Over the last century, the bayous, swamplands and forested wetlands of Louisiana were cleared, channeled and drastically altered to make room for farms and industry. As development spread, the state’s wildlife – including ducks, songbirds and the Louisiana black bear -- have seen their habitats shrink apace.
The toll is apparent even on national wildlife refuges, areas set aside by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service specifically to protect and conserve wildlife.
“Every day, we hear about the impacts of deforestation in the Amazon or Indonesia,” says The Conservation Fund’s Louisiana state director Ray Herndon, “but it has happened in the Gulf Coast area, too. Migratory bird populations have lost more than 24 million acres of bottomland hardwood forest habitat over the last century along the Red River and lower Mississippi River valleys. Habitat destruction is more pronounced here than in any other area of the United States.”
Less than 5 million acres of bottomland hardwood forest remains.
Ducks and geese fly above wetlands at Grand Cote National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana. The refuge is an important rest stop for migrating birds making their way from Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico and back along the Mississippi Flyway. The Conservation Fund is helping the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service restore the historic bottomland hardwood forests that feed and shelter shorebirds, blackbirds, warblers and other birds. Credit: Stacy Shelton/USFWS.
The Fund and the Service, along with energy companies and other partners, are reversing that trend. The goal is to restore the landscape that was degraded by overuse, to benefit both people and wildlife.
More than half the 80,000 acres of reforested or restored land in the Southeast is on 12 national wildlife refuges in Louisiana. The Fund, Trust for Public Land, The Nature Conservancy and other partners have also helped the Service add about 31,400 acres of mostly unproductive farmland to its refuges in Louisiana. The Red River National Wildlife Refuge, established in 2000 in western Louisiana, was the first refuge created through carbon sequestration partnerships.
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Last year, through its voluntary carbon offset program Go Zero, the Fund planted 245,000 native oak and cypress trees on Grand Cote and Lake Ophelia National Wildlife Refuges in south-central Louisiana. The Fund’s corporate partners include Travelocity, Gaiam and Dell.
Brett Wehrle, Project Leader for the Central Louisiana National Wildlife Refuge Complex, said "It is an incredible luxury to get these sites restored, and then to step back and watch the habitat change and the wildlife return. We simply couldn’t do it alone.”
For the Service, the partnership is a two-fer: Greenhouse gases are reduced and the Service gets needed help to restore the great bottomland forests of the Lower Mississippi Valley. Nationally, Go Zero estimates its tree-planting donations offset the annual carbon-producing activities of 50,000 Americans.
Though wildlife populations may never be as high as they were before human settlement, migratory ducks and geese, the federally listed Louisiana black bear and other forest-dependent animals have more room to roam.
Birds in flight, Grand Cote NWR/Photo courtesy USFWS, Central Louisiana Refuge Complex.
Credit: The Conservation Fund
In the United States, forest growth and long-lived forest products currently offset about 20 percent of U.S. fossil fuel carbon emissions. This carbon “sink” is an enormous service provided by forests and its persistence or growth will be important to limiting the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration. The scale of the challenge of increasing this sink is very large. To offset an additional 10 percent of U.S. emissions through tree planting would require converting one-third of current croplands to forests.