Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve is the only national park named after a criminal.
After Congress banned the importation of slaves in 1808, slaves became more expensive, Jean Lafitte, a pirate and privateer, smuggled them in from the islands. Lafitte went to Andrew Jackson and offered to help him against the British during the War of 1812 with the understanding that he and his men would not be prosecuted for their crimes. Jackson agreed though he really had no authority. Pres Madison took some convincing. But now six sites are part of JELA, including Barataria Preserve south of New Orleans.
We walk a mile from the visitor center to Bayou Coquille Trail on boardwalk where we meet Ranger Amber Nicholson. Bayou means slow-moving water. This bayou, with its natural levee, is fed by rainwater.
The ranger starts her walk introduction with “Are you afraid of anything”?
Yeah, one eye, one horn flying purple people eaters. The other visitor with us rattles off “snakes, spiders, gators …” but Ranger Amber redeems herself with her knowledge and casual air.
In Louisiana, elevation is measured in inches. In the mountains, a change in elevation over 1,000 feet is needed to affect forest types. But here changes of a foot can mean the difference between live oaks or swamp maples, between baldcypress and open marsh.
Dwarf palmetto lives on high ground of a swamp but there’s less plant diversity in the marshes on lower ground. Swamps are forested wetlands with baldcypress and water tupelo tree. Marsh only has plants. Moss, vines, trees, air plants, swamp marigolds envelop every surface and take over every vista. Huge swamp marigolds fill in the canals.
The name, Barataria, comes from a fictional land in Don Quixote. The name has been around since the days of Lafitte and his pirates. We keep our eyes out for any animal life and find an alligator and several turtles in the marsh. Golden silk orb weaver, a large spider also known as a banana spider, builds huge webs on the side of the trail.
The National Park Service protected over 23,000 acres of wetlands in 1978. It should be all fresh water but it’s brackish. Before all the levees, natural levees were created when sediment-laden water spilled over banks during spring floods.
But after the great flood of 1927, there was a great outcry to do something about the Mississippi River. The Army Corps of engineers built levees almost the whole length of the Mississippi–Levees, dams, weirs, canals, and jetties, lots of structures.
Then the oil and gas industry came in, creating more problems but also created jobs. Several oil companies still own subsurface rights. They could do directional drilling into the Preserve.
Back at the visitor center, Ranger Aleutia Scott explains, “Deltas are a conversation between sea and river. The sea level is also rising. Our wetlands are being lost. We should care!
I finally understood a lot of concepts that were just words before. Interpretation is what the National Park Service does best.