Dr. Eva Hillmann of the Pontchartrain Conservancy has been planting trees to help restore coastal swamp forests in Louisiana for over ten years.
Q: What is your job title and affiliation?
A: Coastal Scientist with the Pontchartrain Conservancy and Instructor at Southeastern Louisiana University (Biology, Ecology, Coastal Plant Production)
Q: How did you get started in this field and how long have you been doing this type of work?
A: I had a general interest in wetlands for years, but no idea of how to actually break into and do this type of work. I went back to school in my late 30s and got a Masters at SELU under Dr. Gary Shaffer – who immerses his students in wetlands work. After I graduated I was fortunate to get picked up by the Pontchartrain Conservancy . My work at the PC allows me flexibility, so while maintaining my job I also started a PhD program at Louisiana State University, in the School of Renewable Natural Resources and the Agricultural Center under Dr. Megan La Peyre, focused on submerged aquatic vegetation along the northern Gulf of Mexico. After I graduated, I stayed with the Conservancy and also became an Instructor at SELU. I’ve been doing this work for about 15 years.
Q: Describe the part of your job/role that you enjoy the most.
A: I love telling a story with data – I enjoy designing a plan, getting in the field and collecting data, analyzing it and figuring out what it really means – what are the main take-aways that I want people to remember.
Q: Describe the part of your job/role that you believe is the most impactful.
A: Two things: 1) every planted tree at every tree planting event is a piece of the puzzle that helps restore, conserve and maintain these critical freshwater swamp habitats in coastal southeast Louisiana that provide habitat for priority fish and bird species, protect communities from storm surge and flooding and sequester and store carbon to blunt the impacts from climate change, and 2) taking students into the marsh and exposing them to these habitats, species and techniques ecologists use. It gives them an appreciation for their environment in an applied, visceral sense and hopefully they will take that with them into their future careers.
Q: What do you think is the best/easiest way people can help restore or preserve wetlands?
A: Donate your money and time (if you are able) to environmental organizations you believe in, quit littering because it all ends up in our waterways and wetlands and vote for political candidates that believe in science and make these issues a priority.
Q: In your opinion why is coastal restoration in Louisiana important? For folks out of state, why is Louisiana’s coastal restoration work important for the nation?
A: Coastal restoration in Louisiana is important because these habitats – this gradient of habitats from freshwater swamp and marsh, to tidal marshes, then mangroves and barrier islands – form a connected system that provides ecological services (habitat, storm protection, better water quality, carbon storage, flood control) that are at times hard see or grasp or monetize, until these habitats are gone; then their benefits become more clear. For instance, healthy tidal marshes in southern Louisiana support Louisiana’s robust seafood industry by providing spawning grounds, food and refuge for shrimp, crab and fish. Without these habitats our fishing industry would suffer, but the impacts would be felt outside of Louisiana too.
Q: What is your favorite recreational activity to do in the wetlands?
A: I’ve been planting trees in the wetlands of southeast Louisiana with the Pontchartrain Conservancy for almost 10 years now, my favorite thing to do it to take boat rides and revisit some of earlier planting sites and just take in how much the trees have grown and imagine what the area will look like in another 10, 20 or 50 years. Although Hurricane Ida wreaked so much damage in this area, a recent visit to our sites confirmed the planted trees withstood the storm beautifully. Imagining them full grown, providing a modicum of protection to the surrounding communities is satisfying.
I’m also finally learning to fish.