The latest victim of Louisiana’s budget woes could very well be Hodges Gardens State Park. At one time it was the largest privately owned botanical garden in the country.
Growing up in north Louisiana, I recall many visits to the gardens as a child. For years it was the No. 1 tourist attraction in the area. Waning public interest in gardens, coupled with the completion of Interstate 49, diverted attention away from Hodges Gardens by the 1990s. The gates were closed in 2006. In 2007, a Cooperative Endeavor Agreement (CEA) was reached between the non-profit A.J. and Nona Trigg Hodges Foundation and the state of Louisiana. More than 900 acres of land, including the formal gardens and the pine forests surrounding a lake, were turned over to Louisiana for development as a state park. Soon after opening, improvements began. Two new modular cabins were purchased, a group lodge was built, and the gardens were slowly brought back to full bloom. Beginning in 2008, however, a change in the state’s budgetary priorities and practices forced the shelving of many planned renovations. Funds for even the most routine maintenance were slashed. Vacated positions were not filled. As a member and past president of the Baton Rouge Astronomical Society, I became reacquainted with Hodges Gardens soon after the state park opened. In 2009, our organization began hosting an annual gathering of amateur astronomers at the park each spring. Astronomers from throughout Louisiana and surrounding states would gather for a few nights to enjoy the beautifully dark skies . On the last night of our event each year, the public would be invited to join us at our telescopes. For many local families, it became a tradition. The public viewings became so popular that the park’s rangers acquired a telescope so stargazing programs could be conducted at other times during the year. I just received word that this year’s Hodges Gardens Star Party could be our last. It seems that continuing neglect by the state has prompted the Hodges Foundation to submit a notice of default to the Office of State Parks. As I understand it, the Foundation no longer trusts Louisiana to fund or maintain the park in the manner originally set forth in the CEA. Who could blame the foundation? The dedicated state park employees have worked tirelessly to keep the park presentable. But without adequate funding, the roads have crumbled, the greenhouses have collapsed, the fountains are often silent, and the flowers have wilted. An official reply to the notice of default has not been released. I fear, however, that the decision has already been made to close the park. Not only would Louisiana lose a piece of its natural and cultural heritage, it will probably lose the investment it made to the park’s facilities. Please contact your elected representatives and let them know that closing the park it is not an option.