Denise Reed and Tab Benoit, voices of the Wetlands

NOTE: This blog entry originally appeared in August 2010
by Chad Campbell, senior producer
Dr. Denise Reed was a bonus interview, one we had not planned on - or planned for. She was recommended by Ron Biava at WWNO, the public radio station in New Orleans as an expert on the wetlands. Reed is a professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of New Orleans but she lives a full 70 miles south of the city near Montegut, Louisiana. She prefers to be closer to the swamps and marshes and she’s been living and working down in Terrebonne Parish since 1986. Like Houma’s Mike Voisin, she also lacks that “down the bayou” accent, but Denise Reed’s excuse is that she was born and raised in Luton, England where she studied the Thames estuary then came to the US for a job during Britain’s “Thatcher Years.” She’s an expert on marsh hydrology, sediment dynamics, the geomorphology of wetlands, their formation and degradation.
Here’s a sample of the interview overlooking Reed’s backyard.

by Bob Edwards

Tab Benoit at the wheel of his boat in a healthy swampYou have to like a man who moves to a bayou backbeat. Cajun blues musician Tab Benoit (pronounced ben-wah) was first on our show four years ago promoting his cd Brother to the Blues. The music business being what it is now, Benoit has to do a lot of touring just to break even. All that time on the road takes him away from where he’d like to be—-at home with a fishing pole in one of the swamps around Houma, Louisiana. Search his name on the web and you’ll see two of his featured songs are Voodoo on the Bayou and Down in the Swamp. Benoit loves the wetlands of coastal Louisiana and wants all of us to know that the preservation of marshes is crucial to the survival of New Orleans and all the other communities in the region. He is co-founder and president of the environmental group Voice of the Wetlands and the frontman for the band called the Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars which performs in New Orleans on Wednesday, August 25.

Producers Chad Campbell and Geoffrey Redick were with me as we pulled into the Falgout Marina on Bayou du Large, about 15 miles from Tab Benoit’s home in Houma. Benoit met us there with his boat—-a very fast boat, and he took us for a ride down the bayou and across Lake De Cade at 70 miles an hour—dodging natural gas wells poking up from the water and passing a huge parking lot of idle oil drilling platforms. There was a song in my head—-not Benoit’s blues, but rather Jerry Reed’s old novelty song about an alligator poacher named Amos Moses. It has a line that goes, “About 45 minutes southeast of Tippitoe, Loosiana.”  Benoit told me that we just happened to be “about 45 miles southeast of Thibodeaux, Louisiana.” I saw no alligators or deadly snakes on the bayou, but I could feel their eyes watching me and waiting for me to fall out of the boat.

Our destination was a swamp. Benoit wanted us to see a healthy one—the kind of wetlands that protect cities like New Orleans, Houma, Thibodeaux, Lafayette and Morgan City from the worst effects of a hurricane. He took a sharp right turn into a lovely little spot and he cut the engine. We were surrounded by towering cypress trees and lush green grass rising several feet above the water’s surface.   We were in the company or terns and egrets blessedly free of BP oil. Colorful dragonflies performed aerial ballet, sometimes skimming across the water and landing on us. Fish were jumping all around us and I expected one to flop right into our boat any second. Except for a chorus of screeching cicadas, there was peace. It was the perfect place to talk about the importance of wetlands.

healthy swamp and marsh southwest of Houma, LA

On the way to our next stop, it started to rain, so we returned to the marina for lunch. I had the most delicious cheeseburger I’ve ever tasted, which probably had more to do with the atmosphere than the quality of the beef. Maybe I was just hungry. It was still drizzling when we returned to the boat, but our host welcomed the rain as a source of fresh water. Benoit didn’t have to go very far to show us what he felt we should see. A dead swamp. A former swamp. No grasses, no terns, no egrets, no cicadas. Just dead wooden poles that had once been cypress trees. Wetlands die when the fresh water is overtaken by salt water. This one was connected to the Houma Navigation Canal but for many decades, energy companies have criss-crossed coastal Louisiana with canals as paths to drilling sites. The canals cut through the marshes and allow salt water from the Gulf of Mexico to win the war against the flow of fresh water and re-take the swamps. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, Louisiana loses 75 square kilometers of wetlands each year.

A former cypress swamp killed by salt water intrusion. This site is about 7 miles east of the healthy swamp.

Tab Benoit is as passionate as he can be when talking about the value of wetlands, but he is not anti-oil. Like everyone we interviewed in Louisiana, Benoit believes the oil and natural gas industries are just too important to the Louisiana economy for the state to send energy companies packing. And most of our guests with deep roots in the region either have family members who worked for oil companies or used to themselves. Benoit used to fly pipeline patrols as a younger man. From that bird’s eye perspective, he could see all the damage that was happening. Louisiana made its deal with the devil long ago and is paying for it by watching the state literally shrink. This time next year, there will be less of Louisiana than there is today. It’s enough to give Tab Benoit the blues.

He’s also passionate about his boat. Here are a few videos of the man and his machine in action.

Click here to see more of our videos.

Geoffrey’s hair feeling the power of Tab Benoit’s 300hp engine. It sent us skimming over the surface of Lake De Cade at 70 mph

Click here to see more pictures from our trip to southern Louisiana.

Next week in part five of our series No Place Like Home, we mark the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the deadly and destructive flooding of the New Orleans area. Bob gets a driving tour of the damage with former mayor Maurice “Moon” Landrieu and his daughter Madeleiene. Then Bob talks with Tulane University history professor and with recent graduate Kerry Mitchell Kraft about the past, present and future of New Orleans.

You can also listen to past episodes in the series:

PART ONE (reporter Mark Schleifstein and environmental sociologist Shirley Laska.)

PART TWO (oysterman Mike Voisin, shrimper Charlie Robin and duck hunter John Serigny.)

PART THREE (wildlife biologists Emily Guidry Schatzel, Todd Baker and Sharon Taylor; workers at the bird rehabilitation center in Ft. Jackson, LA.)

And here’s a map of the locations of our interviews and other points of interest.

View BES in New Orleans (7/2010) in a larger map