SLU Public Information

Saving a Cypress Swamp
By John Kemp

"We have to remember that the earth is a very changing environment!"

Dr. Robert Hastings' reflection on Manchac Swamp is a familiar story in south Louisiana where coastal wetlands are retreating at an alarming rate. Since 1970, wetlands around the rims of lakes Pontchartrain and Maurepas have eroded at an average of fifteen to twenty-three feet a year. Between 1897 and 1952, Manchac lost almost three hundred yards of shoreline, says Professor Hastings, director of Southeastern's Turtle Cove Environmental Research Station at Pass Manchac.
      Working against man-made and natural forces, biologists at Southeastern's Wetlands Restoration Lab, directed by Dr. Gary Shaffer and Research Associate Michael Greene, are on a mission to save Manchac Swamp, which forms an hourglass barrier between the two lakes. Turtle Cove is at the center of that mission with a major reforestation project to plant thousands of young cypress trees in Manchac's marshes and swamps. In addition, Turtle Cove also may become an important regional research and education center, attracting scientists from all over the world.
       The lyrical beauty of nature is everywhere in Manchac. It is in the abandoned lighthouse silhouetted against an intense sunset. It is in the delicate purple iris and spider lily struggling for survival on the tangled swamp floor, and in the chevron-winged egret preening its wispy white plumes with the grace of a ballerina's pirouette. The swamp in springtime is a grand aviary with bald eagles and great blue herons nesting, stick-legged egrets stalking prey in slow motion, red-tailed hawks gliding on warm breezes, and treetops filled with the discordant songs of a thousand birds. Even in a spring thunderstorm, the swamp is iridescent against the heavy flannel-gray sky. Towering black thunderheads and veils of rain sweep across the watery prairie.
       From an overflying airplane, a century of cypress logging is painfully visible everywhere. Within sight of the New Orleans Central Business District skyline to the southeast, vast grassy prairies soak in coffee-black water where a thick cypress forest once stood. What remains today are thousands of dark stumps slowly rotting in the black water, second and third-growth cypress trees struggling for survival, thousands of felled trees graying in the hot sun, and narrow logging canals, cutting across the watery landscape like long, festering wounds.

Feeder ditches
radiate like
spokes in a
wagon wheel

      To satisfy south Louisiana's and the nation's insatiable appetite for cypress, logging companies almost leveled the Manchac area between the late 1890s and 1956 when the last log was cut for the mills. Loggers criss-crossed the swamp, digging canals to move their steam-powered pullboats deeper and deeper into the swamp. From each canal, small feeder ditches radiate off in every direction like spokes in a wagon wheel. From the air, these surreal and watery radiants glisten like silver starbursts in the late afternoon sun.
       Scientists generally agree that natural and man-made forces are slowly killing the swamp and marsh. Clear-cut logging, however, is not the only culprit. They say other factors include natural land subsidence and rising global sea levels caused by long-term earth warming, the digging of logging and highway canals, the Mississippi River levee system that prevents natural sediment deposits in the swamp, and the introduction of nutria in the 1930s.
       Biologists and state agencies are working on several fronts, however, to save Manchac. Between 1975 and 1977 the state of Louisiana created the Manchac Wildlife Management Area with the purchase of over eight thousand acres of Manchac swamp and marsh, including the once broad, grassy plains called the "Prairie." In 1982 the Joyce Foundation of Chicago donated 13,569 acres of swamp land to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. The department then leased an additional 2,040 acres from landowners to form the Joyce Wildlife Management Area.
       Hoping to save Manchac's Prairie, the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources lined a two hundred yard strip of land separating Lake Pontchartrain from the Prairie with rocks and plastic-coated wire baskets. As late as 1953, the Prairie was just that, a broad grassland. In the 1970s, it was seventy percent water. By 1990 the Prairie was ninety percent water. Former cypress swamps have become open marsh and the Prairie is now open water.

The Pass

       "Manchac,"Hastings says, "is disappearing along with much of the rest of the Louisiana coast. The estimated rate for all Louisiana is about thirty-five square miles per year or three acres per hour. The distance from Lake Pontchartrain to Lake Maurepas by Pass Manchac is seven miles. The loss of the Prairie is definitely imminent. Only twenty-five or thirty yards of land separate it from the lake. If we lose the prairie, that means two of those seven miles are lost. You're getting pretty close to that interstate [I-55] if those two miles are lost.
       In addition, Dr. Shaffer, working with Michael Greene and other former students, initiated a program several years ago to plant small cypress seedlings, hoping to rebuild the cypress forest. Until now their attempts have been only partially successful. Over the first few years, thousands of young trees were planted. Most have survived but many were eaten by nutria. In more recent years, seedlings were planted with protective plastic pipe sleeves and weed mats to fend off tangling vines. Survival is now nearly a hundred percent.

Choking vines,
one of the banes
of young cypress
A young cypress
mowed down by
voracious nutria

       Ironically, the rapid spread of urban development in south Louisiana may indirectly save and restore the Manchac Swamp. This past summer, Southeastern and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are finalizing an agreement that creates the Manchac-Maurepas Baldcypress/Tupelogum Swamp Mitigation Site. In laymen's language, Southeastern could receive hundreds of thousands of dollars to replant Manchac with cypress, tupelogum and swamp red maple.
       The program requires land developers whose projects adversely affect wetland areas to pay for the reforestation of other wetlands. Developers seeking wetland permits must ante up money to restore one to several acres for every one acre they destroy. If, for example, a company develops ten acres and two of those acres are wetlands, the company must pay a pre-determined amount to restore several acres of wetlands. Southeastern's Wetlands Restoration Laboratory is one of the designated agencies for baldcypress restoration projects.
       University biologists say the cost of replanting one acre will be about $3,000 which covers the expense of buying, planting and maintaining approximately 200 young trees, student salaries, transportation and other materials. Their goal is to replant at least 60 acres a year. Since the area to be reforested could eventually extend to thousands of acres and planting can only be done from December to March, the project could keep university scientists and students in business for several generations. The project will start in the state Manchac Wildlife Management Area alongwith university-owned marshland. Initially, the University expects to receive over $100,000 from companies waiting to receive wetland permits from the Corps.
       "This will be the biggest swamp restoration site on the planet,"says Professor Shaffer. Another objective is to restore the swamp and at the same time preserve the marsh. "We are proposing to create a swamp and a marsh together by controlling the distance we plant the trees apart. Even when the trees mature, the area will be a swamp but underneath a marsh. It should have the absolute maximum values with all the wetland functions."
Michael Greene
places protective
sleeve around
young cypress

      Unfortunately, special techniques must be used in planting young cypress trees. Greene, who is coordinating the project with the Corps of Engineers, said studies have shown that young cypress trees have a difficult time taking root in the marsh. They are either eaten by nutria or choked out by surrounding vegetation. To overcome these problems, Dr. Shaffer and his graduate students have developed a process of planting the young trees in four-inch plastic pipe. The pipe is cut in half from top to bottom and secured around the tree's trunk with tape. To protect the seedling from competing vegetation, a woven nylon mat is placed on the ground around the tree's base. Finally, the little tree is fertilized.
       "If you go out there, you wouldn't think that fertilizer would be a problem because the marsh is so obviously lush,"says Greene, "but trees that were fertilized significantly outperformed trees that were unfertilized. So, we need to do three things. We need to protect them from the nutria. We need to keep other vegetation away from the little trees until they get established, and we need to fertilize them to give them a jump."
       Reforesting thousands of acres of swampland is labor intensive, and until now most of that labor has been students and volunteers, including teachers from area schools. Greene also is hoping to give college students around the country an alternative to sunning themselves on Florida's sunny beaches during spring break. Through organizations such as the Vanderbilt University-originated Alternative Spring Break Program, which is currently administered by Break Away in Nashville, Greene is making arrangements to have dozens of college students come to Turtle Cove and Manchac to plant small cypress trees.
       "These students,"he says, "are seeking alternatives to traditional spring break festivities. They do community service work such as helping the homeless and Habitat for Humanity work. Last winter I had a group from Vanderbilt and a group from the University of Miami. They did a fine job and they were really enthusiastic about learning the environmental problems that are associated with Lake Pontchartrain. It's really a neat program that they all seem to thoroughly enjoy."
       Planting new trees in the swamp can be successful, Greene says. "I went out this year for the first time to do mortality studies on trees we planted several years ago. Those trees are probably six years old and this year was the first year that I had an overwhelming feeling that there was going to be a swamp here one day. The trees are taller than I am and bushing out. They are really looking impressive."
       The reforestation of Manchac Swamp, however, is only one of several environmental and educational programs taking place at Southeastern's Turtle Cove, which, ironically, was built in 1908 as a fishing and hunting camp for wealthy New Orleans businessmen. Other projects include Dr. Shaffer's "Project CYPRESS," which trains local kindergarten through high school teachers to design, conduct, analyze and synthesize wetlands experiments in the classroom and schoolyard; Dr. Hastings' weekend workshops for high school teachers, summer workshops for college students and tours for hundreds of area high school and elementary school children. Turtle Cove has such great potential that university officials are now considering a multi-million dollar capital campaign to make it a major environmental research and education center that could draw scholars from all over the world.
       "Turtle Cove is doing projects that benefit the entire state of Louisiana and nation," Dr. Hastings says. "We're doing studies on wetlands that will be applicable anywhere in the country. We are doing studies on water quality analysis, the health of fish populations and studies on the restoration of endangered wetlands. What we do at Turtle Cove will have a national emphasis and application."
       An expanded Turtle Cove along with state-of-the-art equipment also would attract top national and international researchers. "That would certainly diversify our program,"Dr. Shaffer says. "From an educational perspective, the expansion would greatly improve our science and math reform efforts by having those real world applications and being able to get out and visit systems that are from sorely polluted to squeaky pristine. You can teach from campus and show examples, but really seeing it and experiencing it leaves the student with an entirely different experience and perhaps gets them excited about science."
       When the two scientists talk about Turtle Cove, Manchac, cypress reforestation, research and education, their serious voices move quickly from one program to another. But when the conversation turns to open, fresh and excited young minds, excitement rises in the voices of both scientists. Hastings enjoys talking about a new joint program with the Sierra Club that brings disadvantaged inner-city children to Turtle Cove for "natural environment"experiences. "The thing that is so satisfying,"he says, "is seeing these kids that come from neighborhoods that you would be afraid to walk in come out here looking for lions, tigers and bears. They finally get over their fear of the natural world and get really excited about it. They really turn on to catching snakes and frogs and fish. We've done a lot for them, and they've done a lot for us."

Editor's Note: A portion of this text was taken from Manchac Swamp: Louisiana's Undiscovered Wilderness by Julia Sims and John R. Kemp (LSU Press, 1996).

Learn more about Southeastern's wetlands research and Turtle Cove Biological Research Station

Photographs by Julia Sims, Claude Levet, Michael Greene, Gary Shaffer, Julie Ruckstuhl

Return to Southeastern Magazine 1996 Table of Content

Return to Public Information Office home page

Return to News and Events

Return to SLU