BURAS, La. — First came the hurricane, which poured 24 feet of water into his fishing and hunting lodge and knocked out utilities for eight months.
Then came the BP oil spill, which decimated his business as anglers canceled booking after booking, convinced that the redfish and speckled trout had been contaminated by oozing clouds of petroleum washing ashore from the Gulf of Mexico.
“It’s been a heck of a one-two punch, I’ll tell you that,” Ryan Lambert said as he waited for the duck flight to begin on a recent early morning.
Now the biggest fight of all has arrived almost at the doorstep of Lambert’s Cajun Fishing Adventures lodge — the ongoing and catastrophic erosion of the coastal Louisiana wetlands, a sportsman’s paradise that is withering by the day.
Since the 1930s, Louisiana has lost more than 1,800 square miles of wetlands, an area almost double the size of Cook County. The crisis was spurred by flood control projects that stopped the deposit of sediment at the mouth of the Mississippi River — a process that built land — and hastened by the construction of canals carved into the marsh by oil and gas companies.
Those canals allowed greater exploration and delivery of fuels but also allowed saltwater to encroach into freshwater lagoons, killing plant life and speeding erosion.
By some estimates, an additional 1,750 square miles could disappear over the next 50 years, bringing the Gulf of Mexico almost all the way to New Orleans. That’s a terrifying thought for a region still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, almost seven years ago.
“It’s the ever-looming monster that no one sees,” Lambert said. “It’s the largest environmental disaster in our country, and yet no one knows about it.”
For hunters and anglers, the stakes are obvious. Nearly three-quarters of the continent’s migratory waterfowl either spend the winter or stop over in south Louisiana every year. More than a dozen species of ducks fly over Lambert’s lagoons, and his hunters took gadwall, teal and pintail almost every day of the Louisiana season.
Fishing for redfish is excellent year-round, and the tasty speckled trout is plentiful from springtime through Christmas. Freshwater parts of the marsh teem with chunky largemouth bass and panfish.
Offshore fishing for billfish, dolphin and tuna also is outstanding and an easy boat ride away — making south Louisiana one of the few places on earth where an angler can catch a sunfish and a tarpon on the same day.
The region also supports important commercial fisheries, especially for shrimp, blue crab and oysters, and one of the world’s largest port systems.
“Everything depends on restoring this system,” said David Muth, state director for the National Wildlife Foundation’s Coastal Louisiana Campaign. He added that with sea levels expected to rise in the coming decades, “the rate of land loss is going to go rocketing up.”
“You’re going to kind of reach a tipping point and things are going to start going to hell very quickly,” he said.
That might seem hard to believe for Lambert, whose lodge an hour’s drive south of New Orleans already has survived two of the worst disasters imaginable.
Five years after Lambert’s lodge opened, Katrina put him out of business. Water stood in his lodge for 43 days, and it took him six months to rebuild. But the day after crews restored his electricity, he had clients eager to go fishing.
“Just as soon as we got a handle on it, boom, the oil spill came,” Lambert said, referring to the April 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig off the Louisiana coast. In the weeks that followed, hundreds of millions of gallons of crude oil spewed into the Gulf.
Almost immediately, clients began canceling trips, putting Lambert’s employees out of work for months. Even after wildlife biologists determined that the area’s fish were safe to eat, the customers didn’t come back. He estimates that the oil spill cost him $2.8 million in business.
The irony is that the fishing remains spectacular, and the just-ended duck season was remarkable. Lambert’s clients took more than 4,500 ducks this season, an increase of 1,700 over the year before.
“People still think the place is still covered with oil,” he said. “And if they went somewhere else in the meantime where the waters were OK and they liked it, why would they come back here?”
Lambert and many of the area’s other residents hope a series of federal trials coming up this month will determine just how much BP will pay people harmed by the oil spill. The state also is counting on BP money to finance a new coastal restoration plan that could produce up to 800 square miles of new land in the delta, at a cost of $20 billion to $50 billion over the next 50 years.
“That would be a huge jump start,” Muth said, though he acknowledged that passing the legislation needed to send that money to Louisiana will be difficult in the current Congress.
The effort has an accidental evangelist in Lambert, who has testified four times at congressional hearings about the need to restore the coastal wetlands.
He also works tirelessly with environmental groups to promote coastal restoration.
“What drives me is to see the remarkable things I’ve seen in 30 years of guiding,” Lambert said.
“You can do anything here, it’s a remarkable place, and if I don’t get involved and try to save it, my great-grandchildren will never see how remarkable it is. And it’ll be lost. And so I go and preach, and I speak from the heart.”
After working so hard to save his way of life, he is unwilling to watch it wash away.