Touring Louisiana's Threats to Public Access

About a month ago I was talking with Land Tawney, BHA’s president and CEO, when he asked me what I knew about public land issues in Louisiana.

Admittedly I didn't know a lot. I mentioned that Louisiana's system of law is based on the Napoleonic Code and the rest of the states are grounded in English Common Law – causing some legal confusion. And I’d heard about some canals owned by oil companies being gated up and public access eliminated.

Louisiana is known for a lot of things. But as a sportsman in the South, when I think of Louisiana I think about redfish, speckled trout, alligator, crab, shrimp, teal and gadwall.

A few weeks later, I'm joined by Land and BHA Communications Director Katie McKalip at a restaurant in New Orleans. Across the table from us was Ben Weber and Richard Fischer, both with the Louisiana Charter Boat Association. Ben was schooling us up on some shocking public access issues Louisiana is facing. While rapidly downing raw oysters, he told us how Louisiana is the only state that allows for the private ownership of tidally influenced waters, meaning that private land owners can control access to the fish and game owned by the state by blocking access to huge chunks of water. Even more shocking, Louisiana still determines ownership based on public water maps drawn up in the 1800s, maps that as far as anyone can tell were never accurate in the first place.

That night at dinner, we met with leaders of local and state sportsmen’s groups and business representatives. Sean Robbins, head of the Louisiana Sportsmen’s Coalition, tells us how he and his young son were approached by individuals who verbally assaulted them and forced them off of a body of water they thought was public. Guns have been pointed at anglers fishing water they had fished many times before and had no way of knowing was private. It sounded like the Wild West, but we needed to see it for ourselves.

The following morning, we traveled to Grand Isle, a couple hours south of New Orleans. On the drive, Ben explained the changing ecology of the marsh lands we were seeing. Because of past decisions, salt water is making its way farther into the marsh and thus degrading it at an accelerated rate. He shows us where his old camp was. It’s now a flooded bay. Taking in all of this new information, I couldn't help but be in awe of the landscape. It’s truly a wild place.

In Grand Isle we pull into Daryl Carpenter's driveway. Daryl is the president of the Louisiana Charter Boat Association, and his house sits right on a canal giving him instant access to one the best fisheries in the world. Following some quick handshakes, we jumped in his boat, crossed the jetties and began motoring across the bay. After a short boat ride we arrived at the first access barrier, a steel cable strung between 40-gallon drums hanging from one shoreline to the opposite. On the shore was a posted sign, stating that the thousands of acres of flowing water on the other side is private property. From here Daryl showed us gate after gate, each one more preposterous than the one before – oil pipe and large logs are lashed together to block access to untold thousands of acres of prime fisheries. As Daryl spoke to how this decreases his ability to get his clients to where the fish are running, I watched a group of 20 teal skirt across the marsh and drop into a hole a few hundred yards past the gate. The severity of this issue just punched me square in the face.

That brings us to today. As a Southerner it feels like an assault, and it’s taking place in my back yard – heck, my brother lives in New Orleans. The issues here are complex, the solutions are blurry, and dealing with Louisiana’s government can be challenging. In Louisiana issues can be dismissed succinctly with “that's the way it’s always been.” This time it's different. Sportsmen are organizing, and we’re pissed. And thanks to the support of groups like the Louisiana Charter Boat Association and BHA, our voices are getting louder.

This time it’s going to be different. The policy and decision makers are going to be put under a microscope. And the whole nation is watching.

About Josh josh@backcountryhunters.org

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