In March 2012 various partner’s added an additional 29,630 acres to the Maurepas Swamp Widllife Management Area, creating a total acreage of 103,374. This M.C. Davis Tract connects the eastern and western tracts of Maurepas Swamp WMA making it the largest continuous track of wetland forest remaining in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley.
In late March, I took a site visit out to the new area to see what this connecting tract of the Maurepas Swamp WMA held. We entered the new property on a water body named Black Lake. Weaving our way through the morning fog, water blends right into the cypress and tupelo trees on either side before a bank is spotted. The air was still cold from the night. Herons and egrets swooped in between banks and a common gallinule bounced around on lily pads looking for breakfast. The water way widens as much as 150 yards before slowly narrowing and transitioning into swamp.
The funding to acquire the new area was between the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Foundation (LWFF) and Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA). Each agency contributed funds to The Conservation Fund (TCF) in order for the Fund to buy the property from the previous owner, M.C. Davis. The Fund utilized a generous program related investment, also known as a PRI, from The McKnight Foundation to purchase the property. CPRA, through its Coastal Forest Conservation Initiative, provided $4.5 million from the federal Coastal Impact Assistance Program and the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Foundation (LWFF) provided $2 million, enabling the transfer of the property to LDWF.
The newly-acquired land includes acreage in Livingston, Ascension, St. James and St. John the Baptist parishes and is located between Sorrento and Laplace. From Baton Rouge and New Orleans, the drive is 30 to 45 minutes, coming from either direction. The acquisition, together with nearby protected lands, connects wetland habitats in the Maurepas/Pontchartrain Basin. The nearby protected lands are not coincidentally close to Maurepas Swamp WMA, TCF has worked closely with LDWF and other partners before to buy land. “What we’ve sought to do here is connect, these various pieces to the puzzle, into a certain continuous landscape. When Joyce, Manchac and Maurepas WMAs are all tied together you’re looking at 140,000 acres of protected land,” said Ray Herndon, TCF’s director of the lower Mississippi region.
The linking of these critical wetland areas enables LDWF and CPRA to meet various long-term goals. The first being the expansion of outdoor recreational opportunities for the public, which contribute to a statewide economic impact of $4.7 billion annually. The area also provides protection from future storm surges and their destructive impacts to personal property and municipal infrastructure nearby. It also provides habitat for many species of birds, including neotropical migrants, wading birds and waterfowl. Numerous other species of wildlife, including white-tailed deer, rabbits, squirrels, and alligators inhabit the area.
After heading back up Blake Lake, we turned deeper into the area, entering Bayou Chene Blanc. Soon we would reach the Blind River which is the main artery through this forested wetland. A small alligator clung on a log, and behind him, the California bulrush turned from green to golden brown. The sun began to reach over the swamp and warm the day. Soon after, we headed up the Amite River Diversion Canal (ARDC) toward an old railroad tram.
On Bayou Chene Blanc, we had spotted a bald cypress stump in the water. There was a 3-inch notch, gapped into part of the remaining trunk. The notch was for a spring board, which was often used by loggers to stand on as they cut the trees in the early 20th century. After chopping down a cypress, the loggers would float the lumber to the nearest railroad tram. The railroad transect we would go looking for was used to haul the cypress lumber out of the swamps.
Sloughs are like the breathing paths for a swamp. Normally heavy rains or flooding wash deep into these sloughs allowing water to exchange into the far reaches of the swamp. Whenever the water level falls, water slowly works itself back out through the sloughs and into the larger rivers and waterways of the area. However, canal construction and channelization often negatively impact these hydrologic interactions, essentially isolating parts of the swamp and causing large-scale habitat degradation. In many places, water is ponded in the swamp due to altered hydrology, causing stress to the inundated trees and increased subsidence. One proposal to combat the loss of hydrologic exchange includes creating gaps and conveyance channels along canals where man-made spoil banks no longer allow this exchange necessary for a healthy swamp. Two such projects along the north and south spoil banks of the ARDC are already planned.
Historically, Maurepas Swamp would receive input from the Mississippi River. This river water would carry nutrients and sediment into the swamp to help build the low lying area. Furthermore, the freshwater would help push out saline waters that had worked into vegetated areas. Levees constructed along the Mississippi River no longer allow this interaction. Additionally, salt-water intrusion has begun to stress out areas of the swamp adjacent to Lake Maurepas.
Freshwater diversions from the Mississippi River are a restoration technique often proposed for wetland restoration projects in Louisiana’s coastal zone, especially where subsidence and lack of nutrients are major factors, as seen in Maurepas Swamp. River diversions allow fresh river water to bring nutrients and sediment to areas that are in need of nourishment. Potential freshwater diversions in the area have been studied for over a decade, but a final location has not yet been selected.
Moving up the ARDC we entered the Petit Amite, which brought us to the New River Canal. Another spoil bank along this man-made canal impedes water exchange as well. The edge of the WMA is about half way up this canal and one of two new camping areas has recently been established here, the other on Reserve Canal. “Both camping areas are accessible by boat only, as is much of the WMA. Camping is limited to tent only and these areas may be inaccessible during periods of high water.” said Christian Winslow, the biologist supervisor over the WMA.
There are numerous outdoor recreational activities for the public to pursue on this WMA. The most sought after species of game are white-tailed deer, squirrels, and rabbits. Freshwater fish, such as largemouth bass, sunfish, and crappie are also pursued on the area. Contract trapping for alligators and permit trapping for nutria is allowed each year. Bird watching, sightseeing, and boat riding are several other forms of recreation allowed on the WMA. There are 13 check station kiosks located throughout the area where the public can obtain the self-clearing permits required to enter the WMA. While most of the area is only accessible by boat, there are some areas with foot access, including the a half mile nature trail located on the east side of US 51 approximately one-half mile north of Peavine Road in Laplace.
After leaving the camping area, we headed back to the Blind River. The river becomes as wide as 300 yards at points and all along it sloughs can be spotted weaving their way out of the low-lying forest. We stopped to photograph one of these sloughs, which was about three feet deep and snaking into the swamp. At the river’s edge, the slough started out wide and slowly narrowed as it meandered into denser vegetation. From Blind River we worked our way back to Black Lake, this time the sky was much clearer and the temperature much hotter.
The proposed freshwater reintroduction projects discussed for this area are still in the works, but when completed, should provide much needed habitat benefits. This new property connects the eastern and western tracts of the Maurepas Swamp WMA, providing preservation of this critical wetland forest habitat and additional outdoor recreational opportunities for the public. By acquiring this linking section and protecting the largest continuous wetland forest tract in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, the conservation efforts of all involved have come to fruition, although there is always more work to be done.