Despite Hurricane Ida’s surge, a cypress planting results in a 98% survival rate

Early results show positive signs for efforts to plant a new forest in Madisonville
Published: Mar. 31, 2022 at 12:07 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Twelve months ago, a dedicated group of scientists and volunteers sowed a little hope in a marshy area along the Tchefuncte River in Madisonville.

The Pontchartrain Conservancy planted 2,400 cypress saplings, barely the size of twigs, wrapped in plastic “nutria protectors” to prevent the rodents from munching on their roots.

Six months later came an early test, the storm surge from Hurricane Ida.

“A number of them might have gotten topped, or the top branches were knocked off by Ida,” said Dr. Michael Hopkins, Ph.D., Coast and Community Program Director at the Pontchartrain Conservancy.

However, Hopkins said staff members have measured increases in the diameters of the trees.

They regularly monitor 350 of the trees to sample the progress.

“We’ve had a 98% success in survival of those trees,” said Dr. Eva Hillmann, Ph.D., the group’s Coast and Community Program Scientist. “That’s excellent without a hurricane.”

Historically, a large cypress forest grew in Madisonville before logging and subsidence claimed many of the trees.

“Conditions are getting more favorable in a lot of areas around the basin,” Hopkins said. “I think the time is now to try to get these trees in the ground as soon as possible.”

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Congress ordered the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet in St. Bernard Parish closed.

Scientists say a rock dam on the MRGO significantly cut saltwater levels in Lake Pontchartrain, providing a window of opportunity.

“We can’t save all of Louisiana,” Hopkins said, “but we can be strategic in where we place things like forests.”

St. Bernard Parish government has blamed the rock dam for prolonging flooding after high-water events by trapping the water in fishing communities.

In Madisonville, the trees that survived here over time tended to be along the riverbank or bayous, where just enough elevation gave them a foothold.

While scientists say sea level rise poses a long-term threat to Louisiana’s cypress, a healthy forest-- to some degree-- can actually fight that.

“A thriving forest, dropping its leaves, adding that debris to the soil helps to elevate that area,” Hillmann said.

The last few weeks have provided more reasons for optimism as the young trees sprouted leaves.

“Time will tell if it’s a success story, but definitely it’s a positive,” Hillmann said.

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