Wednesday, July 26, 2017

"Swamp Rat: The Story of Dixie's Nutria Invasion

         




           Everyone living in Louisiana knows the story of the nutria; a non-native rat-like rodent (but not a rat) that, by eating the tender stems of the grasses that prevent the state's wetlands from eroding to open water, is destroying the south Louisiana coast.
         And if their appetite for defoliating precious wetlands were not enough to make them a plague, their fecundity seals the deal.  They reproduce a lot.
          This is a bad thing, a very bad thing, Theodore G. Manno points out repeatedly in is new book "Swamp Rat: The Story of Dixie's Nutria Invasion," University of Mississippi Press/Jackson, 2017.   The furry rodent from South America with the voracious appetite for native swamp grasses, is largely responsible for a massive loss of land along the Gulf of Mexico-land that protects the populated parts of the Bayou State, many claim.  And all attempts to stop them have failed.
             At least that is the gloomy overview.  But there is so much more to the story of the nutria and how a 15-pound furry rodent with yellow front teeth, surviving only on plant matter became a major concern for the future of Louisiana, and to a lesser extent, the Gulf South.
              Manno fills in the fascinating backstory of how nutria made their way to Louisiana (and at one time 39 other states in the U.S.)  They were invited.
             The trapping, skinning and export of pelts has always been big business in Louisiana.  While nutria were still in South America, their native habitat a huge fad for beaver hats swept Europe beginning in the 1600s.  After almost all beaver in Europe were harvested to make the hats, the supply of beaver began to come from the colonies in North America.  But in the 1830s demand for beaver hats suddenly dropped in favor of hats made from silk.  At the same time over-trapping in North America caused the beaver market to crash.  Nutria began to be imported from South America to shore up the valuable fur market but nutria hats never caught on.  (See Seinfeld episode # 142 for an interesting take on the "rat hat.")
           But the market for fur pelts for clothing, gloves and wraps to sell to the luxury market was still strong.  Nutria fur is nice fur and remained in demand for coats and other fur goods.  But it ws not the favorite of furriers.  Muskrat, of which there were many in Louisiana, became the popular pelt of choice in the early 20th century.  Louisiana was a muskrat Mecca.  All of Canada could produce only 60% of the muskrat pelts that Louisiana did.  Muskrat fur pelts peaked in 1945.  Five years later the fur market in Louisiana was a bust.
          The nutria harvest increased to replace the dwindling muskrat population but the fur harvest just limped along for a decade or two as the fad for wearing fur (unless you were born wearing it) died.
         But not the nutria.  The harvest of nutria by trappers had kept the nutria populations from expanding, despite their prodigious breeding ability.  And while the non-native species had very few natural predators, alligators would eat them.  But by the 1960s alligators had been hunted for their skins to the point there was a fear they might be trapped to extinction.  So with the nutria's two major predators, man and alligators, out of the picture, nutria populations exploded.
          Manno shows how the fortunes of the nutria intertwined with that of other major Louisiana economic foundations such as sugar cane.  He writes with great detail about how and when the nutria came to North America.  (Nutria can be found or have been found in 40 states in the U.S., though are now mostly in 16 states, Europe, the Middle East, South Korea, southern China, India and Japan.)
           A chapter of the book goes into detail about one of the most famous nutria legends:  That all the nutria chewing up the state now are from several nutria pens on Avery Island, LA that were destroyed by a hurricane in the 1930s releasing the hearty herbivores into the wild.  To discover what this nutria expert thinks of this venerable Louisiana tale, buy the book to find out. 
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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Tammany Trace added to Rails to Trails Conservancy Hall of Fame

          The Tammany Trace, an abandoned railroad right-of-way converted to a 27.5 mile linear recreation path through St. Tammany Parish (LA) has been named the 31st trail added to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's Hall of Fame.  The RTC, a trails advocacy group,  has participated in establishing several hundred recreation trails in the U.S from unused railroad right-of-ways.  In almost all cases the R.O.W. is rail banked; an agreement that allows the R.O.W to serve as a trail, thereby keeping it together, until the time it might be in the national interest to make it a railroad again.
           In the 1986 a 31-mile long stretch of Illinois Gulf Central Railroad connecting Covington with Slidell was abandoned.  The idea of developing the narrow right-of-way into a recreation trail for cyclists, hikers, runners, walkers and roller skaters with a side trail for equestrians, was first proposed by a grass roots group of trail advocates, S.T.A.R.T. (St. Tammany Area Rails to Trails.)
           Kevin Davis, a St. Tammany Parish Police Juror in the early 1990s worked hard to convince the parish to buy the recently abandoned R.O.W saying it would provide a safe place for recreation in the rapidly growing parish.  A grand opening of the first stretch of Trace, 8.6 miles connecting Abita Springs with highway U.S. 190, was held September 17, 1994.
            With the completion of a bridge across Bayou Lacombe, several years ago, the Trace is now substantially complete at 27.5 miles.  The Trace runs east and west from downtown Covington to a dead end at Neslo Rd. just west of Slidell.  To bring to Trace from Neslo Rd. to Heritage Park in Slidell, a route of suburban roads and side paths are being considered.
          Voters to the RTC site chose the Trace over two other finalists.  In the past Hall o Fame inductees were chosen by RTC staff.
           Qualities such as outstanding scenic value, amenities and historical significance are considered.  The Tammany Trace, with a total of 500 acres of greenspace of its own passes through a large state park and a U.S. Fish and Wildlife preserve.  Towns along the way, Covington, Mandeville, Lacombe and Slidell offer a variety food and beverage outlets near the Trace.  RTC officials said, in declaring the Tammany Trace in the Hall of Fame that the north shore trail, about 30 air miles north of New Orleans (LA) attracts over 300,000 visitors annually, an average of 821 a day!
           Want to visit another RTC Hall of Fame Winner near by?  The Longleaf Trace, running about 42-miles one way from Hattiesburg northwest to Prentiss, is a beautiful ride.  Hattiesburg, MS is about a two-hour drive northeast from New Orleans.  The Longleaf Trace, opened Labor Day 2000 and was named as a RTC Hall of Fame Trail in 2010.
          For more information about both the Tammany Trace and the Longleaf Trace, search this blog.
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Sunday, July 23, 2017

Bike lanes planned for St. Bernard (Parish); Tammany Trace to be extended and other bicycle related news

          In the last couple months, the New Orleans Advocate has given much space in its printed  pages for stories about the expanding network of bicycle lanes in southeast Louisiana.

New moves made to finish the Tammany Trace into downtown Slidell.

          Sara Pagones, in the July 16, 2017 edition, wrote about efforts by both St. Tammany Parish and the town of Slidell to complete the last few miles of the Tammany Trace.  Running east, 27.5 miles from downtown Covington, the Trace now dead ends at Neslo Rd. about four miles short of the trail's eastern terminus at Heritage Park in Slidell.
           When first proposed in the 1990s the Trace was to follow an abandoned right-of-way into Slidell and the park.  But that has not proven to be a suitable route.  Now, as reported in the New Orleans Advocate, a series of existing suburban streets will become the route linking the park with the Neslo Rd. dead end.
             Preparing the streets to accommodate bicycle traffic safely will require a several separate projects including short stretches of new Trace construction, and modifying existing streets with bike lanes.

State to begin building river bike trail in St. Bernard Parish  
         
          News of a new bicycle path to be built along the east bank of the Mississippi River in St. Bernard Parish made the front page of the Orleans Advocate, July 10, 2017.  Penned by Advocate staffer Chad Calder, the piece tells of an ambitious plan laying out a cycling network of nearly 35 miles of trail looping the densely populated area of the parish.
          Construction on the first segment, a three mile stretch atop the Mississippi River levee from the Valero Refinery down river to the Violet Canal, will begin in September.  Later phases have the finished trail running 11-miles from Arabi down river to Caernaron, much of it on the levee.
          Future plans include extending the trail to the Plaquemines Parish line.  A trail is planned for adjacent to St. Bernard Highway and bike lanes connecting  eastern Orleans parish with St. Bernard are also planned.
          The "40 Arpent Trail," will encircle the urbanized portion of the parish with a 26-mile loop trail that connects with the Mississippi River Trail.
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Person to person bicycle rental in New Orleans

          Renting a bicycle to ride in New Orleans has never been easier.  Really.  Using your phone, computer or tablet, visit Spinlister  the world's biggest peer-to-peer bike sharing platform, to connect with someone in New Orleans (or anywhere in the world really) who will rent you one.
          I visited the site to check it out.  Spinlister will not let you go deep into the site without registering (free) but I learned: There are lots and lots people renting bikes in New Orleans,  None listed with Spinister apparently are shops yet, and there are a wide variety of bike available.  After a few minutes on the site I found bikes ranging in price from cruisers at $15 to racers with carbon fiber frames for $100.  I could not tell how long that was for.  There was even an adult tricycle and a Santana tandem.  Visit the site for the details. If you have had any experiences with this platform while in New Orleans, send a comment for review to this blog.
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Sunday, May 21, 2017

Bullet strikes bicyclist on training ride in eastern New Orleans

           A bicyclist on a morning training ride in eastern New Orleans was shot in the lower back with a small caliber bullet, Saturday, May 13, 2017.
          Christopher Weiss, 49, of the Carrollton area in New Orleans said he felt a sharp pain in his back and rolled to a stop to investigate.  Shortly after that he was taken to a hospital where doctors determined the small caliber bullet  (the wound was initially thought to be caused by a pellet) did not hit any vital organs.  Because it came to rest very close to the spinal cord, doctors have decided not to remove it at this time.  Doctors say Weiss may experience some immediate leg mobility issues but that they hope the effects are temporary, Marc Weiss, Christopher's father, said in a telephone interview from his summer home in Massachusetts.
          The incident occurred as a paceline of about 10 riders in the Semi-Tough Cycling Club were coming back from their regular Saturday ride to Fort Pike, headed west on Bullard Avenue.  The shooting is being investigated by the New Orleans Police Department.  As of May 22, no suspects have been announced.
           In the weeks before the May 13 attack, bicyclists have reported two paint ball attacks while riding on Lakeshore Drive in New Orleans, both the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and the New Orleans Advocate have reported.
         The ugly incident was even reported in the UK in the Sun tabloid; another black mark against New Orleans,  a top rated urban cycling destination in the U.S.

A petition requesting more police protection for cyclists has been started

            The elder Weiss also said a petition has been started requesting the city increase police protection of cyclists.  The petition is directed at New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu and New Orleans Police Superintendent, Michael S. Harrison  and asks them to respond with more policing in the face of escalating violence toward cyclists.  The petition can be found at:
 http://www.thepetitionsite.com/242/605/185/nola-stop-the-escalating-war-on-cyclists/
          As of Monday, May 21, nearly 10,000 worldwide have signed the petition.  About 800 of the signers are from Louisiana.

Thousands of bicyclists take to the streets of New Orleans in 1986


             New Orleans became the center of the recreational cycling universe for one day, May 18, 1986, when thousands of bicyclists took to the streets on a muggy Saturday for the Kodak Liberty Ride Festival (KLRF).  The non-competitive ride began with a massed start--riders packed curb to curb on streets and side streets near the Louisiana Superdome.  From there it wound slowly through the city following a 17-mile loop route (with stops) through the CBD, the French Quarter out to Lake Pontchartrain and back to the Louisiana Superdome.
            At the Superdome, finishers were treated to box lunches on the grounds before entering the Dome for a concert featuring Huey Lewis and the News (a big draw in the early 1980s) the Hooters, Daryl Hall and John Oates and Crescent City native sons, the Neville Brothers.

          KLRF rides were held in about a hundred other cities in the U.S. at the same time.  The concert in the Louisiana Superdome, named "America Rocks" was televised via satellite to some of the other cities with KLRF rides of their own.  One purpose of the event was to raise $5 million to restore the Statue of Liberty in New York City.  Admission to the event was $26 but volunteers in New Orleans had their fees waived and received yellow T-shirts with "Official" printed on the back.  The standard KLRF T-shirt was white.  Tickets at the other KLFR events were $21.
            I think local print and television media ignored the event despite its significance to the cycling in the city which at the time had very few cycling specific facilities:  The Jefferson Davis Parkway Path, the St. Anthony Path, the incomplete path along Lake Pontchartrain in Jefferson Parish and bike lanes in Audubon Park.  And a signed bike route using mostly the back streets of Uptown.
           A committed cyclist with 16 years in the saddle to my credit, I was there in that sweaty throng of happy, smiling but mostly inexperienced cyclists.  Would not have missed it for anything.   But my recollections of the event are less than reliable.  I don't even remember what bike I rode.  Slides I shot that day (remember film cameras?) were ruined after soaking in the toxic marinate of post Hurricane Katrina (2005) floodwaters, but this is an excuse I use a lot when I try to prove my attendance at an event I may or may not have attended.  My only proof I was there is the yellow KLRF T-shirt pictured above.  (There must have been many more shirts to give out than there were riders because in the summer of 1986, KLRF T-shirts seemed to be a favorite clothing choice of the down and out living on the streets and in shelters of the city.)
           (Many consider the ride a flop.  The turnout nationally was much smaller than expected; less than 100 riders showed up at the KLRF in Orlando, FL.  Some complained the event was too expensive for families.  The quality of the satellite transmission of the concert in the Superdome had both poor sound and poor video prompting many to leave their local events early.)
           I do remember my clothes were dampened by a brief isolated rain shower in Lakeview and that The League of American Wheelman (LAW) now named Bicycle USA, a national non-profit that has promoted cycling since the late 19th century, was, in part, responsible for organizing the ride.  Locally, members of the Crescent City Cyclists served as volunteer ride captains.
             But other than those few fuzzy details, I really don't remember much about such a significant event promoting cycling in New Orleans.  The free food and concert were enough to yank my chain.  For once I didn't feel like asking a lot of questions.
              So when I got the invite to an afternoon cookout at the Uptown home of Marc Weiss, a co-founder of the Crescent City Cyclists, I was excited.  As president of the CCC at the time of the KLRF, Marc worked with the LAW in pulling the event off.  We could have some adult drinks and talk about old times.  He would refresh my memories of the ride and fill me in on the administrative details I had been oblivious to.   (Marc left the city about 25 years ago to live "up north" and only recently bought a home in N.O. to spend winters in the Crescent City.)
               Well, having another eyewitness to quiz about the event didn't add much clarity to my own sketchy memories.  The scene of the two of us standing next to the grill not remembering as he flipped burgers was a lot like one scene in the movie "Blue Lagoon" where two teenagers, a boy and a girl, are marooned on a desert island.  After some time (their clothes had almost rotted off) they tried to amuse themselves by trying to remember the words to Christmas carols they learned as children.  They couldn't.  And we couldn't remember much about KLRF either.
                 So what I had hoped would be a detailed account of one of the more significant bicycle rides held in New Orleans is going to be not much more than documented proof I don't remember as much or as accurately as I think I do, a picture of the T-shirt commemorating the event and Marc smiling at the camera at his April 2017 backyard cookout.


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Sunday, May 7, 2017

Bike path on Mississippi River levee near New Orleans to grow by nearly three miles.

     

By Jack Curry Jr.

         Bicycle paths began to appear on the tops of Mississippi River levees in the metro New Orleans (LA) area in the late 1990s.  Responding to pressure from cyclists and others who pushed to replace the bumpy shell surface with a blacktop path that would promote bicycle commuting into the city from the upriver neighborhoods, parish governments, along with the Army Corps of Engineers worked together to make the paths happen.    Since then about 30 miles of blacktop connecting Audubon Park to the Bonnet Carre Spillway, has been built on the East Bank of the river.
          On the West Bank three sections have been built but they do not connect.  Starting down river, about four miles has been built from Merrill St upriver to Gretna.  There is a gap where there is no levee path from Gretna upriver to Klein St, about four miles.  About five miles have been built from Klein St. in Westwego to 12th. St in Bridge City.  There is no path through the former site of the Avondale Shipyard.   A 17-mile stretch has been built from what was the boundary of Avondale Shipyard up river to Elm St. in Hahnville in St. Charles Parish.
           Plans to close these gaps in the bike path and make it one continuous path from Algiers upriver to past Hahnville (and beyond) have been on parish master plans for years.  There are highways parallel to the levee at ground level but they are narrow, have no shoulders and carry heavy traffic, discouraging bicyclists who might be looking for a detour around the levee path gaps.
            Now it looks like the gap between Klein Rd. and Gretna may close a bit.
            The next sections to be done are; 1.6 miles from Klein St. in Westwego downriver to Douglass Lane in Marrero and a 1.2 mile section beginning at Douglass Lane ending at the Harvey Canal.  These two sections will extend a section of existing path at begins at 12th Street in Bridge City to about seven miles, according to a story that ran in the New Orleans Advocate, Sunday, May 7, 2017.
            The Klein St./Douglass Lane stretch could open by mid-2018 but the 1.2 mile stretch is still at least two years away, the paper reports.
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