On his way to the Amazon, Dean Wilson stopped in Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin. He never left and has devoted his life to saving it.
By Michael Quinn.
Photos by ©Andy Levin, courtesy of Culture Trip.
The Atchafalaya Basin is many things: natural floodplain for the Mississippi River, the most vast wetland of swamps and bayous in the United States, cultural home of Cajun Country, haven for almost half of North America’s migratory waterfowl, home to a startling array of wildlife, and one of the last remaining bastions for cypress trees in the Western Hemisphere. But these days, this richly endowed basin is fighting for its life, and Dean Wilson, the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper is leading the fight, as he has for almost two decades.
Water that is diverted from the Mississippi River into the basin by the large-scale earthen levee system built over decades by the Army Corps of Engineers is silt-and-sediment rich. Over the last half-century this silt and sediment have slowly accumulated in many of the basin’s wetland ecosystems, threatening to eliminate them and the organisms living there. This sedimentation is rampant, but is not obvious to the untrained eye.
Additionally, decades of logging, and gas- and oil-pipeline and canal construction, and continuous efforts to fill in wetlands further threaten the ecosystem.
Motoring through the canals, lakes and bayous of the basin in his flat-bottom aluminum skiff, Dean Wilson is able to describe the processes at work, and identify the profound transformations and destruction that have occurred.
The 1.4 million-acre Atchafalaya Basin is the largest expanse of bottomland hardwood forest and marsh in North America, and one of the largest in the world, and Dean Wilson insists it’s bigger than that.
“There’s inside the levees, and there’s outside the levees,” he says. “There’s still a lot of swamp outside the levees that we’re trying to protect.”
Dean Wilson founded Atchafalaya Basinkeeper in 2004, but his connection to the basin began long before that. He arrived in the area in 1984 at the age of 24. Son of a U.S. serviceman and his Spanish wife, he had spent most of his youth in the coastal city of San Sebastian, Spain, and after attending college he set his sights on the Amazon. “I wanted to experience the rainforest and live with some of the forest’s tribal people,” he says, “and to see if I could help in opposing its destruction.” Realizing that a period of acclimation to a hot, humid, mosquito-rich environment was necessary before traveling to the rainforests of the Amazon, he moved first to the southern United States.
Dean had never heard of the Atchafalaya Basin, and first noticed it as a large area devoid of roads on a map of Louisiana. He decided to visit this apparent patch of wilderness, and there he met a local landowner who allowed him to camp on a piece of his land in the forest. For the next four months, equipped with a tent, a canoe, a longbow, a spear and some rudimentary fishing gear, Dean proceeded to live alone in this swampy terrain, hunting, fishing and exploring the intricate bayous, sloughs, and cypress forests he would eventually come to call home, and for which he would develop a devotion and passion that would define his personal and professional life.
“By mistake I found this place where I could live and make a living off the land the way I wanted to,” he says. “It was this almost pristine piece of nature that I could live in. At least I thought so when I was young and first arrived.”
He never did make it to the Amazon.
“At heart, he is a naturalist, exuding a boyish fascination with wildlife, and he is completely at home immersed in the shaded, obscure bayous of his basin. But his work has become more and more desk-bound. Dedicating his life to protecting the basin has meant no time to make a living in the basin, and more time in front of a computer screen.”
The house where Dean has lived for the last 32 years is situated between two small ponds coated with duckweed, beside a dirt driveway in the forest. Inside, the house feels like a natural extension of the swamp. Segments of cypress wood and photos and paintings of the basin adorn almost every wall. It is decidedly dim and cozy, reminding you of the closeness and quietude of a cypress forest.
Shortly after arriving in the basin, Dean began to fish for crawfish, learning on the fly and using a single net. He gradually acquired additional gear, and for the next 16 years supported his family as a commercial fisherman. He eventually joined the Louisiana Crawfish Producer’s Association West (LCPA West), an Atchafalaya Basin trade group with more than 600 members that advocates for the interests of fishermen and fisheries. Finding common ground between environmental conservation and commercial fishing, they are some of the foremost advocates of preserving and restoring the basin’s natural waterways and traditional way of life.
Jody Meche, president of LCPA West, recalls that the first time he met Dean Wilson they were, in fact, on opposing sides of an issue brought before the state legislature regarding the size of the wire-mesh nets used to catch crawfish.
“Dean made a good argument,” Meche says. “He had our senator squirming when he brought in a little bitty tiny crawfish onto the floor of the State House that was stuck in the smaller wire mesh that we used to fish. And when all of the legislators saw that, it made it look like we were crippling the industry and the resource!”
Jody’s side eventually prevailed, but later encroachments on the rights of crawfishers to freely operate in the basin, and continued development by landowners and pipeline companies that disrupted parts of the basin’s natural hydrology, brought Jody and Dean together. “Eventually,” Jody says, “we came to an understanding that we as fishermen and environmentalists really shared the same interests and faced the same problems, and so we started working together.”
Increasingly, though, Dean and his fellow fishermen began to notice that the dredging of oil-and gas-industry canals, illegal roads and dams, the draining of lakes, and sedimentation and declining water quality were beginning to threaten the basin’s abundant fishery. Around 2000, Dean also learned that landowners and timber companies were planning to clear-cut the Atchafalaya’s vast cypress forests and to shred the trees to provide mulch for flower gardens. That’s when he decided that he had to stand up to the forces that would destroy the basin.
Dean first joined the local chapter of the Sierra Club, then learned about Waterkeeper Alliance from someone who was taking one of the swamp tours that Dean conducted. He happened to be a friend of Bobby Kennedy, Jr., and later that same day Kennedy called Dean. After the call, Dean decided that developing his own Waterkeeper group was the best way forward.
“I was attracted to the way they used the law so effectively to protect natural environments,” he says.
He researched environmental regulations, sought out allies in the relevant state and federal agencies, followed logging trucks, staked out mulch plants. He conducted numerous flights to determine where the logs were coming from, and where they were being processed and sold. And he proved that cypress mulch was not the “forest-friendly” product that national retailers claimed it was.
At the peak of activity in 2006, cypress stands were being cut and ground into mulch at a rate of 20,000 acres per year, filling the coffers of the logging companies. But cypress swamps are more valuable in nature, where they can cut the force of storm-surges by 90 percent. It has been estimated that Louisiana’s cypress swamps are worth a staggering $3.3 billion in storm-protection and other ecosystem services every year.
Ultimately the almost decade-long campaign headed by Dean led to commitments from major retailers such as Walmart, Lowe’s and Home Depot to only sell cypress mulch from Louisiana that was harvested sustainably, and this support ended the logging of cypress trees for garden mulch within the Atchafalaya Basin and the entire Louisiana coast.
The campaign to stop cypress mulching was a major victory for Basinkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance, which provided extensive support for Dean’s efforts. State and federal regulation to protect cypress stocks, however, has been lacking, and Basinkeeper’s monitoring flights (provided by the volunteer pilots of the environmental group SouthWings) are the only thing standing between the loggers and the basin’s coastal cypress forests.
Dean’s connection to the Atchafalaya Basin has largely been informed by livelihood and the sustaining bounty of the swamp, but that connection is also rooted in an ardent admiration and love for the natural world. At heart, he is a naturalist, exuding a boyish fascination with wildlife, and he is completely at home immersed in the shaded, obscure bayous of his basin. But his work has become more and more desk-bound. Dedicating his life to protecting the basin has meant no time to make a living in the basin, and more time in front of a computer screen.
Prior to his early forays into conservation and environmental activism, Dean’s familiarity with the law and its proceedings was minimal. But through his involvement with the local chapter of the Sierra Club, starting in 2000, and a working relationship with a veteran member of the Army Corps of Engineers, he began to develop a nuanced legal and procedural knowledge. And now when he discusses legal statutes and processes, it would be easy to mistake him for a lawyer.
Still, handling the Basinkeeper’s workload of litigation requires the indispensable commitment of its one full-time attorney, Misha Mitchell. (The organization’s only other full-time staff member is Outreach and Development Coordinator Monica Tramel Fisher.) And only the assistance of the Tulane University Environmental Law Clinic over the last dozen or so years has enabled Basinkeeper to function at the legal capacity that it has.
By 2017, the Tulane law clinic had represented Basinkeeper as a plaintiff 26 times. Other functions of the organization, such as reporting violations of construction permits, mapping, and fly-over photography are donated services, many provided by more than a thousand dues-paying members.
Dean has wielded the lawsuits and the notices of intent-to-sue with careful consideration. These are, he says, “really the only weapons we have. It’s like a poker game.”
Basinkeeper’s numerous victories in the basin include the prevention of the construction of fracking-waste-injection wells, pipelines and pipeline-access canals, and the draining of wetlands by landowners. The most recent conflict is with pipeline-giant Energy Transfer Partners, which has a long history of violations in the basin. Its latest project, the 162-mile Bayou Bridge Pipeline, is the final leg of a cross-country pipeline that connects to the Dakota Access Pipeline, and will transport volatile and explosive Bakken crude oil from North Dakota to refineries and export terminals in Louisiana.
“It is negligent for government agencies to continue allowing unrestricted oil development in the basin without enforcing environmental laws,” Dean stated in a press release.
But much of the work of Atchafalaya Basinkeeper is unpublicized. Some of its most important victories are wrought through the dogged, daily monitoring and oversight of violations. In addition to strategizing legal opposition, Dean is constantly fighting, challenging, monitoring, reporting, organizing membership, requesting donations, and seeking (but rarely finding) grants. He holds meeting after meeting, handles a steady stream of interview requests, stares down the prospect of insolvency. It’s a life lived on the brink, just as Dean sees the Atchafalaya Basin on the brink. The unremitting confrontation takes its toll.
“He’s definitely sacrificed a lot,” says Dean’s oldest son, Al. “He’s sacrificed his own time and time with his kids to try and save the basin, but it was something we all understood. He was doing something for the greater good. In a way, he might want me to continue the work, but in another way he wouldn’t, just because of how stressful the work is and the type of life he lives – his life being threatened over the years, the constant fighting, constant struggle, constant stress. Nobody wants to live like that, not even him. But he has so much passion for the swamp that he just deals with it.”
One morning, Dean embarked by boat on one of his monitoring-and-enforcement trips, along the active construction site of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline. The area is a sprawling, ridged swath of dark, churned mud and vegetation debris extending as far as can be seen in both directions along the access-canal’s right-of-way. It’s a shocking microcosm of what has threatened and continues to threaten this place that he loves.
“Since I’ve been Basinkeeper, I’ve seen the construction of five different pipelines through the basin,” Dean recalls. “This is easily the worst one yet.”
He is accompanied by a local photojournalist, Julie Dermansky, by his outreach coordinator, Monica, and his 13-year-old German Shepherd, Shanka.
He identifies numerous violations within a roughly mile-long stretch, and one in particular stands out. Slowing down, he stands up and points to his left where the long ridge of dredged mud and debris is piled particularly high.
“That’s Bayou Set,” he says, somewhat incredulously. “They’ve blocked Bayou Set,” which will block the flow of water through the bayou and, essentially, destroy it.
He used to fish there, he explains, and his son Al still does. He motors further down the canal away from the active construction site, and gets more and more pensive.
“I’m gonna go talk to them,” he says. “See if they can’t get Bayou Set opened up.”
Julie Dermansky, who knows Dean well, argues that he should wait to report it to the Army Corps of Engineers later on if the construction company does not remove the blockage, but Dean is obstinate. He’s afraid that the Corps will deliberate too long, as they often have in the past, that the construction company won’t act, and yet another bayou will be filled in with sediment and lost, along with much of its wildlife.
“I gotta think,” says Dean, chin in hand and elbow resting on his leg and as he guides the boat gracefully through a marshy stretch of the canal. “Either way, it’s a risk.”
But, for better or worse, confronting risk is the way Dean Wilson has conducted his life.
Michael Quinn is a writer based in New York, specializing in issues related to the environment, rural development, and food security.