman of the Acadiana chapter of the Sierra Club, which is pushing for part of the Atchafalaya Basin to become a national park. "We have a long history of destroying beauty, and this is about preserving what we have left."
About 150 square miles of the basin in St. Martin, Iberia and St. Mary parishes has gone virtually undisturbed, Schoeffler said. He said it's ideal real estate for a national park, which would serve almost exclusively as a preservation marker for one of the last pockets of the basin that has remained in its natural state.
The Atchafalaya has been a National Heritage Area since 2006, but that designation does little to help efforts to conserve the 1.5 million-acre basin, he said. National parks receive millions more in federal dollars, but it's the park's power, not its pennies, that would be most beneficial to the basin.
"The whole issue right now is the line between state and private land," he said. "Public rights are being stomped on."
Hundreds of privately owned acres of forestry and swampland around the basin have been destroyed to plant sugar cane and rice in their place, mainly around the Iberia and St. Mary parish line near Jeanerette, Schoeffler said. The canals, pumps and other infrastructure on the outlying private land threatens to harm the natural landscapes of the nearby public property. Federal acquisition of the area proposed for the national park would help settle this issue, Schoeffler said.
The state has granted the Sierra Club permission to bring its proposal before Congress, which designates areas as national parks. Since then, the club has been in talks with U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu's office, but Schoeffler said he doesn't think much congressional action will be taken until the public pushes for the proposal, too.
"I don't know why anyone wouldn't want this to come true, but we have to do more than want it," Schoeffler said. "We have to work for it."
A spokesman from Landrieu's Lake Charles office, Mark Herbert, confirmed the office has been in talks with the Sierra Club, but no further information was available.
Landrieu has for years been pushing a proposal to make a national park of Forts Jackson and St. Philip in Plaquemines Parish.
The club drew the suggested borders based on the ordinary high-water lines - markers that indicate the highest level a body of water rises over land in non-flood conditions - that are often used as legal property boundaries. The lines encompass only publicly owned land, but they form a wacky shape that weaves around Lake Fousse State Park and areas with oilfield canals. The borders are tentative, though, pending a survey of the land following state and federal laws.
Schoeffler said a national park is the only option to ensure maximum preservation efforts, as "state parks aren't always agreeable" to that cause.
"They've built roads and cleared trees for state parks," he said. "A hundred years from now, if it's a national park, it will look the exact same. If it's a state park, it will look like a big question mark, if even that."
From calculations conducted on its numerous field and canoe trips, the Sierra Club has estimated some of the cypress trees in the area are between 1,000 and 1,200 years old.
Schoeffler said that "there is every reason to believe" some are as old as 2,000 years. These trees exemplify what Schoeffler seeks to protect - the "magnificent beauty" he said too many people don't realize exists.
"Nobody knows how to get to it to enjoy it," he said. "A national park would give us that opportunity and would allow us to love it forever."