Kelly Purkey has been overseeing an ambitious bottomland hardwood reforestation project at Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge since mid–2007. Her experience with the project has reinforced three precepts of her profession: Conservation is complicated. It takes perseveranceŚ And, if you keep your eye on the big picture, it’s all worth it.

Purkey, a 14–year U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service veteran, is refuge manager at Tensas River Refuge, home to one of the largest contiguous stands of bottomland hardwoods in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley.

When the northeast Louisiana refuge was established in 1980, “there was a nice, big forest in the north and a nice, big forest in the south,” Purkey says. “But there was sort of a big hole in the middle.”

The reforestation project she inherited as refuge manager almost four years ago is designed to fill in that hole. That the refuge now owns 10,000 acres of an 11,000–acre tract connecting the northern and southern forest blocks is widely viewed as a National Wildlife Refuge System habitat success story. But it is indeed complicated, and it does take perseverance.

How the refuge has come to own most of what Purkey calls this “jewel of an acquisition” is complicated its own right. A decade ago, the timber company that held the tract put it up for sale. Because the refuge couldn’t afford the asking price, the nonprofit Trust for Public Land (TPL) agreed to buy the 11,000–acre tract and, over time, sell it piecemeal to the refuge at a bargain price. To cover the cost difference, TPL was allowed to sell to private companies the carbon credits that would accrue once the land was reforested. Since 2004, Tensas River Refuge has acquired 10,000 acres that way.

However, to help TPL defray land–holding costs, the project’s memorandum of understanding (MOU) permitted TPL to rent parcels to farmers before selling the land to the refuge. A pattern developed whereby cotton, a chemically intensive crop that provided TPL the best return, was harvested from tracts just months before trees were planted. Planting trees without letting the soil lie fallow, without letting the chemicals dissipate, without eliminating tenacious grasses that competed for water, and without providing for irrigation led to a low survival rate for the seedlings, Purkey says.

The Need for Leadership

To fulfill the project’s goal of cultivating expansive contiguous habit for Louisiana black bear, neo–tropical songbirds, migratory birds and other resident wildlife, Purkey must help her staff regroup. First, she must find a buyer for the final 1,000 acres—a task impeded by the sluggish economy and stalled federal energy legislation. Next, she says, “we have 8,000 acres of supposedly reforested field, but about 5,000 need to be replanted.”

She and her staff know how the replanting must be done. Herbaceous spray must be applied to suppress the grasses, and trenches must be dug to irrigate seedlings in the crucial first year. What they don’t know, because the MOU had no success criteria, is who should do the replanting—the refuge or the numerous companies that own the carbon credits?

It’s hard, Purkey says, to tell the carbon-credit purchasers: “You thought you were finished. Well, you aren’t. And it’s going to cost you a whole lot more money.”

It would be equally hard, she says, for the refuge to expend the money and labor to replant the fields and allow private companies to claim carbon credits. So, because Purkey knows that Tensas River Refuge isn’t the only refuge with this problem, she will be seeking Service regional guidance. In the meantime, Purkey says, “my goal for this year is to spend a lot of time being persistent” and keeping staff morale high by thinking long term and staying positive:

“The thought that I’m contributing—we’re contributing—to what 50, 100 years from now will be a beautiful forest that will be part of the National Wildlife Refuge System, that’s the best thing about my job every day.”