You wrote about the history of Joe Brown Park, but what happened to the Louisiana Nature Center?
Dear L. J.
I'm sad to report that the Louisiana Nature Center in eastern New Orleans has remained closed to the public since the hurricanes of 2005, Katrina and Rita. Before then, the Audubon Louisiana Nature Center was recognized as one of the top five urban nature centers in the United States.
The nonprofit center, which cost $771,000 to build, was funded by donations from the private sector and was established to educate area residents about their environment through indoor and outdoor exhibits. When it opened on March 19, 1980, the ceremony was attended by then-Mayor Dutch Morial, some members of the center's board of directors, members of the New Orleans City Council, and many lawmakers. Thousands of visitors journeyed to Joe W. Brown Park during the grand opening festivities and waited in long lines to see the live exhibits. Louisiana's crabs, mosquitoes, bees and snakes were cleverly housed in their natural environments and displayed to the public.
Over the years, the nature center featured changing exhibits and special programs including the early exhibit, "The Mississippi River Delta: A Fragile Treasure." It showed how the delta was formed over the centuries, detailed the alligators and egrets, cypress and other plants and animals found in the delta, and explained why the delta is so economically and culturally important.
The center offered guided trail hikes, a botany center, butterfly garden, planetarium, a summer camp and outreach programs that attracted tens of thousands of children each year from south Louisiana and Mississippi. The youngsters got hands-on experience with Louisiana's indigenous animals, along with lessons on recycling, conservation, wetlands protection and geology.
In 2001, 20 years after the center opened, it became a part of the Audubon Nature Institute and became the Audubon Louisiana Nature Center.
The 2005 hurricanes damaged the center extensively, devastating its buildings, exhibits and natural forests. An early estimate to reconstruct the buildings came in at $4 million. The 86 acres of bottomland hardwoods and bald cypress-tupelo swamp sustained damage in the hurricanes as well as several small tornados — and a 10- to 15-foot, highly saline storm surge. The swamps were inundated with muddy saltwater for nearly a month, and more than 75 percent of the forest was destroyed.
Wildlife that flourished near the center has yet to return in large numbers. Meanwhile, the invasive Chinese tallow tree has multiplied in the swamp, which is in a very vulnerable state, and the tree is impeding the growth of native vegetation.
The Restore the Earth Foundation hopes to bring back the Louisiana Nature Center's forests to their natural vigor. The organization began a restoration project in December 2009. It plans to clean the site and donate 10,000 native bottomland hardwoods to start the process of reforesting the approximately 80 acres of swamps and bottomlands.
Sarah Burnett, public relations director for the Audubon Nature Institute, says the institute believes the center will reopen, but there is no timeline for when. The Louisiana Nature Center is, however, included in the city's Master Plan, she says.