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Heart of Louisiana: Turtle Cove Environmental Research Station

Southeastern Louisiana University's Turtle Cove Research Center was built in 1908 by lumber baron Edward Schlater. Southeastern Louisiana University's Turtle Cove Research Center was built in 1908 by lumber baron Edward Schlater.
(WVUE) -

A century-old hunting cabin built by a lumber baron is now headquarters for environmental research aimed at trying to reverse the damage of clear-cutting the giant cypress trees of the Manchac swamp. University students and school kids are studying the marsh up close at Turtle Cove. Dave McNamara takes us there in tonight's Heart of Louisiana.

Three centuries ago, this waterway that's now crossed by two highways and a railroad bridge was a shortcut for some of the earliest French explorers.

“When Iberville and Bienville were looking for the alternate route out to the Gulf of Mexico, instead of coming all the way down the Mississippi River, the Indian guides told them to hang a left at Bayou Manchac,” said Turtle Cove Director Rob Moreau

Pass Manchac, which connects lakes Pontchartrain and Maurepas, was once the site of a great cypress swamp.

“There would have been trees twice as big around as this boat,” Moreau said. “You are talking about trees that would have been hundreds of years old. None of that is left standing now. That was all logged out.”

The lumbering began in the 1830s, and the last virgin cypress tree was cut from the Manchac swamp in 1957. You only see an occasional skeleton of an old tree, or something like this giant cypress trunk barely visible in the undergrowth along the bank of an old logging canal. Aerial photographs show the land scarred by rows of canals.

“What's left behind is a marsh, and that's a wetland dominated by grass,” Moreau said.

Moreau runs Southeastern Louisiana University's Turtle Cove Research Center on Pass Manchac built in 1908 by lumber baron Edward Schlater.

“Supposedly some vice presidents and politicians and everybody else stayed here, hunted here,” Moreau said.

Now students and school groups use the facility to learn about the marsh, its trees, plants and wildlife. There’s also a lesson in land loss along the edge of Lake Pontchartrain. 

“We lose about 10 to 15 feet of that shoreline every year,” Moreau said.

And restoring Manchac's cypress forest seems like a long shot.

“Because of salinity, because of lack of elevation, sinking of our delta and rising sea levels,” Moreau said.

One bright spot is the closure of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, a deep-water channel that created a freeway for saltwater intrusion and wetlands loss. That ship channel is now closed.

“And we see salinity rates on the eastern side of Lake Pontchartrain of the basin going down, salinity rates - it's a good thing for cypress trees,” Moreau said.

And river diversions could push fresh water and even some sediment in from the back of the Pass Manchac. Without that, young cypress trees don't have much of a chance taking hold in the gradually sinking marsh.

“Even though this is a degraded swamp that's now become a marsh, it's still a very beautiful system and a very productive system,” Moreau said.

Turtle Cove serves as a wetlands laboratory, examining what went wrong, searching for solutions and educating children on what's at stake for their future.

Southeastern's Turtle Cove Environmental Research Station provides tours and field trips. For more information click here.

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