Timmy Vincent stands in front of a reproduction of a John James Audubon painting of a Louisiana heron that hangs in the rustic camp he calls home. “The water reached here,” he says, pointing to the tea-colored stain that neatly bisects the print at chest height.
For two decades, Vincent has lived deep in the marsh at the National Audubon Society’s Paul J. Rainey Wildlife Sanctuary, where he serves as manager. The private preserve’s 26,000 acres provide a crucial resting and nesting stop for some two hundred species of birds, from the kingfisher to the endangered whooping crane (one of which, in 2016, went on to hatch the first chick born in the Louisiana wild in seventy-five years). Varieties such as the prothonotary warbler descend during spring and fall to bulk up while awaiting the right winds to push them onward. “It’s the last place they see on their way south,” Vincent says, “and the first place they see on their way back.”
Today, that legacy is at risk, as the preserve’s land dwindles. The Louisiana coastline at large is washing away at the average rate of a football field an hour due to issues such as rising sea levels, saltwater intrusion (caused in part by man-made navigational canals), and powerful storms—Hurricane Rita left that high-water mark on the Audubon print in 2005. Now the sanctuary’s caretakers are developing ways to not only save the marsh but bring it back.
The habitat began as one plot in a patchwork acquired by citizens hoping to stem the decline of waterfowl early in the last century—wild ducks were being overhunted to vend at public markets, and egrets and cranes were in danger of disappearing, their long feathers in demand for millinery. Tabasco tycoon and ardent conservationist E. A. McIlhenny first procured several areas of marshland, then persuaded other friends to do the same, including Paul Rainey, scion of a Midwestern coal fortune. After the outdoorsman died suddenly in 1923, his sister donated the land to the society in his honor, making the spread the oldest and largest Audubon sanctuary in the nation.
But after Rita, followed by Hurricane Ike in 2008, the preserve’s once-gradual erosion accelerated. Tracts of marsh grasses suddenly became small ponds, and small ponds stretched into vast lakes. Viewed from above, the land looked as if a sheet of smooth linen had suddenly become tattered and moth-eaten.
Starting with a modest custom dredge, the Audubon staff began experimenting with rebuilding the marsh, sucking up silt from canals and then depositing the sediment in shallow areas. They also built terraces of sediment to hinder eroding tidal flows. The flora flourished, and after two years, the Rainey team employed a larger dredge, one that could move in twenty-two days what the old version shifted in two years. The Rainey Conservation Alliance spread the word, inviting landowners to watch the technique at work and creating a manual to the daunting permitting process for those interested in doing the same.
The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill led to a settlement of several billion dollars earmarked for coastal restoration, some of which will fund Rainey’s marsh project. “But as we all know, it’s merely pennies of what we need to do to protect our coast,” says Christy Brown, the McIlhenny Company board chair and great-grandson of the conservationist. “We’ve proved a cost-effective lesson in building land quickly, and I hope our lessons are picked up by others.”
So far, Vincent estimates, Rainey’s two pilot projects have rebuilt a little more than sixteen acres. The sanctuary will also benefit from a project set to move silt from Vermilion Bay to restore 400 acres close by. Reestablishing the marsh on such a heroic scale is turning out to be more complicated than bringing back birds. But you can’t do one without the other.
While patrolling the preserve one afternoon, Vincent pulls up to an embankment, walks a few dozen yards, and follows a boardwalk along the edge of a small pond that formed when Rita tore up the marsh. Soon, head-high grasses rise and spill over the planking, hampering his progress. He doesn’t mind—it’s an encouraging sign. The land is reclaiming its place.