Mark Shirley, Morgan, Johnny W. | 7/16/2005 2:56:55 AM
The LSU AgCenter’s annual series of Marsh Maneuvers camps are much more than the usual summer camp. They’re a generous dose of education mixed with a heaping serving of fun for 4-Hers from across the state.
Mark Shirley, an LSU AgCenter aquaculture and coastal resources expert, said the camp is designed to teach high school students the value of the coastal marsh areas.
During the four-day camp, the participants learn about coastal ecology and the biology of the state’s coastal areas. The camps, which are offered several times each summer, highlight such issues as coastal erosion and give students a chance to discuss some of the erosion control options being proposed by the different state and federal agencies.
"Marsh Maneuvers is a coastal ecology program we do for 4-H high school students each summer," Shirley said, adding, "We’ve been doing it for about the past 15 years."
This year’s program was conducted at the Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge near Grand Chenier, although earlier programs have been conducted at other locations along the Louisiana coast.
The number of participants is limited each summer – to provide youngsters with the most hands-on experiences they can have – and the individuals who take part are chosen by 4-H agents in the parishes slated to be involved in the camps that summer. Many times, youngsters write essays or are interviewed by agents who try to find those most interested in learning about coastal ecology.
Shirley said the 4-Hers who come to Marsh Maneuvers aren’t necessarily interested in becoming marine biologists, but despite their variety of interests, the experiences are designed to help them learn the importance of Louisiana’s coastal environment while also having fun.
"We try to give them an experience here in the marsh that they won’t forget," Shirley said. "For example, the airboat ride is something that most people don’t get to do every day.
"We also take a smaller boat down the canal and pull a shrimp troll and look at some of the shrimp and different kinds of fish that are just teaming in these waters," he said, adding, "They get to throw cast nets and they catch brown shrimp and white shrimp, crabs and several different kinds of fish."
Participants also are taught such facts as each acre of marshland on the Louisiana coast is several thousand times more productive than the best acre of corn land in Iowa. "So just on a productivity basis, the amount of protein and carbohydrates is just tremendous," Shirley said.
Another highlight of the camp, according to Shirley, is a night hike on one of the roads through the marsh – where participants get to "shine" some alligators and listen to the marsh birds.
About 16 different parishes are represented by approximately four students each during the four-week camping period every summer. Because of the limited number who can participate, parishes eligible to participate rotate on an annual basis.
"We try to rotate so each parish will send four students every four years," Shirley said, explaining that means earning a spot in the camp can be quite competitive and is an honor for many students.
As for what they learn, Shirley said the students get a well-rounded knowledge of both the biology of the coastal ecosystem and some of the social implications of these resources.
"This is where half of Louisiana lives – south of I-10," the LSU AgCenter agent said, adding, "All of these people in some way are touched by the resources here on the coast. Thousands of people work offshore in the oil and gas industry, and other people work onshore in support of that industry."
The coast also serves a vast array of other functions from protecting inland areas against storms to the coastal marshes’ role in food production.
As part of the camp, Shirley stresses that coastal erosion is not just a Louisiana problem, but also is a national problem.
"Over 40 percent of the natural gas that’s used in the United States comes through Louisiana via a pipeline somewhere across the Louisiana coast," he said. "So coastal erosion affects everybody in the nation."
That’s just one of the reasons Louisiana’s congressional delegation in Washington is trying to drum up support for saving Louisiana’s coast, according to Shirley, who said there is a debate on whether we can save what’s left of the coastal environment or whether we can try not to lose as much of it quite as fast.
"Educating these students about the coastal situation makes them ambassadors for the coast," Shirley said. "When they get back home, they give presentations to their 4-H clubs and they use this information for speeches in classes. Some even go back to their police juries or the Rotary clubs in their community and give presentations there."
While there are only about 64 4-Hers at camp each summer, the effect multiplies once these students get back home and share their experience with their family and friends, people at school and people in their communities.
"Again, it stresses the fact that even though you live in North Louisiana, you’re still affected by coastal issues," Shirley said. "Whether it’s seafood, oil and gas, or the storm threat, we’re all affected."
Shirley said that while the knowledge they gain covers a broad range, the students are probably more excited about getting a closeup look at alligators than any other activity. He said this is good, because the alligator is so important to the coast.
"The alligator resource here in Louisiana is maintained much like a tree farmer in North Louisiana manages trees," he explained. "The tree farmer harvests timber one year and then he replants on a cycle. With alligators, we harvest a certain number of alligators each year."
Shirley said the hide is where most of the value lies, but the meat is also quite valuable. "It has the consistency of pork chop, but has the mild flavor like chicken, so it’s the other, other white meat," he said.
Frederickia Jackson, an 11th grader from West Ouachita High School said this is a great camp, and she would recommend it to anyone over 8th grade.
"We’ve been fishing and crabbing and learning about different animals on the coast," she said of her experience, adding that notes she and other participants were taking after their daily activities will be useful when they return home.
"When we finish a project we write in our journals what we did and what we learned," she said. "We’ve learned a lot about coastal erosion. For example, we saw where they put down sticks last year, and where they were stationed is now taken over by water."
For further information about Marsh Maneuvers or other LSU AgCenter 4-H youth development programs, contact your parish LSU AgCenter office or visit www.lsuagcenter.com.