Around Louisiana: Baton Rouge/Plantation Country

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QUIRKY PLACES
WETLAND WATCH IN NORCO

When driving out of town, I usually avoid the interstate because it’s too fast and not scenic enough. But there is a stretch on I-10 in St. Charles Parish that travels the LaBranche Wetlands that never fails to take my breath away; clearly, these are some of the most beautiful wetlands to be found in Louisiana. Wedged between Airline Highway and the interstate, with an open eye to the sweeping breadth of Lake Pontchartrain, this beautiful area consists of 16,000 acres of marsh, cypress forests and shallow ponds. During spring, it’s filled with the purple majesty of Louisiana irises in bloom.

In 1997, devotees of this gorgeous wetland area formed the Wetland Watchers, a service and teaching project that exposed a class of students to the beauty of the Louisiana wetlands. Using LaBranche as an open-air classroom in a purely scientific manner, students learned about the wetlands and the threats they faced. The group “adopted” a tiny strip of land to nurture and use as their point of operation; cleaned out the dumped appliances, skeletal car parts and other debris that marred its pristine boundaries; and then planted trees. The popularity of the project spread throughout the St. Charles Parish school district and beyond; it presently enjoys more than 35 partnerships with various organizations including agencies, colleges and businesses that offered their own resources to the cause. Over the course of time, participating students have spoken to more than 1 million Louisianians regarding the plight of the LaBranche Wetlands. The wetlands were endangered due to serious saltwater intrusion. In cooperation with community leader Milton Cambre, the St. Charles Parish government and local industries, the Wetland Watchers rebuilt 2.5 acres of land to the same shoreline measurements of 1976. The small strip of earth first adopted by the group was included in 28 acres of land donated to them by the Pontchartrain Levee Board.

Keenly feeling the lack of accessible nature trails that would further reveal the primordial wonder of LaBranche, Wetland Watchers embarked upon another project that came to fruition last year: Wetland Watchers Park opened to the public. Replete with a Grand Pavilion in the center of a playground, the park has eight picnic shelters that front Lake Pontchartrain, a large wooden fishing pier, a canoe/kayak launch, the Dow Palmetto Outdoor Classroom and almost 1,000 feet of wooden boardwalks that wind their way among palmettos and other flora and fauna under the limitless canopy of the wide blue sky. According to Barry Guillot, the project coordinator, the area is “dedicated to education, recreation and restoration.” Guillot, the teacher who first began this project for his students 15 years ago, also reports that his students created all of the interpretive material used on the trails.

During the past 50 years, the LaBranche Wetlands lost more than 6,000 acres due to the building of I-10 and access canals causing destructive lake water intrusion. The Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, or CRCL, recently announced a huge shot in the arm to help protect this fragile area. Their proposed project to revitalize LaBranche was selected by Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority for a partnership grant award. CRCL’s LaBranche Wetlands Hydrologic Restoration project will install a tide gate in the Pipeline Canal that runs through LaBranche, thus reducing saltwater intrusion in more than 6,000 surrounding acres. This will greatly improve the quality of freshwater, providing a healthier environment for fish and wildlife and increasing resistance to storm surge.

In the meanwhile, if you visit the Wetlands Watchers Park, you will no doubt meet enthusiastic youngsters who might allow you to get up close and personal with baby alligators and nonpoisonous snakes; I’ll pass on the latter.

The park is in Norco and lies near the Bonnet Carré Spillway, accessible by taking the spillway’s East Guide Levee Road.

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