The Lafitte Woods Nature Preserve stands strong as a last protective haven on Grand Isle

Fifty miles due south of New Orleans, Grand Isle stands boldly as the front line of defense for Louisiana’s hurricane-battered coast. In normal times, the southern end is an eight-mile-long expanse of beach, the northern side a lush tidal marsh. Nine months after Hurricane Ida’s eye plowed through the island, it’s hard to tell one side from the other.

The storm breached the southern end’s burrito levee in several places, spreading the sand like a blanket from beach to marsh. The green lawns and purple bluebonnets are gone, washed away with the mountains of treasured human ephemera lost to the storm. The west end bore the brunt of the damage. Here, collapsed camps still lie in heaps beside newly rebuilt, brightly painted homes hoisted seventeen feet off the ground.

For many residents of this vulnerable and battered island, the hope for recovery and resiliency lies at its center, where the landscape shifts and thick stands of trees stretch toward the blue sky overhead. Known as the Lafitte Woods Nature Preserve, the largely oak-hackberry forest is some of the last remaining undeveloped land on Grand Isle.

Since 1999, The Nature Conservancy has protected the trees, which serve as vital habitat for wildlife, including bi-annually migrating birds—which travel up into North America in the spring to breed and south to the tropics in the fall. Grand Isle’s forest serves as a rest stop in the Gulf, a refuge providing ample seeds and fruit, as well as shelter among the trees.

“The forest is unique along the Gulf. It’s the center of the Mississippi flyway,” said Jean Landry, program manager for the Nature Conservancy. “The birds start jumping off right at dusk, when it’s cooler to fly, so they use less energy and there are fewer predators. They fly fifteen hours in from the Yucatan or eighteen hours from South America, and need food and water.”

Grand Isle is their first sight of land after the long journey. Birders from all over the world visit the island during peak migration in late April to witness the colorful species flitting through the trees. If they are lucky, birders will arrive in time for a “fallout,” a rare event when large groups of migrating birds fly into strong thunderstorms. Exhausted, the birds literally fall out of the sky, landing in the safety of the woods. Landry recalls her children walking out of the house one morning and being greeted by a blue carpet of indigo buntings on their front lawn. She has also seen fallouts of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and Prothonotary Warblers.

Detailing the history of the Lafitte Woods, Landry explained how the Nature Conservancy got its start on Grand Isle in 1999, “Our first acquisition was a donation. We got fourteen acres from Mr. Grilletta from New Orleans, who inherited the property on a bad debt.”

From there, the Nature Conservancy received a grant from ExxonMobil to plant trees on thirty acres of land formerly used as an Exxon campsite. Landry led the effort to plant a miniature forest on the property, which included persimmon trees, mulberries, hackberries, sweet bays, honey locusts, and toothache trees. The last serves as the host tree of the giant swallowtail butterfly and gets its unusual name from its leaves, which have similar properties to Novocain when chewed.

The Nature Conservancy continued to expand its property, adding acreage known as the Sureway Woods and a half-acre from the Govan family out of Arlington, Virginia. They then entered into management agreements to maintain property owned by Louisiana State University and the Louisiana Oil Spill Coordinator’s Office. In 2012, shipbuilder Boysie Bollinger donated 128 acres of tidal marsh and water bottoms covered in black mangroves. Today, the Nature Conservancy owns and/or manages around two hundred acres total on the island.

“I just celebrated twenty-one years with the Nature Conservancy. I was originally hired for three,” laughed Landry, whose job is to manage the woods and keep out invasive species. She maintains the trails, develops conservation programs with the community through the island’s K-12 public school, and fosters a good working relationship with the town government.

Landry has lived on Grand Isle for sixty years. Her home is on the outskirts of the Nature Conservancy property and, like many of the homes at the center of the island, is surrounded by trees.

“The goal from the beginning has always been to preserve the woods and grasslands for the migrating birds,” said Landry, but the forest has also served to protect the human residents who live near them. This is the oldest part of the island, with one home dating back over two hundred years. Some of the trees protected here are five hundred years old.

“Katrina, Delta, Zeta, Ida,” Landry begins ticking off the names of past hurricanes. “I do believe we didn’t suffer the same damage [as the rest of the island] because of the trees. After Ida, my neighbor hugged me and said, ‘I want to thank you for every tree you planted.’ I can’t tell you the number of people that said, ‘The forest saved my home. I want to plant more trees.’ Both local people and camp owners, they would protect an oak tree any day of the week.”

Recognizing the value of trees and their potential for protection in Grand Isle’s fragile environments, other groups have engaged in tree plantings as well. Ronnie Sampey, president of the Grand Isle Garden Club, works closely with Landry to fulfill the club’s goal of beautifying the island and bringing back its natural environment. The Garden Club is responsible for maintaining and enhancing the beach crossovers, which offer public access from Highway 1 over the levee to the beach. The club and the Conservancy also teamed up with the Louisiana Iris Conservation Initiative (LICI) to plant native irises along the Lafitte Woods boardwalk.

“Two years ago, we only had a few native irises in a small section of the preserve,” said Sampey. “We got six hundred plants from Gary Salathe with LICI and cut out invasive plants along the boardwalk in the Lafitte Woods Preserve so we could plant them. After that, we did four more plantings and today have a total of two thousand irises. It’s now a highlight of the trail.” Like the trees, the irises survived Ida’s storm surge, and this spring, their blooms dappled the forest with bursts of bright purple.

The demonstrated importance of the forested habitat is beyond measure, and Landry works to educate all who will listen. The Nature Conservancy is currently planning a major renovation of the Lafitte Woods, which will include further developing the trails and adding new educational signage. Their plan is to link all the tracts together in one long path, install packed aggregate on the trails, and make the path handicap accessible. Landry also intends to renew her native plant nursery, which she maintained as a teaching nursery for the local students until Ida destroyed it.

As the 2022 hurricane season approaches a community still recovering from the last, the Lafitte Woods stand as living evidence of Grand Isle’s enduring vitality—at the center of the last barrier island’s cycle of devastation and rebirth, a shrine of verdant, impressible life.

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