Just a few generations ago, around the turn of the 20th century, Louisiana's grasslands began in portions of Acadiana and unrolled like massive green carpets toward northern parishes and beyond.
With a staunch layer of clay below the soil that most indigenous trees couldn't penetrate, the wide-open spaces stretched like endless miles of prairie, devoid of the state's iconic cypresses, oaks and magnolias. Those who lived in the heart of the immense plains during that undeveloped time in history likely saw entire flocks of 5-foot-tall whooping cranes that migrated down from Canada on long flights powered by their gigantic wingspans.
Farther north, in the prairie lands of Caddo Parish, modern eyes would have been taken aback by the hordes of buffalo traveling the Sabine River from as far south as Cameron. In fact, the brutish animals once roamed freely and abundantly all over Louisiana's grasslands alongside other curiosities such as the prairie vole, a hamster-like creature, and the so-called Greater Prairie Chicken, which is more like a quail amped up on steroids, complete with spiky head and tail feathers.
But as industry and agriculture began to claim these lands in ever greater numbers during the 1950s, the Louisiana prairie's original inhabitants began to disappear at a shocking rate. To be sure, one can still find some prairie lands in Louisiana, but it isn't what it used to be. Neighborhoods, interstates and chemical plants are now the main feature of those lands, and entire habitats have been wiped out.
Want to see a 5-foot-tall Louisiana whooping crane today? Try the Louisiana State University Natural History Museum in Baton Rouge, where a specimen donated by the federal government sits stuffed inside a glass diorama. Still wondering about those prairie chickens, which once numbered in the millions in Louisiana? Check out the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, which boasts birds of Louisiana lineage.
Such land loss is a well-known dilemma in south Louisiana, where coastal erosion has slowly chipped away at entire communities. In the prairies -- called "plairies" by many Acadians -- the problem started when multi-acre farms began dividing open lands in the early 1900s. In some ways, however, this was a much easier transition than coastal erosion. After all, farming at least partially defines Louisiana, and it supports a culture that many residents cherish.
But agriculture, which complemented the grasslands to some extent, didn't last either. There are now 100,000 fewer farms in Louisiana than there were in 1950, according to the most recent U.S. Census. Replacing the farms, and gorging on the remaining prairies, is a growing trend known as urbanization -- city populations pouring into rural areas. The movement, which can be seen locally and worldwide, has a wide range of sociological, cultural and economic impacts.
According to a 2005 United Nations report, the past 100 years have seen a "rapid urbanization of the world's population." The global proportion of urban population rose dramatically from 13 percent in 1900 to 49 percent in 2005, according to the UN study, and urban population could reach 60 percent by 2030.
It's a local concern as well, says Keith Ouchley, director of the Louisiana Nature Conservancy. He points to a pre-Katrina federal study that estimated Louisiana loses roughly 27,000 acres of forest, farm and prairie each year to urban and suburban development. By comparison, various wetland campaigns tout information claiming that Louisiana's coastline loses up to 25,000 acres annually to erosion and other natural and manmade causes.
"Everyone knows about the challenges facing the coast, but you never hear about the pressures that are gobbling up farmland," Ouchley said. "We're losing wildlife habitats and much more. Additionally, I think the acceleration we're seeing now is only going to become greater in the near future as Katrina's and Rita's diaspora forces more people away from the coast. I see the development every day driving around Louisiana."
Indeed, coastal erosion and restoration issues have enjoyed a groundswell of attention and support over the past 10 years, but that newfound focus may have blinded Louisiana to other conservation efforts, Ouchley adds.
In recent years, Louisiana has maintained $1.5 million in annual funding for the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries to preserve a long list of open spaces and farmland. However, that's not even enough to put a small dent in the urbanization trend. Moreover, other states have gone much farther, creating huge trust funds dedicated solely to preserving grasslands, prairie lands and farmlands.
Alabama, for instance, earmarks money from offshore oil and gas royalties and has spent $83 million on conservation efforts since 1992. Arkansas has spent $325 million over the past decade, Florida raised $3 billion for a quasi-state fund in 2000 through bond sales, and Georgia's program has protected more than 100,000 acres.
While Louisiana has certainly done its fair share of restoration and conservation work, Ouchley is promoting a special fund that will focus on areas outside the coastal zone. His plan is being coordinated with the Louisiana Wildlife Federation and other groups, and he hopes to see it introduced in next year's legislative session.
"This is something we are very interested in," he says. "And on a local scale, parishes like St. Tammany, West Feliciana and Tangipahoa are drawing up plans for smart growth and taking these concerns into consideration."
As for more immediate responses, state Sen. Robert Barham, R-Oak Ridge, amended legislation last month before the state Legislature ended its session that was specific to coastal restoration and broadened it to include conservation money for north Louisiana's land-loss problem.
"I'm worried we might get tunnel vision," Barham said. "We have some other real losses, too. We need to protect our forests and other natural lands, and we may be hamstrung by this if we want to do something in that area in the future."
That may mean creating new wildlife refuges to stave off development, or offering developers incentives to mitigate losses, he adds, admitting that the total solution is not yet clear. Barham, who is term-limited and undecided as to his future political plans, says coming generations will have to create momentum for the cause and increase awareness. For now, he just hopes that somebody's paying attention.
"Some other group of lawmakers is going to have to pick this up soon enough," he says. "And you never know, you can never predict, what issue is going to catch people's attention, but this might be it."
Jeremy Alford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.