Heart of Louisiana: Atchafalaya Basin Keeper

Published: May. 7, 2014 at 2:24 AM CDT
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Atchafalaya Basin
Atchafalaya Basin

It's the largest wetland swamp in North America, and a little over a century ago it was packed with more than a million acres of towering cypress trees.  The timber industry claimed most of those giant trees, but one man has made it his life's mission to save what's left of Louisiana's Atchafalaya Basin. FOX 8's Dave McNamara takes us deep into the swamp to see its natural treasures in tonight's Heart of Louisiana.

Thirty years ago, Dean Wilson planned to go to South America to help save the Amazon.  The first stop on that journey was Louisiana's Atchafalaya Basin swamp.

"So I came to Louisiana to get used to the heat and the mosquitoes before I go to live with that tribe in the Amazon in Brazil," he said.

Wilson never left, and he started living off the land and water.

"I fell in love with the basin," he said. "I stayed in the swamp for four months with only my bow, arrows, a spear and a few hooks."

American born, Wilson grew up in Spain. But the Atchafalaya Basin is home. It's where he raised his children, fishing and hunting to support his family.

"We were rich and poor at the same time," Dean said. "We could not afford to eat out ever, but we eat the best food in the world."

In the spring, the Atchafalaya's cypress trees are a brilliant green, and they're alive with the sounds of migrating tropical song birds. But the basin today is a very different place than what it was before the lumberman's saw cut down all of the giant virgin cypress.

"This is the heart of the tree, this is not the whole tree," Wilson said. "And this tree probably was cut in the 1880s and it's still hard like a rock. It was a time you could get in a boat through this forest and go all the way to Missouri without leaving the forest. The canopy was so thick not a single ray of light could go through this canopy. Back then, it was so many birds that the sound was deafening."

Today, these large cypress are only babies - barely 130 years old. They're the offspring of trees that lived for thousands of years.  Wilson is now the executive director of Basin Keeper, a group that's part of a national network of groups dedicated to saving America's rivers. He is the voice of these trees - opposing projects to dig canals that would alter the flow of water - and fighting to keep loggers out. Most recently, he shut down mills that were cutting the cypress for garden mulch.

"I don't want to die, you know, with the feeling that this went on at a time when I was working the earth and I didn't do anything about it," Wilson said.

Wilson believes that there is more economic value to keeping these trees alive.

"We are sitting in a gold mine, this here could be - we could have millions of people coming here and enjoying this here, watching the birds and canoeing through the swamps," he said.

That's why he conducts swamp tours, exposing visitors to the hidden beauty of this cypress swamp.

"Cypress trees is one of the most amazing trees on the planet," Wilson said. "You can see every single one is different, they have all kind of different shapes. This tree is way over 1,000 years old."

And the old trees have massive roots.

"And these are at least 4 feet deep in here, so how tall do you think they are? They are over 10 feet tall," he said.

Wilson also believes that landowners should also be good stewards of their property, making sure cypress trees and this wilderness will be here for future generations.

The basin swamp follows the 135-mile-long Atchafalaya River that stretches from Simmesport in Central Louisiana to the Gulf of Mexico.