A cypress tree planted by coastal restoration experts in Venice, Louisiana, in 2011 Sean Gardner / AP

Two scientists believe their method of planting cypress and tupelo trees—in special rodent-resistant pods—can revive the region’s disappearing marshes.

In its ongoing battle against coastal erosion, Louisiana is looking for all the help it can get—including from the husband-wife research team of Gary Shaffer and Demetra Kandalepas. The couple has found a way to restore wetlands by planting trees in an innovative pod and nourishing them with wastewater.

This spring, their company, Wetland Resources, won $10,000 in seed capital from the Greater New Orleans Foundation at New Orleans Entrepreneur Week. It could prove a crucial ally in combating the state’s land loss.

Shaffer (left) and Kandalepas receiving their award at New Orleans Entrepreneur Week (Greater New Orleans Foundation)

According to a 2011 study by the U.S. Geological Survey, Louisiana is losing its coast at a rate of roughly a football field per hour. More than 2,000 square miles have disappeared since 1930. The state has long been conscious of coastal erosion, but then came Hurricane Katrina, which flooded 80 percent of New Orleans and brought front and center the importance of coastal wetlands as a storm barrier.

Subsequent storms further damaged Louisiana’s wetlands between 2005 and 2008, and in 2011, the Deepwater Horizon spill sent hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil into fragile marshes.

Shaffer, a professor of biological sciences at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana, and Kandalepas, a doctorate-holding ecologist, founded Wetland Resources in 2009. The company grows and plants what Shaffer calls “hurricane-resistant” trees in coastal areas. Because of their extensive lateral root systems, Shaffer says, strategically planted cypress and tupelo trees can serve as an effective barrier to knock down storm surges and reduce winds.

“They can’t be blown over. They’re exceptionally strong and can live up to a thousand years, even through hurricanes,” he says.

Shaffer and Kandalepas typically work with a crew of seven and try to plant along shorelines in January, February, and March, when water levels are lower and planting is easier.

Shaffer has been experimenting with cypress trees since 1990, when he and a research team planted nearly 10,000 seedlings on the deteriorating Manchac land bridge. Over the years, he has tried to optimize seedling growth and survival rate and found “assimilation wetlands” to be the best solution. These are wetlands fueled by treated sewerage and wastewater from nearby communities.

Depleted wetlands in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana. Shaffer discovered that wastewater can nourish newly planted trees and help them survive. (Jonathan Bachman / Reuters)

That may sound icky, but as Shaffer discovered, these flows channel rich nutrients into wetlands and feed newly planted forests. As the tree’s root system grows, it keeps in place sediments that support foliage and raise the land around it. The strategy does come with challenges: All those nutrients attract lots of nutria (large aquatic rodents), which “can wreak havoc and eat everything, including the trees we’re planting,” Shaffer says.

A young nutria (Chuck Wagner / Shutterstock.com)

Wetland Resources started using homemade sleeves a few years ago to protect the seedlings from hungry rodents. These rudimentary sleeves were effective but time-consuming to install. Shaffer eventually devised a “plantable” pod that converts into a sleeve. The seedling gets pushed through the bottom of the pod, which telescopes up into a “nutria protection barrier” that can easily be stapled to the ground.

Shaffer says the pod is biodegradable and breaks off when the tree reaches a certain size and is no longer vulnerable to nutrias. Wetland Resources plans to put its prize money toward patenting and manufacturing the pods.

Kandalepas and Shaffer believe the pod will reduce the time needed to plant a tree from five minutes to only 30 seconds, allowing the company to take on more large-scale restoration work and plant as many as 4,000 trees per day. The pods would also reduce labor costs, a large portion of the expense in coastal restoration work. The scientists’ goal is to plant 1 million trees in southeast Louisiana over the next decade.

Even with seedlings and protective sleeves available, the trees need a constant, reliable source of fresh water to thrive. That’s why Shaffer advocates more projects channeling effluent into wetland areas. In the New Orleans area, most effluent currently discharges into the Mississippi River; coastal advocates say rerouting it through the wetlands near St. Bernard Parish could bring much-needed nutrients into the deteriorating ecosystem.

Louisiana is set to receive $5 billion from BP to restore its lost and damaged resources, along with hundreds of millions more dollars from offshore oil and gas revenues beginning in 2017. Those funds mean big opportunity for green entrepreneurs like Kandalepas and Shaffer.

But with so much work to do—and three-month-old triplets at home—they haven’t had much time to strategize; they don’t even have a website yet.

”There’s a lot of money to [fuel] a lot of businesses. We’ve been trying to plant as many trees as we can, but we hope we can focus on the business side of things,” Shaffer says.

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