Saturday, March 31, 2012

Educators Learn the Value of Southern Louisiana's Maritime Forest Ridges



By Paul C. Focazio, Web Content Manager, New York Sea Grant

"Healthy wetlands support our fisheries, our industry, and our communities,” said Mel Landry (pictured in (1) above), sitting on a boat heading to Port Fourchon's Maritime Forest Ridge from the mainland's marina. “By restoring habitat, we are preserving an engine of job-creation and economic growth.”

Landry, a Marine Habitat Resource Specialist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Restoration Center, joined up with the educators on the New York State Marine Education Association (NYSMEA) and New York Sea Grant (NYSG)-led plant restoration and wetlands education trip during their final days in the region in late February around Port Fourchon, Louisiana's southernmost port.

This sea port shows significant petroleum industry traffic from offshore Gulf oil platforms and drilling rigs as well as the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port pipeline. With primary service markets in domestic deepwater oil and gas exploration, drilling, and production in the Gulf of Mexico, Fourchon has earned the tagline "The Gulf's Energy Connection" for several reasons: (a) it has over 600 oil platforms within a 40-mile radius, (b) it's port currently services over 90% of the Gulf's deepwater oil production, and (c) this area furnishes 16-18% of the U.S. oil supply.

In addition to being noted as an economic asset for its abundance of fossil fuels, Port Fourchon is also home to some unique environmental projects. For over 10 years, the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program (BTNEP) has partnered with the Greater Lafourche Port Commission and other organizations for a plant re-establishment effort on a maritime ridge located just offshore from the Port Fourchon Marina. Ridges such as this one are extremely important to many animals, including the millions of migrating birds that cross the Gulf of Mexico in the spring each year on their way back to their breeding grounds in the eastern United States and Canada.



Landry, a former BTNEP Public Involvement Coordinator, was accompanied by several current BTNEP staff for this habitat restoration trip, including their Plant Materials Coordinator Matt Benoit (pictured in (2) above)

"We'd like to establish a maritime forest here [on the ridge, pictured in (3) below]," said Benoit. If successful, BTNEP and its partners will help to minimize the impacts of strong storms, including wetlands loss, among other issues. These efforts don't come without their own set of challenges, though.

"We're trying to determine which species will thrive on the ridge, the ones that will do best giving the high salinity in this environment," says Benoit. BTNEP works through this process via a volunteer program where numerous groups, including ours, pitch in each year.



During our group's first effort with BTNEP in February 2011, the educators planted nearly 800 salt matrimony vine tree/shrubs on this rather vegetatively-bare ridge. These small, native evergreens have a high success rate in most soils and are also tolerant of salt spray and drought conditions. Other plants found on the ridge, including marsh hay, bitter panicum and Spartina patens, exhibit similar endurance qualities.

While most of last year's overall plantings didn't survive on the ridge due to severe drought conditions in the area, ours made it through. This year, with the help of about a dozen students from Massachusetts' Brandeis University, we planted 480 plants, including hagberry, salt matrimony vine, live oak and sand oak.



Prior to this year's planting, the educators and students unloaded the boats, which were filled with numerous racks of the various plant species (pictured in (4)-(5) above). Benoit then showed the educators and students how to prepare and plant the different species (as shown in (6)-(10) below). After holes were drilled deep enough to support the roots, the plant's soil needed some loosening up before placing it in the ground. Dirt filled in around the plant was mixed with a growing agent (such as gypsum, bag asse or a fertilizer tablet) or, in some cases, nothing (to serve as a control in the study), depending on the plant's location in the test plots laid out on the ridge (as shown in (11) - (15) below).













In order to document the success of this and other BTNEP plantings on the ridge, baseline data was gathered once all the plants were in place in the various test plots (as shown in (16)-(20) below). This information - which includes statistics on height, leaf spread and stem width - will be used as a measure of growth and survival after the plants are in the ground for a year.





"If we get a steady rain this year, maybe 20 percent of these plants will survive," said Benoit. And, though the soils on the sparsely-growing maritime forest ridge (pictured in (21) below) aren't yet optimal for large-scale survival, BTNEP staff and volunteers are making strides through this project to find the right combination of factors needed to combat the area's range of issues.



Following the planting with BTNEP on this ridge, the educators returned back to mainland and headed to Grand Isle, a barrier island in Louisiana's Jefferson Parish located at the mouth of Barataria Bay where it meets the Gulf of Mexico. On the Isle is a good example of what they helped work towards in Port Fourchon - a more robust and, hopefully one day, full maritime forest ridge.

Throughout its history, Grand Isle has been repeatedly pummeled by hurricanes. On average, Grand Isle has been affected by tropical storms or hurricanes every 2.68 years since 1877, with hurricane direct hits on average every 7.88 years.

In 1860, a 6-foot storm surge and great winds resulted in the total devastation of the island. More recently, 2005's Hurricane Katrina hit Grand Isle very hard, destroying or damaging homes and camps along the entire island. Katrina's surge reached 5 ft at Grand Isle, with large waves severely damaging the only bridge linking Grand Isle to the mainland.



The Nature Conservancy's Jean Landry took our educators on a tour of the 20 acres of undeveloped land that comprises Grand Isle's Landry Le Blanc Tract (pictured in (22) above and (23)-(24) below). "There are no other undeveloped lands on this Isle like this anymore," she said.





There are many old trees in this maritime forest ridge, some well over 100 - 500 years old (such as the one pictured in (25) below). "They're seen a lot of weather changes," says Landry. They also serve as shelter for animals and filter salt water that comes through from the Gulf during storm events.

One of the challenges facing the Nature Conservancy in this more mature maritime forest ridge is the removal of plant invasive species. The Chinese tallow tree was introduced as an ornamental tree about 150 years ago because of its colorful and shades well. But, it spreads a great deal of seeds, leading to it being quite pervasive and out-competing the area's native species. Potato vine and lantana, the latter bearing bright orange and yellow flowers (as seen in (26) below), are two other key invasives that the Nature Conservancy is working diligently to remove.

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