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LYNN NEARY, host:

In Louisiana, the offshore oil spill has created a tense waiting game for environmentalists monitoring the state's vulnerable wetlands and barrier islands. They are rich in wildlife and are the first line of defense against hurricanes. They've been steadily eroding for years and now face the danger of the approaching oil. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY: Breton Island is among the stretches of land in the Gulf which make up one of the country's oldest National Wildlife Refuges. Hurricane Katrina and other storms have turned much of the area into open water. Wildlife officials make frequent checks on the land that remains, and yesterday reported oil sheen nearby, which may affect thousands of migratory birds who make the isolated spot a home and breeding ground.

Ms. MELANIE DRISCOLL (National Audubon Society): Most of the birds behind us are loafing and hanging out.

CORLEY: On a recent boat trip out to Breton, Melanie Driscoll - with the National Audubon Society - says the fear is that the birds will ingest oil or have their feathers soiled by oil. And since birds like the brown pelicans here are at the beginning or in the middle of the nesting cycle, the oil spill couldn't happen at a worse time for them.

Ms. DRISCOLL: And it puts them into a situation where they're more tied to the ground. They have a nest, which is an investment, and they're less likely - if conditions get bad - to just get up and move to another area.

CORLEY: So far, two oiled birds - one found in the Gulf and the other on another island - have been cleaned and relocated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. BP has placed orange booms around Breton to try to prevent any oiling. Randy Lanctot, the executive director of the Louisiana Wildlife Federation, says even more needs to be done.

Mr. RANDY LANCTOT (Executive Director, Louisiana Wildlife Federation): It does make sense that we would take special care of a place like this, because you can see how much land is out here. It's just a tiny little piece, and these birds they need to have this habitat.

CORLEY: But the shoreline has been fading fast. Ben Webb, with the National Wildlife Federation, says it's much the same for the state's marshes. Louisiana is home to about 40 percent of the nation's wetland, but the bulk of the coastal wetland loss occurs in the state.

Mr. BEN WEBB (National Wildlife Federation): Yeah. These wetlands have been sacrificed, pretty much, for the national good - be it navigation, be it oil and gas exploration, be it fisheries.

CORLEY: Every year during the last decade, Louisiana lost about 24 square miles of wetlands. That's about the size of one football field every 38 minutes.

(Soundbite of water splashing)

CORLEY: About 80 students from Belle Chasse Middle School are part of one of the latest coastal restoration projects. They planted marsh grass at a sandy beach area in Jesuit Bend, Louisiana, about 20 miles south of New Orleans.

Shane Foss, with the Louisiana Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration, says it's a first-of-its-kind program.

Mr. SHANE FOSS (Louisiana Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration): And we actually pumped sediment from the Mississippi River, which was about five miles from here.

CORLEY: And put down about 300 million cubic yards of sand. The plant roots hold it all together. The state partnered with the Environmental Protection Agency and oil company, Conoco Phillips. Of course, for the students, creating wetlands can be a little...

Unidentified Child #1: Gooey.

Unidentified Child #2: Gooey.

Unidentified Child #3: Yeah.

Unidentified Child #4: We keep on falling down.

CORLEY: Science teachers Gina Eagen(ph) and Natalie Larteague(ph) said planting marsh grass in their own parish makes students accountable and...

Ms. GINA EAGEN (Science Teacher): Makes them our future leaders in building up our wetlands and their home.

Ms. NATALIE LARTEAGUE (Science Teacher): And, you know, the majority of our students experienced devastating losses with Katrina, first hand. So these kids get it.

CORLEY: Get that the wetlands are crucial, not only for Louisiana, but for the entire country.

Unidentified Woman: OK. Y'all want to go in this way?

Unidentified Child #5: Yup.

Unidentified Child #6: Yeah.

Unidentified Woman: Excellent.

CORLEY: Cheryl Corley, NPR News.

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