What To Do With Bayou Bienvenue?: George Barisich

Jun 5, 2014

George Barisich.
Credit Laine Kaplan-Levenson / WWNO

The Bayou Bienvenue Wetland Triangle of today is what is called a “ghost swamp”. Until the 1960s, it was a full of cypress trees, part of the central wetlands system that ran from the Lower 9th Ward all the way to Lake Borgne. But destructive forces — from levee and canal construction to invasive species — turned this freshwater swamp into a saltwater marsh, killing all the cypress trees in the process. You see their dead trunks like scarecrows in the water, and don’t see much else.

"I want to make a living, but I also want to keep the land. So let's figure out a way to do it better."

When the Wetland Triangle was a swamp it provided the surrounding community with natural resources like fish, game and timber, and protected the area from storm damage and coastal erosion. Most of the wildlife that inhabited the swamp is gone, as is the native vegetation that safeguarded the land.

Now, the Bayou Bienvenue Triangle has been included in the “Master Plan” to restore the Louisiana coast. Few dispute this as good news, but there are varying perspectives on how and why the landscape has changed, and differing opinions on how it should be restored. What happened here? What restoration strategy now makes the most sense for this specific area? Should restoring this small section be prioritized compared to other, larger parts of the central wetlands?

Five people walked out to the Bayou Bienvenue platform, a wooden walkway at Florida and Caffin Avenues, to overlook the land as it is now and consider these questions.

Bayou Bienvenue is now mostly open water.
Credit Laine Kaplan-Levenson / WWNO

George Barisich is a third generation commercial fisherman from St. Bernard Parish. He was raised just a few miles from the Bayou Bienvenue Wetland Triangle and remembers crabbing, hunting ducks and alligators, and fishing as a kid. Barisich has doubts about the Army Corps’ restoration strategy. After years of sitting on coastal management panels, he’s heard scientists bounce off countless ideas about what’s best for the coast.

“For the last 20 years, I've been sitting on different coastal management panels, and they all come up with these grand ideas and most of them have ‘Ph.D.’ behind their name — but from what they understand what's going to happen out here in this environment, (it’s different from what I've seen,” he says. “I'm almost 60 years old. So I've been looking at this for 50 years. That Ph.D. behind their name could stand for ‘Pizza Hut Delivery,’ because they just have no idea what's going to happen. But the problem is, the world respects them because they have that Ph.D. and they discount what we know.”

“People criticize the commercial advocates for standing in the way of coastal restoration, and I just gotta laugh at it. I say, you know, I am dependent on that environment more than you or anybody else. But I know it's going to happen, because I've seen it. I've watched it. And for us, it's a double-edged sword: well, do you want Louisiana to just to fall away so y'all can make a living? You know, so you get put defensive all the time. I want to make a living, but I also want to keep the land. So let's figure out a way to do it better.”

“I'd like to see it come back. You know, before I go. It is a part of southeast Louisiana, it's part of our history, part of our heritage, and it's part of what makes us unique. You know, where you can crawl right over a levee, pull up in a car — crawl right over a levee and catch some crabs, catch some fish, see some birds. Can't do that everywhere.”

“I'd like to see it restored and vital again for the next generation. I'm not fighting for me right here. I only got a few more years left to go, you know? I say I'm fighting for the group that's under me and the group that's under them.”

Support for coastal reporting on WWNO comes from the Walton Family Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Kabacoff Family Foundation, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.