Conservationists are asking for a hand to revive sick swamps.
The Ten Thousand Trees for Louisiana campaign is seeking volunteers to plant native trees throughout the winter in wetlands ravaged by logging and saltwater intrusion.
A coalition of environmental groups known as Restore the Mississippi River Delta submitted a report in mid-November to the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority asking the state to fast-track several Coastal Master Plan projects deemed especially vital.
MANCHAC — In the distance, a few wading birds drifted over the tree stumps in the Maurepas swamp; others perched in the bleached and broken bo…
One priority is digging diversion canals from the Mississippi River to bring more fresh water to the Maurepas Swamp to speed its recovery. They're also seeking volunteers who aren't afraid to get dirty to do some planting.
Years ago, the landbridge between Lakes Pontchartrain and Maurepas was logged, and infrastructure like the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet allowed saltwater to permeate into the swamp, preventing trees from growing back. However, the outlet has since been closed, and the soil is once again capable of supporting hardwoods.
Scientists planted 25 bald cypresses near Pass Manchac in 2014 and they were able to survive, said coastal scientist Eva Hillman of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation. Since then, teams have planted 25,000 trees, with an 83 percent survival rate. Another 5,000 are scheduled to go in the ground by spring, she continued.
The Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana has scheduled events throughout the winter for volunteers who want to lend a hand at the landbridge as well as at a site near Caernarvon in St. Bernard Parish. Details are available at crcl.org/calendar/events.
Workers head out on a boat, bring saplings to the planting sites by sled, dig the holes and install devices to keep nutria from eating the small, still-vulnerable trees, explained CRCL Restoration Program Director Deb Visco Abibou.
"Be prepared to get DIRTY," organizers warn on their website.
With so much work to do, efforts are still focused on easy-to-reach areas along the canals, said John Lopez, director of the Basin Foundation's coastal sustainability program. It's also expensive, as each tree can cost up to $40; and it would take 1,000 years to plant everything by hand, he said. That's why he's already thinking of the future, which could involve dispersing seeds via helicopter or with drones. It may also be worthwhile to team up with hunters to cull the nutria, which eat young trees, he said.
More than 1,500 volunteers have pitched in with planting so far, Hillman and Abibou said. They singled out high school groups as especially eager helpers.
The scientists hope the project shows volunteers that they can have a tangible impact on the environment. The swamps are important both because they support diverse plant and animal life and because they provide a buffer against tropical storms, especially when strong trees are in place that can stand up to buffeting winds and storm surges.
The trees planted in the past three years are growing, if slowly. Should the state build diversions to deliver more fresh water into the Maurepas Swamp, the cypresses will be able to sprout faster, Abibou said.
The Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority was receptive to the conservation groups' recommendations, which include Master Plan projects all along the Louisiana Coast.
“...(T)here is great agreement on what we need and want to do. It’s always nice to receive affirmation and validation, especially when it comes from such distinguished and knowledgeable organizations as Audubon, the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Wildlife Federation and the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation. With such agreement as a foundation, we can move forward to get the funding to make it all possible and turn plans into reality," CPRA executive director Michael Ellis wrote in a statement.