Audubon Society considers allowing oil and gas drilling at sanctuary in Vermilion Parish

By Jen DeGregorio
New Orleans Business News
January 03, 2010

In the heart of Cajun country, where south Vermilion Parish extends a hand to the Gulf of Mexico, managers of one of the nation’s oldest nature preserves are wrestling an existential crisis.

The National Audubon Society’s Paul J. Rainey Sanctuary, a 26,000-acre rest stop for thousands of birds migrating south for winter, is one of Louisiana’s best-kept wetlands.

But preservation efforts by groups such as Audubon have been no match for coastal erosion: Louisiana loses as much as 35 square miles of wetlands each year, an environmental crisis caused largely by the leveeing of the Mississippi River and the dredging of navigation canals to reach the state’s bubbling oilfields and ports.

The problem has been less pronounced at Paul J. Rainey, where Audubon has limited access to the sanctuary’s sprawling green marsh. But after Hurricane Rita tore through southwest Louisiana, the preserve fell into a rapid state of decline. At least one nearby oilfield canal has blown a major hole, causing several lakes to pool in the once-solid marsh, devouring hundreds of acres. Similar trouble spots are arising with increasing frequency throughout the preserve.

“It’s getting to the point where there is so much damage, and it just costs so much money to contain the damage,” said G. Paul Kemp, director of Audubon’s Gulf Coast Initiative. “We know we’re fighting a losing battle.”

That is why Audubon is considering a measure that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago: opening the sanctuary to oil and gas drilling. Profits would be used to pay for marsh restoration, multimillion-dollar land-building projects that Audubon cannot now afford.

Audubon officials have been quietly debating the proposition for months, knowing the matter is sure to stir controversy. Oil and gas drilling is anathema to the environmental community, and even Audubon has publicly opposed tapping Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

“It’s an extremely sensitive issue,” Kemp said.

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