Ben Henry, 8, was helping plant trees with his mother, Donata Henry, at the Abita Creek Preserve on a beautiful Saturday morning but was getting a little distracted.
After he and his sister Ella, 9, had discovered some tadpoles in a nearby swampy area, Ben was convinced to try to plant just a couple more trees, which he dutifully did.
But he confessed that what he really liked was the mud.
And it was muddy in spots as about 50 volunteers and The Nature Conservancy staff worked to plant about 5,000 trees on the Abita Creek Preserve just north of Abita Springs.
Helping restore what was historically a longleaf pine habitat Saturday seemed a fitting way to commemorate The Nature Conservancy’s millionth tree to be planted in the state.
“We have been planting trees around the state for a number of years,” said Richard Martin, director of forestry with The Nature Conservancy Louisiana. Although those plantings have happened all over the state, the concentration of plantings has occurred on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain.
“There’s a big need for it and there’s a lot of public support for it,” Martin said, which is why TNC does at least one tree planting a year in St. Tammany.
In total, The Nature Conservancy through volunteer work and other efforts has planted 994,000 trees in the state, primarily in the last 10 years. As the conservancy approached its 1 millionth tree, the organization decided to have three tree plantings — one in north Louisiana, one in St. Tammany Parish and one in southwest Louisiana.
Of the more than 20 sites The Nature Conservancy owns in Louisiana, tree plantings have occurred on 12 of them, Martin said.
“One of our goals for the properties we own is to restore them, as much as possible, to their natural state,” Martin said.
To do that, sometimes it’s necessary to remove invasive tree species or even native tree species that have encroached beyond their normal range because of human intervention.
At the Abita Creek Preserve, the lack of periodic fires in the forest meant the native species of loblolly and slash pine, which normally stay in the lower, wet areas of the landscape, can rapidly overtake the more upland species of longleaf pine.
The Nature Conservancy took out those pine species in the upland area and is now working on replanting the upland areas with longleaf pine and the lower elevations areas with slash pine.
Longleaf pine is adapted to fire while the others aren’t, so in nature, the periodic fires would keep the other species out of the upland areas, allowing the longleaf pine to flourish.
“We try to plant a little bit at a time so it looks like a forest,” Martin said.
If an entire area was planted at the same time, she said, it would look more like a tree farm instead of a forest where there are different ages and sizes of trees in the same area.
Martin said the longleaf pine habitat used to be dominant but now less than five percent of the longleaf habitat that used to exist in areas like Louisiana is still left in the United States.
On Saturday, the focus was on helping at least a part of this longleaf pine habitat return with the help of volunteers from a Brownie troop from Slidell, employees from Chevron, Baton Rouge High School and a group of students from Tulane University.
Donata Henry, who was planting trees with her two children, is professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Tulane University. She said the volunteer planting work is a good chance for her students to see first hand what they’ve been discussing in class.
“They can come out and see it and help restore it,” she said.