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Kristi Trail, Executive Director of the Pontchartrain Conservancy at the Bucktown Marsh Boardwalk on June 2, 2022; Photo by George H. Long

Pandemic Relief Fund Helped Spur Innovation at Louisiana Environmental Nonprofit

June 23, 2022
Kristi Trail
When COVID-19 forced The Pontchartrain Conservancy to pause its fieldwork, the organization used the moment to refresh its operations

The Pontchartrain Conservancy is a nonprofit organization based in Southeast Louisiana. We’ve been around more than 30 years.

As our name suggests, the Conservancy’s work focuses on water – we do a lot of research on the quality of water, movement of water and changes of habitat as they relate to water.

We live in a water-rich environment in coastal Louisiana. Our lives, livelihoods and culture are deeply interconnected with Lake Pontchartrain – a 10,000-square-mile watershed that encompasses 16 urban and rural Louisiana parishes, including metro New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

It truly is a diverse region. We have some densely populated areas but much of the area we work in is rural and uninhabited. The wetlands in these places serve as vital protection for our communities because we're very vulnerable to hurricanes, storm surge, and a lot of heavy rain. We need to understand our environment so we can continue to live in such a vulnerable area.

Kristi Trail, Executive Director of the Pontchartrain Conservancy at the New Canal Lighthouse Museum & Education Center in New Orleans.

The majority of our staff are technical scientists and engineers who spend a lot of time in the field. They collect water samples, measure water salinity and the health of trees we have planted over the past 10 years. All of this involves putting people together in a car to drive to remote wetland sites – and sometimes getting them out in a boat collecting data. Our staff likes to get outside and get dirty.

In the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, all of that work shut down. We couldn’t interact with community members, even in masks or face shields.

The impact was significant.

We get a lot of our funding from the federal government to carry out scientific research. But much of the work is reimbursement-based. We need to do the work and submit invoices to get paid. When the work stopped, we lost a big portion of our funding.

The Conservancy also generates revenue from the New Canal Lighthouse Museum in New Orleans – it’s a place where we tell our story and talk about our work and the value of South Louisiana to the rest of the country.

We had to close the museum down for several months. We had no visitors coming through the doors, paying admission, spending money in our gift shop or renting out the facility for events. We had to work really hard not to furlough staff.

Then the Walton Family Foundation reached out. There were some really good conversations about how we could pivot as an organization to continue to carry out our mission at a time we couldn’t do our field work.

Kristi Trail visits the Bucktown Marsh Boardwalk on Lake Pontchartrain. When the Covid-19 pandemic began, staff members at the Pontchartrain Conservancy were forced to pause field work on the lake and surrounding marshes.

We received a grant through the foundation’s COVID Relief Fund and it gave us some breathing space. The Conservancy used that opportunity to do a lot of work we had put on the backburner for a while.

We refreshed our existing programming to online platforms, allowing us to continue our outreach virtually and conduct online training with the many volunteers who help with our work.

We completed an organizational rebranding in June 2020, including launching a new website and app. We added some new digital tools for our museum so visitors can now do self-guided tours that make their experience more engaging.

The rebranding process also helped get us into the digital world, and off paper. Importantly, we were able to take the time we’ve needed to complete and publish two peer-reviewed articles based on our research. That gave us a lot more visibility and credibility.

The pandemic created a lot of hurdles for us, but it also turned out to be a great chance for us to innovate. We developed a new Health and Safety Plan to guide our return to field work, which we have done gradually as pandemic restrictions lifted.

Now that things have opened back up, I’m excited to get people out on field trips again to see our work in action, get people back in boats and on the water, to see the value of coastal restoration in South Louisiana.

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