Planting 2,400 trees could be just the start of restoring a cypress forest

The Pontchartrain Conservancy sows a little hope south of Madisonville
Updated: Mar. 23, 2021 at 9:25 PM CDT
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MADISONVILLE, La. (WVUE) - Along the Tchefuncte River in Madisonville, scientists from the Pontchartrain Conservancy give young bald cypress trees a check up, measuring their height and diameter.

The 2,400 trees, two-year-old-saplings, were planted last month.

Cypress trees “knock down the height of storm surge,” said, Eva Hillmann, Ph.D., a scientist with the Pontchartrain Conservancy.

“They provide critical habitat,” Hillmann said. “They’re restoring the ecosystem as much as we can to what it historically was.”

Cypress once blanketed the area sandwiched between homes in Madisonville and Lake Pontchartrain.

Following construction of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet in St. Bernard Parish in the 1950s, salt water moved into the lake and up the basin, killing most of the trees here.

“You and I, when conditions are unhappy, we can get up and leave,” said Shelby Barrett, a Pontchartrain Conservancy coastal scientist. “Plants can’t get up and leave. They end up getting stressed and, over time, you see a mortality.”

Trees along the Tchefuncte tapped into enough fresh water to survive, but most of the forest was lost.

Barrett said the closure of the MRGO following Hurricane Katrina significantly lowered salinity levels, creating an opportunity to re-establish the trees.

Over time, they plan to track the growth rate of the cypress to determine where-- or whether-- to plant more trees.

Despite the recent hard freeze in South Louisiana, experts say the winter months actually are ideal for a planting.

“It’s less stress on them,” said Spaff Goodnow, a landscape architect for St. Tammany Parish Government. “They’re dormant. They’re actually putting on root growth. They’re not trying to sustain green material above.”

The parish plans a wetlands restoration project only about one mile away near the Tchefuncte River Lighthouse, using a share of Louisiana’s federal offshore oil and gas royalties.

“It is important that we maintain the beauty and also restore what we’ve lost,” said St. Tammany Parish President Mike Cooper.

It will take a few years of monitoring, the scientists said, before they know how quickly the trees will grow here.

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