WETLANDS

La. boat captain sows seeds for marsh restoration

VENICE, La. -- Richard "Richie" Blink Jr. is a modern-day Johnny Appleseed.

Like the pioneer nurseryman who planted trees through much of the Midwest in the early 19th century, Blink has a similar passion for forestation -- planting bald cypress seedlings to rebuild his home state's fragile wetlands.

Clean water and wetlands are vital to this ribbon of land that hugs the Mississippi River as it snakes toward the Gulf of Mexico. But wetlands that provide habitat for marine life and buffer storms are receding here at an alarming rate, leaving the coast -- its homes, businesses, fisheries, roads and bridges -- vulnerable to hurricanes and other threats.

Blink, a 24-year-old boat captain, is heartsick to see the erosion and land loss each day as he ferries supplies from here to offshore oil and gas rigs. His dream is to restore his home state's wetlands. "We want to build Louisiana to last," he said.

So Blink launched Empire Environmental Solutions, a company named after his Plaquemines Parish hometown, to conduct inexpensive restoration efforts, tree-planting projects he squeezes into spare time between shifts as a boat captain. Last year was especially busy for Blink, who was hired by BP PLC to help contain and clean up the company's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Blink does not have formal education in ecology or forestry -- Hurricane Katrina in 2005 cut short his studies at Louisiana State University -- but he has got a love for his home and a fierce desire to protect it. "If we never try, this place is going to go away," he said. "It would be foolish not to try something."

As he guided a jon boat through shallow marshes southwest of the Venice Marina two weeks ago, Blink surveyed the watery landscape. "This used to be land not that long ago," he said. "When my grandpa worked here, this was all land."

If all goes according to Blink's plan, it could be land again.

Last month, Blink planted about 5,000 salt-tolerant bald cypress seedlings in a brackish marsh in the shadow of a natural gas-processing plant. The plantings are part of a experiment he is working on with the Louisiana Fruit Co. and Venice Port Complex.

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The experiment area is a marsh owned by the Louisiana Fruit Co. that sits across Tante Phine Pass from the Venice Marina. The pass is a Mississippi River distributary.

Over the past 30 years, salt water intrusion and storms have killed the marsh's native cypress trees. The tree loss coupled with a small dam keeping fresh sediment out of the marsh has turned what was an expanse of cypress trees and wetland grasses into a shallow pool rimmed by a few mature cypress stands.

Blink is hoping his cypress seedlings grow into mature trees whose roots will trap sediment and help wetland grasses re-establish themselves.

"There's so much sediment coming down the river if we could just use it wisely and strategically," Blink said.

He has set up several hundred seedlings at various locations in the experiment area -- with planting locations aimed at avoiding power lines and pipelines that crisscross the area and testing the trees' ability to survive. He has also planted about 800 trees in front of the dam in case the barrier is ever removed.

"Bald cypresses are native to fresh water and low salinity wetlands in south Louisiana," Alex Kolker, a sedimentologist at Tulane University and the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, said in a statement describing the project. "Planting them is an established coastal restoration method that has been used across the southern United States."

Obstacles

Planting the two-year-old cypresses is not difficult. They are 3 or 4 feet tall with small root balls and come bagged in sets of 200.

Blink can easily fit several of the bags on a jon boat or flat-bottomed pirogue and then easily push them in the muddy sediment as the boat drifts along. "I just set it in the water like this," he says planting one of the seedlings. "That's how I'm able to do 1,300 in a day."

But after they are planted, the cypress seedlings face a tough slog to survival.

Their enemy: an invasive beaver-like rodent, the nutria.

Nutria were introduced to Louisiana's wetlands in the 1930s when they escaped from fur farms. But as fur demand has declined, they have become pests, eroding riverbanks and levees with their burrows and chewing through marsh vegetation.

A similar tree-planting that Blink did last year has been plagued by nutria. For that project, Blink and about 30 volunteers planted 1,400 trees -- tupelo gum, live oak, mulberry and willow -- on a ridge near Pilottown at the mouth of the Mississippi River (Greenwire, May 4, 2010).

"Those trees got ate up pretty bad by nutria," he said.

But with the experience of the previous planting under his belt, Blink said he is prepared for the nutria this time. For one, he is planting most of the trees in water, rather than on land. And he is wrapping some in "scratch and dent" crab trap wire. Blink suspects the nutria won't be able to gnaw through the wire, which resembles coated chicken wire.

He has also found a powerful ally in the alligator. "The trees do well on the islands where the alligators are," he said.

But that helping hand comes with its price. During one recent survey of the seedlings, Blink piloted his boat around a corner and startled a 10-foot alligator, which charged his boat before diving into the muck. "My heart was really racing," Blink said as he showed a video of the encounter he had taken with his iPhone. Blink is keeping extensive video documentation of his project to help keep track of tree growth, losses and sedimentation rates.

But nutria are not the only threats to his seedlings. He is also worried about invasive water hyacinth knocking down his plantings. And there's also the occasional airboat that passes through the area, which could plow over his plantings that look like twigs poking up from the water.

It's so far, so good for his project.

Pointing to a stand of about 700 trees, he said, "Only 12 or 14 didn't turn green."

'A lot of trees'

George Pivach II, vice president and general counsel for the port complex, said the next year and a half will be crucial for the planting project.

"Once the trees take hold, they've got a pretty good survival rate," Pivach said. "It's the first 18 months that are tough."

The port complex and Louisiana Fruit Co. funded the project and provided access to the marsh for the planting. They plan to expand the project if the experiment succeeds.

"Richie doesn't know it yet, but ... if this pilot program is successful, we hope to be able to do some additional property ... with additional plantings and at the same time encourage other landowners to do the same," Pivach said, adding that a 25 percent survival rate would deem the project a success.

"That'll be a lot of trees," he said.

In his dreams, Blink can see two of those trees. His goal: "To come out here in 50 years and relax in a hammock under two trees I planted."

During a recent trip to purchase trees for the Venice project from the state Department of Agriculture and Forestry, Blink picked up an additional 3,000 trees "for personal use." He's scattered them through the parish, planting them along waterways and on levees and handing them out to his friends.

"I shouldn't call him Johnny Appleseed of south Louisiana, but it's the same theory," Pivach said.

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