Heart of Louisiana: Kisatchie National Forest

LA-1 cuts through some of Louisiana's most fertile farmland as it follows the Red River, the Mississippi and Bayou Lafourche.

But in Central Louisiana, there is a different scene on the horizon. The hills of the Kisatchie Forest. It's Louisiana's only national forest and there is one person we can thank for creating the 600,000 acre wilderness.

Caroline Dormon was born at "Briarwood", the family home in Natchitoches Parish. Growing up, she was fascinated by plants and she wanted to attend the nation's first school of forestry in North Carolina. But at that time, women were not allowed.

"Had Caroline not done the work she did, there would be no national forest," says Richard Johnson with the Carolyn Dormon Nature Preserve.

Dormon became the first woman to work for the U.S. Forest Service.

Richard Johnson helps manage the Carolyn Dormon Nature Preserve at Briarwood. He began working for Dorman when he was a boy, climbing trees to cut mistletoe. In the 1920's Dormon almost single-handedly convinced congress and the Louisiana Legislature to create the Kisatchie National Forest.

It was a bold move that wasn't popular with some landowners and lumber companies, but Dorman eventually got the votes she needed.

"She didn't tell them what she really thought of 'em. She just went to their wives and talked to their wives and like the country song says, Papa Come Around to Mama's way of Thinking," Johnson says.

The new Kisatchie National Forest was in dire need of help. Many of the trees had already been cut from the hilly countryside.

"She managed to convince a lot of the people that this waste land that's washing away over there, maybe we should plant some pines on it," recalled Johnson.

On her own property, Dormon collected trees, plants and flowers from throughout the southeastern United States. Today, there are more than 900 species and variations of trees.

At ten stories high, a 300 year-old long leaf pine that Dorman named "Grandpappy", towers above the forest. It was her favorite.

"It takes three youngsters to go around it, sometimes four," says Johnson.

Before Caroline Dormon died in 1971, she donated all of her land, nearly 200 acres, as a nature preserve. Today the area on the edge of Louisiana's Kistatchie National Forest, draws garden clubs, photographers, artists and birdwatchers from around the world.

Dormon has left her mark as a botanist, a horticulturist, an author and artist, and a staunch preservationist. Most importantly, she wanted this forest saved for children.

"She'd tell me, you tell those children that this is their forest. Make them understand that it's there for them to protect now," Johnson said.

It is the gift of a lifetime spent studying and loving nature.

"She saw beauty above all else," Johnson said.

For more information, go to http://www.cp-tel.net/dormon/