Fontainebleau State Park

Former U.S. Secretary of the Interior James Watt’s idea of wilderness was, “a parking lot without the yellow lines.” With this mindset, in 1980, he went after the country’s pristine national parks, wilderness and coastlines with a vengeance, maximizing the presence of private businesses in public parks and lands. Emboldened by his powers under the existing law at that time, Watt authorized clear-cutting in ancient forests; strip-mining in undisturbed mountain ranges; the paving of rustic dirt roads and trails; drilling of oil and gas wells off recreational beaches; and, the construction and expansion of hotels, concessions, resorts and conference centers with their attendant parking lots. The people of America were outraged. Eventually the Reagan administration came to its senses, and Watt resigned.

Fast forward to Louisiana in 2019. Emboldened by Act 190 of the 2017 legislature, which gives the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism jurisdiction over sales, leases and subleases of “immovable property” including state park land and concession leases, Lt. Governor Billy Nungesser is seriously considering the construction of a 150 room hotel and 15,000 sq. ft. conference center on the lakefront of pristine Fontainebleau State Park.

”As our world becomes more urban, the need to preserve wilderness parks for future generations grows increasingly urgent.”

His rationale is disturbing. In an investigative report by Fox 8 reporter Rob Masson, broadcast on July 17, Lt. Governor Nungesser described his chosen location for the project as “unused property at this point that’s woods that is not being utilized for anything.” Nungesser fails to understand that “woods” are a fundamental component of the concept of a park, and the Louisiana Office of State Parks – which falls under his jurisdiction – is charged with protecting and maintaining them, not bulldozing them for commercial development. Their mere existence constitutes a “use” not only as habitat for wild creatures, great and small, but also for the humans who enjoy the woods. That’s what parks are for.

This scale of development within Fontainebleau State Park raises both environmental and human health concerns. An extremely rare habitat, the Live Oak – Pine – Magnolia Forest is found only in St. Tammany Parish along the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, including in Fontainebleau State Park. According to the state’s Wildlife Action Plan (2015), the Live Oak – Pine – Magnolia Forest is home to 27 of Louisiana’s Species of Greatest Conservation Need (2 crustaceans, 7 reptiles, 9 birds, 7 mammals and 2 plants). The proposed development will likely degrade or destroy this fast-disappearing habitat.

If sited along the lake shore, as is currently proposed, the hotel-convention center complex will likely exacerbate the fecal coliform problems that Fontainebleau State Park is having along its beach. Health advisories are routinely issued by the Louisiana Department of Health Beach Monitoring Program for Fontainebleau State Park’s beach during the summertime.

”Planning commercial development in an already protected, public park is short-sighted and completely ignores the environmental value of wilderness and the basic need of humans to commune with nature.”

The proposed commercial development is also not needed either to fund the park or meet the needs of conference planners. The feasibility study which Lt. Governor Nungesser requested clearly indicates that the Park is fiscally solvent; the Park does not need an economic boost from this project. The study also indicates that hotel occupancy in St. Tammany is below the national average. Finally, the study omits the fact that the Clarion Conference Center, on which the study relies for its data, failed before the study was issued. This glaring omission raises the question: What happens if the project fails? Will the park then be saddled with empty buildings and a parking lot? How can another conference center be justifiable when The Castine Center at Pelican Park – a 29,250 sq. ft. meeting facility with on-site catering, which is currently underused – is only 2 miles from the proposed site?

Yet Lt. Governor Nungesser is convinced that there is a need and he is moving ahead with his plans to build a conference center in St. Tammany Parish. He recently formed a committee to determine the siting of the conference center, and Fontainebleau State Park still figures prominently. Committee membership should be representative of all the stakeholders, including the environmental community and regular users such as hikers and birders.

As our world becomes more urban, the need to preserve wilderness parks for future generations grows increasingly urgent. This is particularly true for fast-growing St. Tammany Parish. Planning commercial development in an already protected, public park is short-sighted and completely ignores the environmental value of wilderness and the basic need of humans to commune with nature. Let us unite to protect this landscape and its birds that inspired John James Audubon. I urge the people of St. Tammany and the State of Louisiana to voice their outrage and take action to save Fontainebleau State Park.

President of the Orleans Audubon Society, Jennifer Coulson is an ecologist and ornithologist who studies raptors of conservation concern.

The opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens Founder Karen Gadbois.