Sunday, September 21, 2014

Big Branch Marsh USFWS cleanup nets about 1,000 lbs of trash

Angie Braaten (left) a volunteer at Big Branch Marsh NWR Beach Sweep, September 20, 2014, tells Emma Congalton (right), a volunteer intern with the Student Conservation Association (SCA) what types of trash she picked up.  Braaten, an English teacher at Salmen High School in Slidell brought several students with her to help with the trash pickup efforts.  Congalton, from Durham, NH, is an environmental education intern at the refuge.
       Saturday morning, nearly 40 volunteers of all ages gathered at the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service boat launch on Lake Rd. south of Lacombe, LA to begin a three-pronged assault on trash and litter near the launch, the most visited site in the 15,000-acre Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge.
        A large portion of the refuge is wetland, accessible only by motorboat, canoe or kayak.  Crisscrossed with numerous unnamed bayous and dotted with ponds the marsh in Big Branch Marsh NWR is popular with fishers and hunters. 
       The marsh is on the Mississippi Flyway, an avian highway for migrating birds flying to and from North and South America.  Bird watchers visit the preserve to observe the variety neotropical birdlife migrating through the marsh spring and fall.  USFWS officials estimate 100,000 people annually use the popular Lake Rd. boat launch to put into Bayou Lacombe near Lake Pontchartrain. 
        Lucky with the weather--bright sun, low humidity and a slightly cool but still comfortable for short sleeves morning--the volunteers, and a sprinkling of full-time USFWS staffers, divided into three groups.  One group scoured the shoulders of Lake Rd.  A second group prowled the quiet sloughs in canoes.  A third smaller group of adults boarded an airboat for a swift trip to where the marsh meets Lake Pontchartrain near Point Platte.
       On the narrow beach the group of five spent about two hours combing the thin ribbon of sand, and the marsh immediately behind it, for bottles, cans and all forms of plastic trash marring the pristine scene.  "Beach" is a bit of an exaggeration.  Often only a yard or two of tan sand separated thick stands of stiff, green marsh grass, punctuated by an occasional bright purple morning glory and the lapping waters of the lake.  And even that meager apron disappeared when the marsh grasses grew to the water's edge blocking passage farther by foot.
       Sand beaches are rare on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain.  When sand is not hauled in or washed in from somewhere else, beaches are usually formed by eons of wave action pulverizing rock into fine bits and depositing the tiny grains up on the shore as sand.  The bottom of Lake Pontchartrain is predominately silt overlain by a thick organic layer of mucks and peats. No rocks here.
       From the remote strand the view to the north, east and west is of thousands of acres of featureless prairie--green marsh grass mostly the horizontal sameness broken only occasionally by a rattlebox shrub, its long green seed pods dangling, twisting in the breeze.  In the distance there are pine trees, evidence of the slightly higher and drier ground that marks the edge of the marsh.  You have to look hard to see any evidence of man.
       The scene probably looks as it did in the spring of 1699 when a 26-year old Pierre le Moyne Sieur d' Iberville and a small party of French explorers traveling in dugout canoes camped at nearby Goose Point.  Establishing a base camp on Ship Island after arriving from France just a few weeks prior, the group was exploring the Pontchartrain Basin for the first time looking for a site to colonize, securing their claim to the land.  Iberville's younger brother would later found New Orleans on the Mississippi River in 1718 but that is a long story.
       Lake Pontchartrain fills the view to the south.   On mornings such as this when the first faint cool front of the fall moves through, bringing a bright sun to dry the air and paint the sky bright blue, tall buildings in downtown New Orleans 20 miles away can be seen from the lake's north shore.
       Regrouping at the USFWS boat launch for a light lunch provided by the Friends of Louisiana Wildlife Refuges, the group of high school students from Slidell, and adults--for which high school is a very distant memory--got an estimate of what was collected.
     "It looks like at least a thousand pounds," announced David Stoughton, surveying the pile of black garbage bags bloated with trash.  Stoughton is a Supervisory Park Ranger at Big Branch Marsh and the "volunteer wrangler" there.
       Volunteers also plucked a couple of abandoned wire crab traps from the preserve's muck, removing a danger to boaters who visit the refuge.  The refuge is open only during daylight hours and even if you could find a spot dry enough to camp in the marsh, which is not very likely, camping anywhere in Big Branch Marsh NWR is strictly prohibited.
       Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge is one of eight refuges in southeast Louisiana headquartered on a 110-acre tract of of the refuge along scenic Bayou Lacombe, 61389 LA Highway 434 just north of highway U.S. 190, and just east of "downtown" Lacombe.  The facility is surrounded by a variety of formal garden areas, camellia gardens and ornamental species and was once operated as a commercial garden attraction. The grounds, maintained largely by volunteers, are open Monday-Friday 7:30 am - 4:00 pm.  Free admission.
       Southeast Louisiana Refuges headquarters is on the site of a former boarding school operated by the Redemptorist Fathers.  The building that once housed the chapel now serves as the visitor center for the headquarters.  Under its soaring wooden vaulted ceilings are excellent displays explaining the fragile ecology of the wetlands of south Louisiana.  There is also a small gift shop.  The visitor center is free and is open three days a week: Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 9:00 am-4:00 pm.
        Established in 1994, Big Branch Marsh NWR is one of the nation's newest federal refuges.
       National Wildlife Refuge Week is a big deal at the Lacombe headquarters.  The grounds host one of the largest "Wild Things" celebrations in the nation, attracting thousands of visitors.  There are displays, tours, demonstrations and presentations from almost all of the local organizations and governmental agencies that have something to do with the environment and recreation in it in Southeast Louisiana.  Very family friendly there are canoe rides and plenty of opportunities to touch stuff and animals. The 2014 "Wild Things" is scheduled for October 18.
       For more information call 985-882-2000 or 985/882-0093.

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