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It is said that when Thomas Jefferson bought the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, he was mainly interested in New Orleans and its surrounding swamps. Two centuries later, it is now the section of the country that is most vulnerable and in jeopardy.

A swamp tour through the bayous of southern Louisiana is a great way to explore one of the most fragile ecosystems in the country, the wetlands. There are several swamp tours to choose from and most of them will pick you up from your hotel in New Orleans. The drive to the swamps is about 45 minutes. I went on a swamp tour a few years ago, April of 2005, four months before Katrina, and was amazed at the beauty of the environment.

There’s a poetic quality to the swamps and bayous, something haunting, yet spiritual. The wetlands aren't as immediately striking or inspiring as other natural treasures of America such as the Grand Canyon or Yosemite, but the ecosystem is as essential as any in the country.

As our airboat, packed with about 15 people, set out on the bayou, the gators could be seen sunning themselves on the shore. The tour guide tossed out marshmallows to lure them closer for a Kodak moment. “Come over here, Shirley,” he coaxed a particularly large one. This is the routine on all the tours, although there are some that feed the gators live chickens.

We glided deeper through the bayous and were provided commentary by a wetlands ecologist on the fauna and flora. The humidity hung thick in the air and the hum of the cicadas added to the ambiance. Moss-covered cypress trees provide a lush, fecund environment that's truly unique in the U.S. The lushness added to the feeling of awe at the power of nature – a feeling of, at once, solitude and connectedness.

Nearly half of the country’s wetlands are in Louisiana. These wetlands were already diminishing at an alarming rate before the BP oil “spill,” but are now endangered. Once the oil gets into the wetlands, it will be there for decades. If it gets into the roots, that will expedite the demise of the wetlands through erosion into open water.

These wetlands form an important protective buffer for New Orleans from hurricanes. The friction the wetlands provide slow the storms down. Every 2.7 square miles of land that a storm passes over reduces the storm surge for the communities in the path of the storm by 1 foot.

Before the oil disaster, Louisiana was losing 25 to 30 square miles of wetlands a year. Every hour, an area of wetlands the size of 2 football fields is lost to the sea. As the oil disaster plays out, the ecosystem will be further damaged – and the buffer they provide to help protect New Orleans from future hurricanes reduced.

Forty percent of the entire U.S. drains into the wetlands through the Mississippi River, which then empties into the oil-soaked Gulf of Mexico. It is here that nearly every species of life is endangered, along with the way of life of the shrimpers and fishermen that have called the wetlands and the Gulf Coast their home for generations.

The brown pelican, the state bird of Louisiana, already endangered before the oil spill, may also now be dealt a death blow. As a Louisiana congressman said recently with tears in his eyes, “These are America’s wetlands.” Get down to see and appreciate them while you still can.

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