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West Monroe works to renew Restoration Park

WEST MONROE, La. — The place used to be a pit, then it was a dump. Now, it’s a wetland.

Restoration Park in West Monroe opened in November 2003, and parts of it need, well, restoration. Winter is turning out to be a season of renewal.

The city is rebuilding a 700-foot wooden bridge that spans a large, spring-fed pond, Ouachita Green is moving into the offices, and a new trail head near a neighbouring hotel opens the trails to new visitors.

Today, Restoration Park is a federally protected wetlands area, and it’s home to several native Louisiana species of animals — including a picturesque 10-point buck — and lots of invasive nutria. Thousands of species of trees were introduced when Restoration was created; specimens are labeled along trails that go around the perimeter and directly through the acreage. It’s beautiful.

But West Monroe Parks and Recreation Director Doug Seegers can point to signs of what Restoration Park used to be.

For 50 years, Monroe Sand and Gravel used the site and dug deep pits that filled with water. Later, it was used as a dump site.

Walking trails that circle the perimeter and the long wooden bridge that cuts over the East Pond still follow the same routes that gravel trucks used.

Donnie Watt and Billy Ferguson are a two-man crew from the public works department who have put two months of effort into rebuilding the first 200 feet of the new bridge.

Ferguson remembers the original cleanup work, and he helped build the original overlook towers more than 15 years ago.

“They’re solid. We’re building the bridge the same way as the lookout towers, and we’ll get 30 or 40 years out of it,” Watt said.

The carpenters talk about their work with pride and are erecting the structure carefully and intentionally. They can tell you how many nails or screws went in each piece and where the joins should go to make sure the structure is as strong as they can build it. Ferguson plans to water seal everything to make it last longer.

The pair have had help from other departments, and they try to cut their planking pieces on rainy days indoors to maximize their time working outside.

Watt said they’re almost done with the hardest part of the project. The portion they’ve done so far required pulling up the foundation and relaying the concrete for the base along the wettest part of the old path. They’ve been up to their knees in water and mud a lot of the time.

The rest will be on a raised portion of the old truck road. It’s solid ground.

They’ve also had to work with and around dams built by beavers and nutria.

The animals use parts of the bridge as the framework for their homes. If unabated, the water buildup floods walkways in other parts of the park. (The animals also gnaw on woodwork when they want to get on or off the bridge.)

Seegers said his department has to chip away at parts of the structures to maintain water flow, but they don’t hunt, trap or in any way harm the wildlife.

“It’s all about cohabiting,” Seegers said. “This pond would not be here, effectively the other pond wouldn’t be here without a lot of help from the beavers.”

The West Pond retains all the rainwater runoff from the Ike Hamilton Expo Center and the surrounding industrial park. Water runs in channels, over land, through the pond and under the bridge on the north side of the park to get to the Black Bayou watershed. The layout helps control flooding for about an eighth of the 10-square mile watershed.

It’s all by design. The process to create Restoration was started in the mid-’90s and included input from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. Grants helped fund the park’s creation.

While there were extensive efforts to remove the garbage from the 70-acre tract, every hard rain sends water coursing through to the Black Bayou watershed, leaving new debris and exposing previously buried trash and gravel deposits.

Seegers knows where vinyl siding and metal in the woods are visible from the trails and can show you where a giant roll of nylon carpet serves as the base for what looks like a natural rise in the forest floor.

It’s part of the experience, showing how nature is affected by humans and how damaged places can be reclaimed.

Adjacent property owners see the benefits of having a park for recreation and education nearby.

West Monroe recently installed a trail entry at La Quinta Inn & Suites. Seegers said he planned for it to be near the back of the parking lot, but the manager wanted it right across from the front door because Restoration can be used to draw customers. (An entry point near the Monroe-West Monroe Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Holiday Inn Express & Suites already exists on the other side of the grounds.)

On a Friday, Stuart Hodnett was moving his furniture into the offices 700 Downing Pines Road.

Ouachita Green was created as a collaboration among Keep Ouachita Parish Beautiful, Keep Monroe Beautiful and Keep West Monroe Beautiful. The organization works to encourage environmental education, community awareness and beautification.

Having Ouachita Green in the offices at the park will increase the organization’s visibility and put previously empty office space to good use, Seegers said. It’s a win-win.

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Information from: The News-Star, http://www.thenewsstar.com

Bonnie Bolden, The Associated Press