In the mid-1800s, German immigrant Anton Wilbert looked on the timber-rich Atchafalaya River Basin and saw the wood he needed to make cabinets and coffins.
The property, and many acquisitions after it, have stayed in the family for more than 100 years.
Now, the board that handles the properties has agreed to sell about 5,300 acres of that large landholding near Bayou Sorrel to The Nature Conservancy for restoration, education and research.
It’s been a project six years in the making for The Nature Conservancy staff.
On Thursday, all of that work paid off when the conservancy announced the purchase of several pieces of property on the eastern side of the Basin. It marks the first big step in the group’s Atchafalaya River Basin Initiative.
“It’s our vision for preserving and restoring this place,” said Bryan Piazza, director of freshwater and marine science with The Nature Conservancy. “The land is the key.”
Owning the property will allow the conservancy to start working with the state to change water flow through the area to allow the swamp to experience normal wet and dry periods. Cypress trees can handle flooded conditions for a while, but seedlings need dry periods to germinate and grow before the next flood arrives. That’s been a problem for the swamp in recent years because water gets retained behind spoil banks, stopping the regeneration from occurring.
“The plumbing system in here is broken in places,” Piazza said.
Leading up to the purchase, The Nature Conservancy spent several years studying the Atchafalaya River Basin looking for a region where it can do the least amount of localized restoration.
“We used science to figure out where we wanted to invest,” Piazza said.
They zeroed in on several locations and started looking deeper, even hiring a petroleum engineer to look over the area they eventually would buy to see if there was much more oil and gas activity expected on the property.
“They came up with the fact that it’s pretty well played out,” said Jim Bergan, director of freshwater and wetland conservation at the conservancy.
The team had graduate students researching specific questions such as how the water moved through the properties, he said.
“We’ve gotten the science to the point where we can’t do any more until we get this land,” Piazza said.
The long-term plan for the property involves restoration of the land, encouraging additional scientific work in the Basin and building a center that could be a base for additional research, meetings and awareness trips. The entire initiative, including the cost of the land, is estimated to be at $10 million for the first five years — part of which will be covered by a $1.6 million donation from Shell Oil.
The restoration likely will involve working with the state on an already approved East Grand Lake Project to help improve water flow through the swamp.
A research center would help encourage more graduate students and scientists to work in the Basin, something Piazza says has fallen off in recent years. The swamp can be difficult to access, and having a center where researchers could gather during their work would make a big difference.
It also would help in getting the community more involved in restoration to raise awareness about the problems the B asin faces, he said.
“It’s a remote location, so we have to create a place to facilitate that,” Piazza said. “What we have here is so special.”
For A. Wilbert’s Sons LLC, the company that owns and manages a total of 125,000 acres for stockholders, the sale is a good one for the company and a good fit for how they want to see the land maintained.
“We wanted to sell it to someone who thought of the property like we did. Not to preserve but to conserve,” said Vic Blanchard, land manager at A. Wilbert’s Sons LLC.
The company owns about 40,000 acres within the Atchafalaya River Basin floodway, land that hasn’t been as productive as it once was because there’s little control over when the area floods. Although the company could have done water-flow improvements, the cost of such a project would have outweighed the returns to the company.
“It’s a better fit for them to do the work,” Blanchard said. “We feel like we’re leaving it in really good hands.”
Piazza said working with the landowner and groups that currently use parts of the property, such as hunting clubs, also was key.
“If the landowner didn’t respect the mission of The Nature Conservancy, we’d never been here,” Piazza said.
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.