By CORNELIA DEAN
In the 1960s, a group of businessmen bought 16,000 acres of swampy bottomland along the Ouachita River in northern Louisiana and built miles of levee around it. They bulldozed its oak and cypress trees and, when the land dried out, turned it into a soybean farm.
Now two brothers who grew up nearby are undoing all that work. In what experts are calling the biggest levee-busting operation ever in North America, the brothers plan to return the muddy river to its ancient floodplain, coaxing back plants and animals that flourished there when President Thomas Jefferson first had the land surveyed in 1804.
“I really did not know if I would ever see it,” said Kelby Ouchley, who retired last year as manager of the Upper Ouachita National Wildlife Refuge, which owns the land. He pursues the project as a volunteer consultant in coordination with his brother Keith, who heads Louisiana operations for the Nature Conservancy, which helped organize and finance the levee-busting effort. …
The parcel that the Ouchley brothers plan to restore, known as Mollicy Farms, was added in the 1990s to the federal Fish and Wildlife Service’s Upper Ouachita (pronounced WASH-it-tah) holdings in a series of purchases assisted by the Nature Conservancy and totaling $6.6 million. The brothers and their organizations have since worked on several environmental projects there, including a 10,000-acre tree-planting operation, Kelby Ouchley said.
The workers replanted cypress and tupelo in low areas, then oaks and green ash, and then sweetgum and pecans — “life-sustaining, system-supporting diversity,” as Kelby Ouchley called it in an essay.
Eventually, he predicted, the restored landscape would be home to black bear cubs, largemouth bass, fireflies, crawfish and “gobbling wild turkeys and cottonmouths with attitudes.”
Still, the brothers felt dissatisfied. A few years ago, Keith Ouchley said, “I was standing on the giant levees with my brother and I said, ‘Well, there is one thing missing here. The big challenge is restoring this floodplain.’ ”
Environmental scientists say the very notion of undoing levee construction may be the most important aspect of the Ouachita project. “The idea that we can take levees down — that’s a good thing,” said Denise J. Reed, a coastal scientist at the University of New Orleans. ...