Elmer's Island: A Bittersweet Story of Triumph and Loss

The story of Elmer's Island is a glimpse at the kind of loss the people, places and wildlife of Louisiana are suffering.

05-27-2010 // Aislinn Maestas
Girl with fish on Elmer's Island

In 2002, the Louisiana Wildlife Federation (LWF) embarked on a campaign to restore public access to Elmer’s Island, a barrier beachfront and wetland complex located across Caminada Pass from Grand Isle, LA. Persistence paid off when, seven years later, LWF celebrated the reopening of the island to the public. Now, as giant globs of oil from the BP oil spill wash up on Elmer’s shore, that hard won success has become bittersweet.

Enjoyed by generations of anglers, birders, campers and beachgoers, Elmer’s Island was long open to the public for a small fee charged by the proprietor, Jay Elmer. Times-Picayune writer Kevin Spain once described the island as “the only place someone without a boat could actually experience the special magic that occurs at those places where the Gulf meets the coastal marsh.” Upon Jay Elmer’s death in 2002, however, road access to Elmer’s Island was gated and locked. The future of the island, which was rumored to be targeted for development, hung in the balance.

The news of Elmer’s closing spurred LWF leader Keith Saucier to engage the federation in a campaign to have the state acquire the land. Ultimately, the state asserted ownership of approximately 230 acres of the 1700-acre island, which was subsequently re-opened as Elmer’s Island Wildlife Refuge.

Saucier remembers the public response when Elmer's Island once again welcomed visitors: "People came from all over to enjoy everything that the island had to offer. Elmer's offered some of the best surf fishing and crabbing in the world. Birders who flocked there from all over knew it as one of the premiere places in the country to view an abundance of migratory and native birds. Many others came just to enjoy swimming in the clean Gulf water or to just lay-out and soak up rays from the same sun that shines on the beaches of Cancun. There was certainly no other place like it Louisiana, or perhaps anywhere on the Gulf coast."

Today, nearly eight years since LWF resolved to have Elmer’s Island secured and reopened, it is once again closed to the public. On May 20, heavy oil began encroaching on the Elmer’s Island beach. In response, a blitz of bulldozing and sand hauling activity has occurred there with the apparent intention of keeping the oil from washing over into the wetlands and tidal channels behind the shore.

"It was only a few months ago that hundreds of volunteers came out for the first Elmer's Island beach sweep cleanup," said Saucier. "Now the beaches are covered with heavy, stinking oil. Deep tire ruts from the heavy equipment have all but destroyed the beaches and dunes. The birds, crabs, fish and much of the natural vegetation are all dead and gone. It will take years of work to get it back to the way it was; if it can ever be that way again. And I fear that we may not have seen the worst of this disaster yet".

As oil from the BP spill continues to wash onto the shores of Louisiana's delicate coasts and into its marshes and wetlands, the story of Elmer's Island is a glimpse at the kind of loss the people, places and wildlife of Louisiana are suffering.

“As heartbroken and angry as we are over this tragedy,” says Louisiana Wildlife Federation's’s Saucier, “we are committed to making sure something like this can never happen again. And we promise to work even harder to restore the habitat that makes our state a unique and wonderful home.”

Louisiana Wildlife Federation is a state affiliate of National Wildlife Federation. Together, we are working to establish volunteer surveillance teams to assist with the response. You can help our on-the-ground efforts by donating online, making a leadership gift or donating via your mobile phone .

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