Heavily-Oiled Elmer’s Island Improving But Still Closed to Public
Louisiana Wildlife Federation remains hopeful about island's future
As one of the hardest hit areas in the Gulf oil disaster, Elmer's Island still remains closed to the public. Since heavy oil started washing ashore on the 1,700-acre island in late-May, it has been a ground zero for oiled bird rescues, field studies and clean-up operations. Although considerable progress has been made in restoring the area, the recovery is slow and it’s unknown when it will reopen to the public.
Elmer's Island is located just west of Grand Isle and extends from the Caminada Pass bridge to Bayou Thunder. Sandwiched between thriving salt marshes and the choppy waters of Gulf of Mexico, it is one of the few natural sandy beaches in Louisiana. Unlike Grand Isle which is packed with rickety fishing camps and seafood restaurants, Elmer’s Island is a place where man’s impact takes a back seat to the shrimp, crab and finfish that come to breed in its lagoons and channels.
The Louisiana Wildlife Federation played an important role over the past decade in reopening the area to the public last year. Owned and operated by entrepreneur Jay Elmer until 2002, it was a popular daytime recreational area for fishermen and families. Upon his death, the access road was gated and closed until August 2009 when the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries reopened it as Elmer’s Island Wildlife Refuge.
“It was a big deal. The governor came down here to announce it and the whole community showed up. Going out to Elmer’s Island was a tradition for many people,” said Wayne Keller, executive director of the Grand Isle Port Commission.
That reopening was short lived. Due to heavy oil and the presence of heavy equipment and cleanup crews, the island was closed to the public in May. Today, the beaches are for the most part clean and the waters are once again chockfull of fish, crab and other aquatic life. Hermit crabs scavenge along the shore by the hundreds, birds feed in the mangroves and waders walk the waterline in search of small fish.
In some ways, all appears to be normal but Keller said there are large parts of the beach were oil sits just beneath the surface. Like many, he also expresses concern that some impacts of the oil won’t be felt for months, even years, to come.
The tranquility of the island has also been lost in the rumble of excavators, the buzzing of four-wheel drive carts and the chatter of dozens of workers. A small parking lot, along with portable offices and a decontamination area sits on a manmade dam. There are a dozen port-o-lets scattered along the beach and mounds of sand waiting to be sifted by workers who are bused in from as far away as New Orleans. Tight-lipped security personnel also cruise the beach and guard the entrance to the road as if it were an ecological Fort Knox.
It’s all a bittersweet solution to a problem that no one wanted in the first place. Randy Lanctot, executive director for the Louisiana Wildlife Federation, said that the marsh is an extremely hardy environment and can slowly repair itself if allowed to regenerate through more natural and less-obtrusive solutions. He points to the success of the sand fencing and planting in helping fight erosion and grow the beach that was washed away during Hurricane Gustav.
“It’s a pretty resilient place," said Lanctot. "We just need to take advantage of the [natural] processes. As soon as the coast is clear, I think people will be out here using it like they did before.