Three decades later, Mark Shirley still finds joy in teaching 4-H'ers about Louisiana marshes

(12/21/23) GUEYDAN, La. — In the late 1980s, a group of 4-H Junior Leaders in Vermilion Parish was itching to do something fun for a summer club activity.

“They did not have the resources to take a trip to, back then, Six Flags in Houston,” recalled Mark Shirley, a coastal specialist based in the parish. “There wasn’t a Blue Bayou Water Park in Baton Rouge yet or things like that.”

Shirley wanted to help the 4-H members in their quest for summer fun, so he arranged to take the club to a camp on Vermilion Bay for a couple of days. He knew he could make the outing into a valuable educational experience, too.

That was the first iteration of what would eventually grow into Marsh Maneuvers — a signature program for Louisiana 4-H’ers that offers highly anticipated, weeklong camps on the coast each summer plus a weekend excursion in the winter.

“That experience of crabbing, fishing, swimming in the bay, looking at alligators, learning the life cycles of these marine organisms was a good experience for that first group of kids,” Shirley said. “From that word of mouth, it got around to other parishes, and they wanted to have that same experience.”

Shirley is still working for the LSU AgCenter and Louisiana Sea Grant today, still eagerly leading groups of teenagers into Louisiana’s marshes to teach them about the many creatures that call these habitats home and how people can help protect them.

He recently wrapped up this year’s winter version of the program, which is called Advanced Marsh Maneuvers and was introduced in the 1990s.

While the summer camp focuses on activities related to the brackish-to-saltwater environments of Louisiana’s coastal marshes, Advanced Marsh Maneuvers is held in a different location, allowing for lessons on freshwater marshes, conservation efforts and waterfowl management.

Sixteen high school students spent three days in December at the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries’ White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area. It’s located south of Gueydan, a Vermilion Parish town that bills itself as the Duck Capital of America.

“White Lake is historically known for being an important wintering ground for all kinds of waterfowl — not just ducks and geese, but shorebirds and other things that come down,” Shirley said. “It’s also the place where whooping cranes were reintroduced in Louisiana.”

Built into the weekend were exercises in teamwork — including the Amazing Marsh Race, a four-hour scavenger hunt. Among other activities, the campers had to identify duck species and build wood duck nesting boxes to obtain clues. And participants were encouraged to practice their outdoor skills, like shooting skeet and throwing a cast net.

Fun, of course, was on the agenda, too. With Christmas approaching, campers returned from their action-packed days outdoors to the conservation area’s historic lodge, where they built gingerbread houses and sang carols together. Shirley joined in with his 12-string guitar.

The group was selected from the 64 youths who participated in the summer camp.

Experiential learning is a key tenet of 4-H — and a tool Shirley embraces to educate young people about a topic close to his heart.

“Just looking at videos on a screen or talking about it or writing a paper in class, you gain some knowledge of Louisiana’s coastal resources,” he said. “But actually spending some time in the coastal environment — during summertime, planting marsh grass and getting wet and muddy doing that, or during the winter camp, canoeing in the marsh at dawn and seeing ducks and geese and whooping cranes fly over — is the experience that really makes a difference to these young people.”

More than 1,900 youths have participated in Marsh Maneuvers events since they began more than three decades ago. One of them was Cherie Roger, who grew up in Assumption Parish and attended the summer camp in the ‘90s, when it was held in Port Fourchon.

“I remember meeting new people and going to a beach,” Roger said. “Although I grew up on the water on Belle River, it was completely different in Fourchon. I saw the difference between the bayou life and the coastal life.”

Today, Roger is a 4-H agent in Terrebonne Parish. She values programs like Marsh Maneuvers that afford 4-H members opportunities to form new friendships, see new places and learn new skills.

When 4-H’ers come home from Marsh Maneuvers, they rave about their time at the camp.

“Their experience is amazing,” Roger said. “They encourage other 4-H’ers to participate because there is so much hands-on learning.”

What is Shirley’s secret to running a successful program for so long?

“Mark doesn’t like downtime,” said Catherine Fox, an extension associate with the Louisiana 4-H Youth Wetlands Program. “His programs are jampacked full of experiences, and I think the kids really enjoy that.”

“You’re really tired,” observed Marlee Mayeux, a 4-H member who went on the recent Advanced Marsh Maneuvers trip. “And it’s just so much fun.”

Fox has helped Shirley with Marsh Maneuvers for the past few years.

“The kids see him as a mentor,” she said. “They listen to everything he has to say — and he has a quiet voice, so it’s very impressive that they quiet down and listen. They’re engaged. He does a great job of getting kids to see the fun side of natural resources while also talking about a ton of information.”

That information is critical, she said, to the future of a state like Louisiana. Young people need to understand the significance of the coast, which has shaped the state’s culture and economy but faces threats such as erosion.

“They’re getting to apply what they’re learning during the camp to the environment, and they’re becoming informed citizens,” Fox said. “When these issues are up for policy changes or laws in the future, they can make an informed decision on how to vote or how to support or reject something.”

4-H’er Natalie France said participating in both Marsh Maneuvers and the advanced program has made her more aware of environmental issues.

“It’s helped me to see the natural beauty not just in nature, but in everything, and the way everything has a system that’s set up in a particular way for the best outcome,” France said. “It’s also helped me become more self-aware and more conscious of others.”

She and other 4-H members admire Shirley’s extensive expertise and his use of humor — like having the students act out charades — to help make material easy to understand.

“His jokes are awesome,” France said.

“The thing I appreciate most about Mr. Mark and the way that he teaches is how passionate he is about what he teaches,” added 4-H’er Collin Deville. “He is very knowledgeable about everything he tells us. We know if he tells us something, it’s going to be correct.”

Participating in a Marsh Maneuvers camp has been a pivotal moment in the lives of many 4-H’ers.

“A lot of kids that go through this program determine that they want a career in fisheries or something in coastal restoration,” said Hilton Waits, a Vermilion Parish 4-H agent who chaperones Marsh Maneuvers trips.

Shirley finds joy in opening young people’s eyes to the wonders of the marsh. And he takes pride in showing them how they can play a role in preserving these unique environments for generations to come.

“Over their lifetimes, the coast will still be changing,” he said. “We may not be able to restore the coast back to a certain stage. But we will be able to manage and keep using Louisiana’s coastal resources in the future if we’re good stewards. It’s a matter of taking care of the resources, whether it’s alligators or waterfowl or fisheries, and also coming up with the ideas and the techniques to maintain the marshes for as long as possible.”

4-H member Kinsey Waits contributed to this story.

Man smiles while holding a duck wing while several people stand nearby

Mark Shirley, a coastal specialist with the LSU AgCenter and Louisiana Sea Grant, smiles while showing wings of various duck species to 4-H members participating in an Advanced Marsh Maneuvers camp in December. Photo by Hilton Waits/LSU AgCenter

People looking at a duck wing.

Mark Shirley, a coastal specialist with the LSU AgCenter and Louisiana Sea Grant, points out markings on a duck wing to a 4-H member participating in an Advanced Marsh Maneuvers camp in December. Photo by Hilton Waits/LSU AgCenter

Man speaks to group of people sitting on couches.

4-H’ers participating in an Advanced Marsh Maneuvers camp in December smile as Mark Shirley, left, a coastal specialist with the LSU AgCenter and Louisiana Sea Grant, talks with them in the lodge at the White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area. Photo by Hilton Waits/LSU AgCenter

Two girls paddle a canoe

4-H members paddle a canoe through the marsh during Advanced Marsh Maneuvers. Photo by Catherine Fox/LSU AgCenter

Two people building a wooden box

4-H members work together to build wood duck nesting boxes during Advanced Marsh Maneuvers. Photo by Catherine Fox/LSU AgCenter

Three people standing in a field

A 4-H’er practices shooting skeet with help from Mark Shirley, center, a coastal specialist with the LSU AgCenter and Louisiana Sea Grant, and a member of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries during Advanced Marsh Maneuvers. Photo by Catherine Fox/LSU AgCenter

12/21/2023 3:23:31 PM
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