An investment in wildlife
Louisiana couple partners with Service to restore land for woodpeckers, pinesnakes, songbirds
Cheryl Babers Hagar has never seen a red-cockaded woodpecker. Nor has she seen a Louisiana pinesnake, although if she sees one of those, she says she would prefer it to be with some distance between her and the reptile.
Nevertheless, she and her husband Ron are converting their land near the tiny town of Saline, Louisiana, into longleaf pine habitat, the type of forest home favored by the woodpecker (listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act), the pinesnake (listed as threatened), and a slew of other wildlife, including songbirds and pollinators.
“They wanted to do good things for rare and endangered species. They’re one of those diamond-in-the-rough landowners, folks who are just dedicated to doing the best they can,” said Andy Dolan, private lands coordinator in Louisiana for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (Service) Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, who has been working with them to improve their land.
“We adhere to the Eastern thought that everything is interdependent, that we’re really only as alive as our ecosystem is complex, and the rest of the living things are as important as humans are,” said Ron Babers Hagar.
“We are tree huggers,” added Cheryl.
For seven years, the couple has been working with Partners for Fish and Wildlife and the National Resources Conservation Service to harvest 400 acres of closed-canopy loblolly pine and replant it with longleaf and shortleaf pine. Longleaf pine forests, favored by many species, once stretched 90 million acres across the South, from Virginia to Florida to Texas. After decades of intense logging and clearing, less than 5 percent remains. But many private organizations, public agencies and landowners are working to restore longleafs, one piece of land at a time, and it is staging a comeback.
They call the 400 rural acres they own Babers Bluff, although that name does not appear on any map. More than 100 years ago, Cheryl’s great-grandparents named Babers headed west from North Carolina to start a new life as farmers. “Pioneer stock,” Ron called them.
They got as far as Saline, about 70 miles southeast of Shreveport, and bought land there. Over the generations, it was eventually turned into an industrial pine plantation, where loblolly pines are grown and cut down as fast as possible, which is good for the owner’s pocketbook but not so good for turkeys and deer and the many animals that thrive in the lush groundcover of a longleaf ecosystem.
“Her father loved the woods out there and he would go walking for days at a time,” Ron said. “She has that same respect for nature.”
The couple had married later in life than most. “When I was single and thinking about my future,” said Cheryl, “I made a list and one of the things on it was for my life partner to share my love of the land.”
Ron was happy to check that box. He and Cheryl agreed they would do something special with the land, and Ron, a retired industrial mechanic without any experience in land management, would be the point person in making sure it got done and done right.
They set up a Safe Harbor Agreement for red-cockaded woodpeckers and enrolled the land in the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Natural Heritage Program.
Partners for Fish and Wildlife offered technical and financial assistance. Since 2012, the Babers Hagars, the Service and partners have been clearing land, applying herbicides and prescribed burns, and planting both longleaf and shortleaf seedlings.
“Turkeys and bobwhites are coming back,” said Ron. “We’ve had a lot of deer going through.”
Babers Bluff is split into two tracts, one of which adjoins Kisatchie National Forest in central Louisiana. Kisatchie is one of many homes to red-cockaded woodpeckers, which was one of the first birds listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. It has been making remarkable strides toward recovery due to intensive work by many conservation partners, including the Service.
Once Babers Bluff is fully restored as longleaf pine habitat, which the birds favor, it’s likely that at some point in the future woodpeckers looking to establish new nesting grounds could fly the short distance to the property.
Threatened Louisiana pinesnakes also live nearby. “It would be surprising to me if we don’t find pinesnakes on their property in a couple of years,” said the Service’s coordinator Dolan.
The Babers Hagars knew they could have enjoyed a good income stream in retirement if they had kept the land as an industrial pine plantation. “We were in the generation that benefitted from a really good economy,” said Ron, who’s 68. “We felt that investing in the environment rather than our bank account was the right thing to do.”
Phil Kloer, Public Affairs Specialist
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