Randy LaBauve | 1/30/2017 3:35:38 PM
4-H Tackles Louisiana’s Coastal and Wetland Challenges
When 11th-grader Clay Zaunbrecher attended National 4-H Club Congress in Atlanta, he compared notes with other 4-H’ers about environmental programs in their respective states and found that Louisiana was much more committed.
“Whenever we mentioned our work with alligators, wetlands and all the things we do with the environment here, they seemed embarrassed about their work,” Zaunbrecher, a Vermilion Parish 4-H’er, said of the other state representatives.
Louisiana is one of the few states where 4-H Club work is part of the school curriculum. This unique symbiosis of school and club has opened opportunities to teach 4-H’ers about important environmental challenges.
“The goal of environmental education is not only to create awareness and increase knowledge, but to inspire youth to take action to resolve environmental issues,” said Ashley Mullens, coordinator of the 4-H Youth Wetlands program.
One crucial concern is Louisiana’s wetland ecosystem, which contains some of the greatest biodiversity in the world. Since 1930, more than 1 million acres of Louisiana’s protective coastal wetlands have vanished, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The state’s coastal loss comes with grave threats to homes, property and seafood fisheries.
Young people who have participated in the Youth Wetlands program may be the most well-versed segment of the population when it comes to the issue. Since the nationally recognized program officially began in 2007, more than 800,000 students have gotten their hands wet and muddy while actively learning about the delicate balance of wetland ecosystems and the importance of wise conservation and restoration practices.
“4-H youth have more knowledge than an average adult about the importance of the environment,” said Natalie McElyea, a 4-H Youth Wetlands program associate in Vermilion, Lafayette and Iberia parishes.
“In Louisiana, almost anything related to environmentalism overlaps with the wetlands,” she said.
More than 10,000 teachers have implemented 4-H Youth Wetlands lessons in their classroom curricula. Statewide, 4-H’ers and other youth participate in service projects that help purify water systems as well as activities like trash bashes, beach sweeps, removing invasive species and planting vegetation in wetland areas.
“When I first started volunteering, I remember we cleaned up almost a mile of litter along the Comite River,” said Skylar Bueche, an East Baton Rouge Parish high school student. “We picked up nearly 100 pounds of cans to recycle, and it made us happy to do something about this serious litter problem.”
“Being able to plant something and go back a year later and see what had been open water, now full of grass and keeping sediments in place, is something special,” Zaunbrecher said about his experience planting smooth cordgrass in a susceptible marsh.
4-H Club members in one service-learning project built 3,000 feet of coastal fencing at Breton Sound, a feat that helped create 10 acres of wetland, according to U. S. Fish and Wildlife estimates. 4-H youth in Vermilion Parish conducted a public awareness campaign to inform local officials about proper flood elevation strategies and hazard mitigation techniques.
“We have a lot of commercial fishermen and people living on water here,” said Wayne Burgess, an AgCenter agent in St. Bernard Parish. “There’s not traditional 4-H events like livestock shows, so we try to address issues that are important to these kids and their environment.”
Alligators were once almost extinct, but thanks to one of the most successful conservation efforts in American history, the reptile is now thriving in Louisiana. 4-H members have served as ambassadors, informing the public about the importance of native animals like alligators and the Louisiana black bear, which was listed as threatened until 2016.
“Black bears were getting into people’s homes and property looking for food, and they were sometimes shot or hit by cars,” said Jennifer Ducote, 4-H agent in St. Mary Parish. “4-H members cleaned up litter and planted fruit trees and pecan trees deep in bear habitat to help keep them in the woods.”
4-H’ers were also an important part of an awareness campaign, warning residents to keep food away from bears and promoting use of bear-proof garbage cans, Ducote said. Nearly seven years later, bear numbers are up in the area, with estimates of nearly 100 bears in St. Mary Parish alone but with fewer negative incidents with humans in these urban interfaces.
In many parishes, unique environmental camps are a mainstay for helping 4-H’ers understand nature and respect it while safely enjoying it.
Youth from across the state attend events like Mini-Survivor Camp in central Louisiana, where they learn about forest management in the Kisatchie National Forest, and Survivor Camp and Roughin’ It Camp, held at nearby Jimmie Davis State Park on the banks of Caney Creek Reservoir.
Whether building wood duck boxes to help conserve a species or cleaning up lakes and forests, campers are also able to learn while serving.
“They learn how to cook, fish, identify edible plants, build fires and tents with available materials and reuse, recycle and renew,” said Donny Moon, 4-H agent in Winn Parish. “It gives them a greater awareness of the fragile nature of their surroundings while helping them become self-sufficient.”
“We’re well-equipped to survive if we’re stuck outdoors — even how to keep safe from natural predators” said Claiborne Parish 4-H’er Ethan Coker, a three-year veteran of Survivor Camp. “It’s always a blast and I learn something new every time.”
Possibly the most unique camp is Marsh Maneuvers, which takes place at Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge in Vermilion and Cameron parishes.
Marsh Maneuvers, which started in 1989, is considered one of the premiere wetland camps in America. Adult educators immerse high school youth from every part of the state into wetland ecosystems along the Gulf of Mexico, teaching them firsthand about marine ecology and hydrology.
4-H’ers glide on airboats past the heads of bobbing alligators, cast nets for fish and crabs, and hold baby alligators while learning about the life cycles of marine life. Then they plunge into the muddy marsh to plant special grasses selected for preventing erosion and building up sediments.
“It gives those kids a sense of stewardship,” said Mark Shirley, an LSU AgCenter and Sea Grant fisheries agent. “That little bit of grass they planted, now they’re part of coastal Louisiana, and they remember that forever.”
“It was a one-of-a-kind experience, and it makes you appreciate all that we have here,” Bueche said.
Statewide competitions with impressive prizes are effective at drawing youth into educational experiences as well. 4-H University on the LSU campus offers contests like environmental threat resolution, forestry studies, environmental conservation and wildlife habitat judging.
State evaluations have shown an increase in youth knowledge because of 4-H environmental education. Researchers found when youth acquire a skill, it takes on practical significance when they are involved in service-learning projects.
Youth in Louisiana 4-H have helped improve the quality of regional ecosystems throughout the state and have positively affected individuals and communities.
“In Louisiana 4-H, we use environmental education programs to relate real-world issues to the lives of 4-H’ers,” Mullens said. “It encourages them to use critical thinking and problem-solving skills to inspire positive change.”
One of the biggest advantages of 4-H environmental efforts is the change in attitude they create.
“I always had a passion for the environment, but I had friends who didn’t appreciate it,” said Bueche, who wants to become a wetlands researcher. “I encouraged them to join 4-H, and it changed them. Now, they want to do more to help.”
Randy LaBauve is an associate communications specialist with LSU AgCenter Communications
4-H’ers in the Advanced Marsh Maneuvers camp in December 2016 at the White Lake Conservation Area near Gueydan head out into the marsh at dawn. Directing the canoe at right is Hilton Waits, 4-H agent in Vermilion Parish, who assisted with the camp. Photo by Mark G. Shirley
Terry Barker, an elementary education major at LSU of Alexandria, gives students a closer look at insects found during a scavenger hunt during Youth Wetlands Week in 2015 at the Grant Walker 4-H Educational Center, Pollock, Louisiana. Photo by Brandy Orlando
Carol Franz, LSU AgCenter and Sea Grant agent, helps students identify macroinvertebrates found in a pond at Shell’s Training and Conference Center in Robert, Louisiana, during 4-H Youth Wetlands Week in 2014. Photo by Craig Gautreaux