Anticipated wetland park set for fall opening
Located directly to the east of the Bonnet Carre Spillway’s Lower Guide Levee on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, the park’s journey to completion has been a six-year process.
Simply put, Wetland Watchers Park is dedicated to education, recreation and restoration, according to its founders. Those goals are passions for Harry Hurst Middle School teacher Barry Guillot, who in 1998 founded the service-learning project for which the park is named.
The LaBranche Wetland Watchers program allows students to engage in science and learn about the many challenges facing wetlands in southeast Louisiana. Each year, over 1,500 5th through 8th grade students attend trips to the site to complete water monitoring, macro-invertebrate collection and identification, litter cleanups, soil and plant identification, tree planting and more.
Guillot said his own program and the vision of a conservation-minded park would not have been possible without the support of Norco resident Milton Cambre, an avid wetlands advocate for more than 40 years.
“The area of the park where the picnic tables are located was all water eight years ago,” Guillot said. “None of that land would be there without (Cambre’s) work.”
Cambre said the park itself is a microcosm of what’s happening to the rest of the state’s wetlands.
“The loss of the wetlands give you a glimpse of the massive environmental problems we are facing in Louisiana,” Cambre said. “In the park, we had to work hard to reinforce the shoreline.”
Cambre, who Guillot calls a “role model,” teamed up with the group for student field trips and to shape the plan of Wetland Watchers Park. Cambre also spends much of his free time leading community volunteers in building nature trails and planting trees.
Phase one of the park includes a grand pavilion and 900-foot-long nature trail, outdoor classroom, picnic pavilions, an armored shoreline and blacktop roadways.
The outdoor classroom, funded by Dow Chemical, stands in the center of a palmetto forest, within which some plants are more than 400 years old. No palmettos were destroyed in the process of building the classroom. Here students and patrons will be able to interface with and learn about nature at the same time. The grand pavilion is the final part of Phase One to be completed.
Earl Matherne, St. Charles Parish Coastal Zone Management Coordinator, was heavily involved in all planning phases for the park, including permitting through the Department of Natural Resources and the Corps of Engineers.
In 2004, the Pontchartrain Levee Board donated land for field studies with the goal of restoring it and keeping it from eroding into the lake. In April 2006, St. Charles Parish government dedicated the area to become Wetland Watchers Park.
Phase Two will includes five ‘learning pads’, allowing for hands-on education. The pads will consist of a deck with signage for a specific activity. For example, one pad will feature bird watching with mounted binoculars.
Two grants were awarded for the construction of the park and its amenities. The state legislature provided the park $190,000 for construction. Another grant came from the National Resource Conservation Service in the amount of $3,000.
Additionally, Dow donated $100,000 and Motiva Refinery donated $140,000. The funding will be used in Phase Two to create a pavilion, fishing piers and a canoe/kayak launch.
The St. Charles Parish Recreation Department will maintain the park. Director Duane Foret said the park is already getting rave reviews.
“This will be a park like this parish has never experienced,” he said. “With the addition of the outdoor classroom, kids will learn how important it is to keep our environment safe.”
Guillot said the park will benefit the community at large in three ways. The park is easily accessible from the airport, making it convenient visiting spot for tourists. There will be access for all schools within the state to learn about the wetlands, and families will be able to visit for both fun and learning.
The Wetland Watchers Park grand opening will take the form of a fundraiser to benefit those affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The park will open to the public in the fall when the grand pavilion is completed. An announcement about the opening will be forthcoming.
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