Mississippi’s Pearl: The Pascagoula

Home to some 300 bird species, the largest free-flowing river system in the Lower 48 faces threats that include a proposed deep-water port

07-14-2010 // Ken Olsen

Pascagoula River by Ralph Lyon

SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI’S Pascagoula River starts with the wedding of the Chickasawhay and Leaf Rivers near the former timber town of Merrill and cuts lazy S-curves through verdant forests, swamps and floodplains to the Gulf of Mexico. It is 80 miles long and drains a watershed the size of Vermont.

In a 1994 study of rivers in the northern third of the world, the journal Science identified this undammed, unlevied, undredged vestige as the largest free-flowing river system in the lower 48 states. Naturalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward O. Wilson, who grew up in nearby Mobile, Alabama, says places like the Pascagoula “are the closest thing the southeastern United States has to wilderness.”

Today, however, the Pascagoula is threatened by a proposed Strategic Petroleum Reserve depot, a proposed port expansion, periodic dam proposals and the prospect that large timber tracts will be subdivided once the real-estate market rebounds. The stakes are significant, says Stephen T. Ross, professor emeritus in the Biological Sciences Department at the University of Southern Mississippi and author of Inland Fishes of Mississippi. If the petroleum depot alone goes forward, “you will have significantly degraded one of the last remaining natural river systems.”

The river hosts 300 of Mississippi’s approximately 400 bird species, including swallow-tailed kites. It provides critical food and respite for northbound neotropical migrating birds after their exhausting 600-mile flight over the Gulf of Mexico as well as for flocks fortifying themselves to return to Central and South America for the winter. About two-thirds of the bird species that breed in the Midwest, Northeast and Canada’s Maritime Provinces depend on the Pascagoula in spring and fall.

The Pascagoula gives life to otters, alligators and Louisiana black bears. It harbors one of the nation’s most diverse freshwater fish faunas—109 native species including Alabama shad, bass, bullhead and the endangered gulf sturgeon. It is the last haven of the pearl darter and the yellow-blotched sawback turtle and home to two dozen other threatened and endangered species. “The Pascagoula is an island where we have habitat for endangered species we don’t have anywhere else,” says Cathy Shropshire, executive director of the Mississippi Wildlife Federation (MWF), an NWF state affiliate.

“The Pascagoula provides the opportunity to do anything,” adds Justin Sward, an MWF board member who started fishing and hunting the Pascagoula with his grandparents. “Every Sunday after church, if the weather is right, we’re out here,” he says, taking a break on a recent spring morning after catching a dozen fish. “The Pascagoula can teach you anything you want to know if you just sit there and listen.”

The Pascagoula remains wild because it is largely inaccessible—most of it can be reached only by boat. Much of its industrial development is concentrated on the Gulf Coast, and the timber company that once owned a large portion of the land along the river never clear-cut the forest. In the 1970s, advocates ranging from a timber company heir to MWF, from hunters and fishermen to The Nature Conservancy, persuaded the state to buy 32,000 acres of bottomland forest from the Pascagoula Hardwood Company in a down-to-the-wire effort to acquire the land before it was sold to a corporate timber giant.

This pioneering effort eventually led to protection of 50,000 acres of the Pascagoula watershed. “Most people thought it was a lost cause,” says Bill Quisenberry, who was then legislative liaison and aide to the farsighted Mississippi wildlife department chief, Avery Wood, Jr., who led the effort. “I think even today it is an acquisition of national significance.”

The Pascagoula may not remain unspoiled. MWF and its allies have fought efforts to dam the Bouie River—a key tributary where gulf sturgeon spawn. A proposed deep-water port near Gulfport will require dredging sturgeon-feeding areas. Most worrisome: Shortly after Hurricane Katrina pummeled the region, the Bush administration casually unveiled plans to turn underground salt domes near Richton into Strategic Petroleum Reserve repositories. The proposal went unnoticed in the struggle to recover from Katrina’s devastation.

Construction plans call for taking 50 million gallons of water a day from the Pascagoula for five years to hollow out the salt domes for oil storage. The 42 million gallons of brine produced daily by that hydraulic mining would be piped south and dumped into Mississippi Sound just east of Horn Island, where gulf sturgeon feed. The brine, far saltier than seawater, could devastate the sturgeon, Ross says. Other scientists say the currents could bring the polluted water back into Mississippi Sound instead of pushing it into the ocean. “That’s a two-fer,” says Wilson, who expressed shock at the petroleum-reserve proposal. “They are going to screw up two ecosystems at once. They are just determined to take away one of the last remnants of our natural environment.”

The petroleum reserve could foul a considerable part of the Pascagoula and southern Mississippi. The pipeline carrying the brine to the Gulf of Mexico will cross several rivers, streams and freshwater wetlands, MWF’s Shropshire says. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that just while building and filling the depot, 18 oil spills and 75 saltwater spills will occur. Oil leaks and spills also are inevitable once pipelines begin carrying oil to the salt domes.

The water extraction may affect a number of wetland plant communities, says Mark Woodrey, a research biologist at Mississippi State University’s Coastal Research and Extension Center in Biloxi, which would in turn affect the bird communities found in the Lower Pascagoula River marshes. It could interfere with spring floods that carry vital surges of nutrients to the forests, wetlands and floodplains. Significantly lowering the river also will shrink breeding grounds for the insects that feed migratory birds, fish, reptiles and other critters. “You can store oil anywhere,” Shropshire says. “You cannot recreate a haven for birds, fish, plants and animals like the Pascagoula anywhere.”

The Obama administration didn’t include funding for the Pascagoula oil depot in next year’s budget. While that’s good news, it’s a long way from canceling the project. “It has been our experience that such items get reinstated as the budget bill moves through the House and Senate,” Shropshire cautions. “Trust me, these things never die.”

The petroleum reserve will provide minimal permanent jobs. It makes far more sense to Shropshire, Sward and others to protect the Pascagoula, which offers great ecotourism potential. It already sustains hunting, birding and other recreation as well as a sport fishery worth $488 million yearly to the state economy and a commercial fishery that supports some 15,000 jobs. “It’s what, an 18-day supply of petroleum?” Ross asks. “And for that you would put this ecosystem that is so rare at risk?”

Ken Olsen is based in Oregon.


NWF in Action: Saving Habitat

NWF works with its 47 state affiliates to protect wildlife habitat throughout the nation. One of the groups, the Mississippi Wildlife Federation, is a leader in efforts to protect the Pascagoula and works with various state agencies and private organizations to safeguard wildlife.

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