NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - After opening in the 1950s, Hodges Gardens in West Louisiana became a state park a decade ago. But budget cuts forced its closure. Now the scenic property has a new mission: bringing back a Louisiana longleaf pine forest.
For several generations, people have been able to experience the natural beauty of Hodges Gardens. It was once a rock quarry and then clear-cut of all its longleaf pine timber. In the 1930s,A.J. Hodges bought the property, created a lake, began reforesting the land and planted a 40-acre hilltop garden, complete with waterfalls.
“He liked flowers. He liked trees. He used to tell me that is his greatest thing in life was, was trees,” said Andy Hodges.
Andy Hodges oversees the foundation that manages his grandfather’s property. For the past decade, it was part of the state park system, but budget cuts forced its closure last year.
“We had - at one time, it took about 35 to 40 people working seven days a week to keep it that way,” Hodges said.
Hodges has a new plan for the property - a 4,600-acre ecology forest center, with its main mission being to bring back the longleaf pine forest.
“This is where the tree gets its name. Right there, longleaf. This is the kind of tree that you would have seen in most of the forest, in the virgin forest. This is what I’d call kind of a grand daddy longleaf,” Hodges said.
Reporter: “I'm wondering what this might've looked like 100 years ago before any of that longleaf pine was cut.”
Hodges: “Well, I'd say it was pretty much the trees were similar to this, only larger, bigger trees. They probably had been here for a couple of hundred years.”
The key to restoring the longleaf is to clear out the underbrush with controlled burns, and gradually replace the faster-growing slash pine with fire-resistant longleaf seedlings.
“That is a longleaf pine in what we refer to as being in the grass stage,” Hodges said. “You have to have an area that has enough light to get the longleaf pine to grow. So it's a difficult process to make a blend between the two, between your standing forest and your regeneration of the longleaf pine.”
Hodges believes there is value to a longleaf pine forest that goes far beyond the timber.
“To some people it might be walking through the woods and pitching and a tent and camping out. Other people that might be taking pictures of birds. To a hunter it might be a land to hunt deer on,” he said.
This forest attracts wild turkey, quail and deer. It’s a safe harbor for woodpeckers and may also be home to the endangered Louisiana pine snake.
“These wire-frame meshes that you see right here are going to direct the snake to this box trap up here,” Hodges said.
This forest conservation project will take many generations to complete. But the Hodges family, which recognizes the beauty of this land, plans to fulfill their ancestor’s dream.
The Hodges Foundation has already opened a conference center for forestry students to meet and learn about the longleaf conservation program.