Victory at Last: A Long Battle to Save the Teddy Bear’s Habitat

from Wildlife Promise

120208_louisiana_black_bear In Washington, you can bet that bad ideas from powerful special interests take a long time to kill. Nevertheless, you also should know that what Margaret Mead once suggested is still true: A handful of determined volunteers can change things.

At the request of members of Congress from Mississippi, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was authorized in 1941 to design a project known as the "Yazoo Pumps" in the lower Mississippi Delta. As initially proposed, the project would have catastrophic environmental impacts by dewatering more than 314 square miles of wetland and bottomland forest habitats in one of Mississippi’s most sparsely populated regions, between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers. The Yazoo pumps also would have destroyed one of the last strongholds for the declining Louisiana black bear, a subspecies made famous by Teddy Roosevelt, as well as critical habitat for threatened mussels, migratory birds and other wildlife.

Authorized as part of the most destructive flood-control program in U.S. history, the Yazoo pumps’ primary purpose was to dry out privately held lands for agriculture. Linked to upstream dikes, a 14,000 cubic-feet-per-second pumping station would pull rainwater out of the South Delta during high-water events on the Mississippi River.

At the time this project was first proposed, the National Wildlife Federation was a struggling start-up group with scarcely $6,000 in reserve. Yet we soon joined our affiliate, the Mississippi Wildlife Federation, in opposition to this ill-conceived project.

During the mid 1980s, calling the project a "senseless gouging of the taxpayers’ pocketbook," Gerald Barber, a Mississippi resident and one-time chair of NWF’s board of directors, sought NWF help to defeat the Army Corps plan, once and for all. In response to his request, the Federation organized the Corps Reform Network along with other national, regional and local organizations to help local volunteers who had been speaking out in opposition of this and other misguided projects.

The Yazoo plan would cost American taxpayers more than $220 million to build, plus a conservative annual operational price tag of more than $2 million that would be needed just to buy electricity to run world’s largest pumps, lifting 10,000 cubic feet of water per second.

Because the delta provides natural flood storage, it protects downstream communities such as New Orleans. By dumping this massive volume of water into the Yazoo River near its confluence with the Mississippi, the extra surge would amplify flood flows at the wrong time. It also would exacerbate Mississippi’s downstream flood hazards in places that have marginal dikes. All of this stupidity was planned primarily for the private financial benefit a few dozen influential landowners.

Two years ago, I sought an appointment with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Steve Johnson. Along with a delegation of Mississippi farmers, landowners and conservationists, we urged him to examine the full scope of the damage that would be caused by this project. We also asked him to use the explicit authority he was granted under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act to stop the plan.

After a thorough study of the matter, on August 31, 2008, Johnson made a final and courageous determination to veto the Yazoo Pumps project. This historic decision, which was vigorously opposed by influential Republican lawmakers from Mississippi, was only the 12th veto in the EPA’s history. It ended a nearly-70-year battle to protect the wetlands of the Mississippi Delta.

There have been many volunteers involved in this seemingly endless struggle, including a number of people who have since passed away. I wish I could list them all here. Special note is given to Liz and Gerald Barber because they kept this opposition alive for more than 30 years. Cathy Shropshire, Mississippi Wildlife Federation’s executive director worked with Malia Hale, David Conrad and other NWF staff water-policy experts to coordinate outreach to our members and other local stakeholders, who wrote emails, letters and placed phone calls. I want also to acknowledge American Rivers and many other collaborating organizations for their important part in this successful campaign.

I want to give a special thanks to my friend, Ted Roosevelt IV. Ted is a great conservationist, following in his ancestor’s extraordinary example. He played an important role in pointing out the historical and ecological significance of the threatened lands, and he reminded us all of the famous bears that they support.

Environmental victories during the Bush administration have been rare and need to be celebrated when they occur. Thanks to all who helped save what is left of the delta’s once vast wetland system. Working together, we can and must stand up for wildlife.

Larry Schweiger