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Atchafalaya Advocate Heads Cast of Top Conservation Award Winners

April 6, 2006 12:00 AM

Lafayette businessman and icon in the decades-long effort to preserve the Atchafalaya Basin, B. E. M. "Ben" Skerrett, III was honored posthumously Saturday evening (March 4) with the Governor's Award for conservation achievement.  The award is presented annually to the person or organization deemed to have made the most outstanding contribution toward the protection and wise use of the state's natural resources - air, soil and minerals, forests, waters, fish and wildlife during the previous year from among nominations submitted by the public.  The selection for this and 8 other awards was made by a panel of independent judges with expertise in a wide range of conservation fields.

The award, a handsome statuette of a bald eagle, was presented at the 42nd Conservation Achievement Recognition Banquet held at the Holiday Inn in Alexandria where the Louisiana Wildlife Federation (LWF) convened for its 67th Annual Meeting.  The awards were presented by Dwight Landreneau, Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, representing Governor Blanco, and Dr. Earl Matthew, Region 8 Director of the National Wildlife Federation.

Skerrett was cited for his decades-long crusade to preserve the Atchafalaya Basin, and particularly, his efforts to implement the Buffalo Cove Water Management Unit as a means of restoring the water quality and productivity to that popular Basin fishing ground.  The groundbreaking for the project was December 2nd, only a few short weeks after his death.

Five other individuals, an organization and a business were also recognized for their outstanding conservation achievements in 2005.  They are:

(Professional Category) Noel W. Kinler of New Iberia, Biologist Program Manager, Fur & Refuge Division of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, for leading the state's alligator management program and maintaining its status as one of the top wildlife conservation programs in the world;

(Volunteer Category) Thad Bellow of St. Amant for mentoring youth of the community in hunter education, serving as Greenwing and Jakes Chairman of the local Ducks Unlimited and National Wild Turkey Federation chapters and providing leadership and service to the East Ascension Sportsman's League;

(Youth) Kellon Lee of St. Joseph for stepping up to help wildlife battered by the hurricanes;

(Business) Architecture + of Monroe for volunteering architectural services for the development of the Conservation Learning Center at Black Bayou Lake National Wildlife Refuge;

(Educator) Rex H. Caffey, PhD of Baton Rouge, Director and Associate Professor, Center for Natural Resource Economics and Policy, LSU Department of Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness, for helping citizens to understand the opportunities and realities of coastal land loss and restoration;

(Elected Official) Louisiana District 60 Representative Karen St. Germain of Pierre Part for providing key support for projects to improve the water quality and fisheries productivity of the Atchafalaya Basin;

(Communicator) C. C. Lockwood of Baton Rouge for informing the public through his photography and writings of the crisis of coastal land loss, and particularly for his "Marsh Mission" project and subsequent publication of Marsh Mission - Capturing the Vanishing Wetlands, a collaboration between photographer Lockwood and painter Rhea Gary, depicting dramatic images of Louisiana's fading coast;

(Organization) Ducks Unlimited for its commitment to enhancing waterfowl habitat and restoring Louisiana's wetlands, particularly along the coast where it commenced or completed 3 projects last year that will restore or improve the quality of almost 50,000 acres of wetland habitat. 

    Noel W. Kinler - Professional Conservationist of the Year

The American alligator is one of Louisiana's most recognized symbols of wild nature, certainly as symbolic of our state as the brown pelican.  In addition to its status as one of Louisiana's most charismatic species, it also is the basis of a multimillion dollar industry.  Its former status as an endangered species, international regulations governing the trade of its parts, and the relationship between wild alligator populations and the alligator farming industry, make managing and conserving the species a complex challenge.

For the past six years, Noel Kinler has been the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Biologist Program Manager in charge of the State's alligator research and management program.  In this position he carries on what many consider the foremost crocodilian conservation program in the world.  Most of his 27-year career with the LDWF has been as a fur and alligator biologist, working primarily in the coastal wetlands the state is so well known for, and that have made Louisiana one of the top fur and skin producers.  His professional experience in the wetlands, along with his childhood days exploring the swamps of St. Charles Parish, have made Kinler an acknowledged expert on coastal wildlife resources.  Kinler is highly regarded at the LDWF for his work ethic and the leadership he provides to his colleagues and those he directs.  He has conducted the annual alligator nest surveys for the past 20 years, flying helicopter routes through the marsh to index population abundance.  From the flights, he has used the experience gained in recognizing habitat types based on salinity gradients to adapt digital imagery for more refined assessments of alligator densities with respect to property ownership.  This information is vital to the correct allocation of alligator tags.  Last year he was able to secure federal funds for alligator disease research.  He was appointed representative to the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), representing the Southeast Section of the Wildlife Society.  He is a member of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Crocodile Specialist Group, where he is Deputy Vice Chairman of the steering committee for North America.  And he has authored or coauthored 50 scientific papers dealing with alligators, furbearers and wetlands research. 


Thad Bellow - Volunteer Conservationist of the Year

The trend is sobering.  Kids are less aware today than ever before of our relationship to the land, water, wildlife and natural life-sustaining support systems.  Conservation budgets decline with hunter numbers, and the future is daunting for all segments of outdoor users as fewer kids connect to our natural heritage.  Hunting, angling, birding, and even breathing in the next century will depend on the recruitment and education of future conservationists.  Although not yet enough, there are some people making a special effort to do something about that. 

Thad Bellow has been a member of the East Ascension Sportsman's League since 1995.  It didn't take him long to get involved in club activities and take on responsibilities to serve the club and the community.  A taxidermist by trade, Bellow volunteered to chair the EASL's Big Buck and Big Turkey Contests.  He was elected to the club's board of directors and later became 1st Vice President.  He volunteered to serve as managing editor for the EASL's monthly newspaper.  Meanwhile, he assisted with other club programs including the Kids Fishing Rodeo and wood duck and bluebird nest box programs.  But his volunteer service outside the EASL has been equally impressive.  He is the Greenwing Chairman for the local chapter of Ducks Unlimited, signing up DU youth members and helping to organize and get prizes for the annual Greenwing Day, an event for the kids where they learn about conservation, gun safety, archery, fishing and duck calling.  Not limited to ducks and bucks, Bellow is Jakes Chairman for the Blind River Boss Gobblers, the local chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation.  Serving in that capacity since 2001, Bellow organizes the Jakes Day which includes hands-on instruction in archery, gun safety, compass reading, fishing and conservation.  He is a Certified Volunteer Hunter Education Instructor and helped certify almost 500 students in firearm safety last year.  He was honored by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries as Volunteer Instructor of the Year for Region 7.  Bellow was recently elected to serve as president of the East Ascension Sportsman?s League. 

                   
Kellon Lee - Youth Conservationist of the Year

The hurricanes and flooding of last year have left an indelible mark on the soul of our state.  All of us have been affected, one way or another.  It has not been a happy time.  But the unfathomable damage and loss that could not have been imagined, in a personal sense, before, has inspired the good works of many. 

As the amazing photos of the devastation came across the television screen, perhaps the most startling image of the impacts of the storms on wildlife was that of the body of a deer, washed up on the railing of a second floor balcony by the storm surge.  It made us wonder if there would be any deer and other wildlife left in our costal wetlands at all.  One young conservationist and hunter, way up in Tensas Parish, was wondering the same thing, and thinking about how he might be able to help.

So, 14-year-old Kellon Lee of St. Joseph contacted the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries with a question -- What could he do?  Department biologists were already planning surveys to assess storm damages to wildlife and habitat.  They welcomed the offer of feed corn that could be put out at bait stations.  It would attract the surviving animals so they could be more easily counted, and help to carry them over until the habitat once again began to produce natural food.  Lee initiated a campaign to collect donations to purchase the corn.  With the help of his school and other hunters in his community, he was able to secure 1500 pounds of corn and deliver it to the Department's headquarters in Baton Rouge from which it later would be distributed to feeding stations in Cameron, Plaquemines and other coastal parishes.  Based on recently-reported results of the LDWF's coastal wildlife assessments, it looks like many deer made it through the storms okay, and with time and favorable weather, will come back to pre-storm numbers on the available habitat.

Architecture + - Conservation Business of the Year

It takes a community to protect the environment, to educate and guide the children, to build a strong future.  A major part of that community is business, and when business steps up to the plate, goals that sometimes seem futile often can be realized.  Such a business is Architecture + which has helped the community of Monroe, and in particular the Black Bayou Lake National Wildlife Refuge and its Friends, realize its conservation education dreams.

One of those dreams was the creation of a refuge visitor center from a historically significant planter's home donated to the refuge.  It was a project that some doubted when they saw the once elegant but badly dilapidated 120-year-old building.  But doubt turned to belief when Architecture + and Senior Partner Clyde Webb offered to help.  Over the next 4 years, the firm's band of architects designed and guided the transformation of the structure into a functional, energy-efficient building while maintaining the century-old style of its exterior, all at no charge for its services.  The building now serves as the visitor center for all national wildlife refuges in North Louisiana.

But, it was as if they said, "Aw, shucks, you ain't seen nothin? yet," because what Architecture + did next is even more remarkable.  There was another dream.  This time it was a state-of-the-art Conservation Learning Center that was on the minds of the Refuge's local community support group, the Friends of Black Bayou.  It would be next to the visitor center and would house live animal displays and lab facilities for environmental education.  It would be used by community schools and the public to learn about the natural environment of Northeast Louisiana.  It would be designed like a barn to thematically compliment the planter?s home style of the visitor center.  It would be designed by Architecture +, once again on a volunteer basis, with no charge for services to take the Conservation Learning Center from vision, to design through construction, and the Fire Marshall's final inspection.  They even convinced other businesses involved in CLC development to donate some of their services as well.  In addition to Clyde Webb, other Architecture + associates who worked on the project were Doug Breckenridge, Charles Shope and Lauren Beach. 

Rex H. Caffey, PhD - Conservation Educator of the Year

Up until last summer, it seemed that a lot of folks thought they could have their coastal wetlands and eat them too, or, put another way, that they could continue to defy knowledge and reason, believing that somehow the government would restore the degrading Louisiana Coastal Delta so they could go on living, working and playing there without having to make concessions, either to the needed restoration projects or the encroaching sea.  Attitudes have been harshly adjusted since then, and now, hopefully, minds are more receptive to the message gently but persistently conveyed by LSU AgCenter Natural Resource Economist, Dr. Rex Caffey.

Caffey is an Associate Professor of Wetlands and Coastal Resources, and Director of the Center of Natural Resource Economics and Policy.  His beat is extension education and applied research.  As such he spends his time developing essential knowledge about the use and values of natural resources and delivering it to the producers and consumers of those resources.  That's us.  His focus is inland and coastal wetlands, and even at his relatively young age, he is one of the nation?s foremost experts on the link between wetland habitats, sustainable natural productivity, and human needs.  Caffey's impressive credentials don't get in the way of his ardor for delivering the products of his research to the anglers, commercial fishers, conservation groups and landowners who are the beneficiaries of his work.  He is an enthusiastic outdoorsman who thrives interacting with "folks," and his interests allow him to share their hopes and dreams.  The mark of his work is found at every crossroads of opportunity and reality pertaining to coastal wetland resources. 

A few of the contributions he made last year to educating and informing the public and his academic peers about the opportunities and realities of coastal land loss and restoration include a articles on Fisheries Implications of Freshwater Reintroduction; Mississippi River Quality: Considerations for Coastal Restoration; Closing the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet: Economic and Environmental Implications; Coastal Louisiana and South Florida: A Comparative Wetland Inventory; and Stewardship Incentives for Louisiana?s Coastal Landowners, all as part of the first round of the Interpretive Topics Series funded by the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act.  He is currently working on a second round of publications to be completed in 2007 to address economics of coastal restoration and preservation, compensation mechanisms for retreat and relocation, and integrating coastal restoration and hurricane protection.  Caffey was the lead organizer of the LSU Presidents' Forum on Meeting Coastal Challenges which was designed to improve and expand partnerships between university scientists and parish government officials, and he is assisting in organizing the next Presidents' Forum to address coastal hazards, land use planning and public health and safety.  Along with Louisiana SeaGrant Communications Director Roy Kron, Caffey developed the Hurricane Recovery Resources website as a tool to provide factual information about wetlands, water quality, fisheries, seafood safety, and other subjects to minimize the spread of misinformation during the post-hurricane media frenzy.  He was also the lead author of an initial list of recommendations to the Governor's Coastal Advisory Commission for guiding the short-term hurricane recovery process.  In the fall of 2004, Caffey published the results of his economic analysis and user survey demonstrating the value Elmer's Island as a fishing and recreation destination which has been very useful in the campaign to restore public access to the area, a special initiative of the Louisiana Wildlife Federation and other conservation groups.

Rep. Karen St. Germain - Conservation Legislator of the Year

In south-central Louisiana there is a watery wonderland known as the Atchafalaya Basin - America's largest river basin swamp.  It's so significant in its natural resources to the citizens of Louisiana that state government established a program to preserve, protect and promote its recreation and tourism potential.  Like most government efforts, it ebbs and flows with the available funding and the priorities of those in power.  So it's important that citizens and their elected representatives be persistent in their advocacy to make sure the conservation effort in the Basin remains strong.

State Representative Karen St. Germain is a leading advocate for the Atchafalaya in the Louisiana Legislature.  A resident of Pierre Part, a fishing community on the Basin's east site, St. Germain is intimately familiar with the importance of this wonderful natural resource to her constituents and the Nation.  Prior to being elected to represent District 60, St Germain served for 8 years as assistant to the legislator representing her district, and as such, was able to participate in the development of the Atchafalaya Basin Program.

One of the challenges of managing the Basin is restoring water quality in those areas being suffocated by sediment, and where natural water flow is interrupted by the spoil banks of pipeline and navigation canals.  That water quality is essential to the fisheries productivity of the Basin, and especially to the crawfish producers and the swarms of recreational anglers who depend on it.  But there are often as many opinions on how best to fix the problems as there are fishermen.  St. Germain has been instrumental in bringing fishermen together, chairing the Atchafalaya Basin Program's East Side Water Management Committee to develop consensus and support for water quality improvement projects, and following up down at the State Capitol to make sure the projects stay on track.  A recent example is the Bayou Postillion cuts and gaps project which has been completed with immediate results in water quality improvement from Postillion to Belle River.  She also helped to clear the bureaucratic logjam within state government that was holding up the Buffalo Cove Water Management Unit on the Basin's west side.

She has continued to successfully advocate for funding of the Atchafalaya Basin Program initiatives, and is currently working on implementation of the Big Bayou Pigeon water management project that is expected to produce major water quality benefits in that area of the Basin.

C. C. Lockwood - Conservation Communicator of the Year

In Louisiana they're taken for granted, those wild, wet places that churn out fish and wildlife in abundance.  In large part they (wetlands) are why we're her - they nurture the seafood we enjoy and market to the Nation; they delight us with amazing bird life; they're the places we fish and hunt, enjoying our rich natural heritage.  Even though the wetlands roll on for miles along our coast, we know their loss, as every year more vanish to the advancing Gulf of Mexico. 

Doing follows knowing.  But there's more to do, than those who know, can.  In other words, the task of restoring coastal wetlands exceeds the capacity of current state and federal efforts.  More people need to know about the problem to succeed in harnessing the resources required to do the job.

That's the purpose of "Marsh Mission" - a collaboration of photographer C. C. Lockwood, painter Rhea Gary and educator Sue Lockwood - to bring the plight of Louisiana's vanishing wetlands to the attention of the Nation.  Marsh Mission was a 4-year project, culminating in a beautiful book of photos and paintings sounding the alarm.  It's been adapted to an awe-inspiring exhibit which opened at the LSU Museum of Art last October that is now traveling to other cities around the country, including Washington, DC.

The project was more than a book and exhibit.  It was Lockwood, his wife Susan, and canine companion, Annie, spending the seasons aboard a houseboat along Louisiana's coast, capturing the flavor, the sense, of the landscape and its creatures.  Sue, a school teacher, created and beamed through cyberspace lessons for teachers and students, bringing the experience of Louisiana's coast into classrooms around the country.  Gary visited the houseboat, using it as a base for field study from which she created her striking paintings.  And a website was developed to provide continuing exposure.

Lockwood convinced "CBS Sunday Morning" to come to Louisiana to cover the story of vanishing wetlands.  The 7-minute piece aired last April and was viewed by millions.  Since completing "Marsh Mission," Lockwood has delivered dozens of presentations about his experience, amplifying his conservation message.

Lockwood is a nationally-known photographer and chronicler of the natural world.  For the past 30 years he has brought us images of lovely places, and the places we love, with coffee table books and stories of adventurous days afield.  "Marsh Mission" is his latest effort, and certainly one of the best of the best. 
         
Ducks Unlimited - Conservation Organization of the Year

We've been talking a lot about wetlands tonight; how important a natural asset they are; and how they are being lost at an unprecedented rate.  We haven't mentioned DUCKS, but a glance at the LWF logo will tell you that the Louisiana Wildlife Federation cares about ducks, and knows how important healthy wetlands are to making ducks and keeping them around for us to partake of and marvel at each fall and winter.

Synonymous with ducks is the venerable conservation organization, Ducks Unlimited.  When it comes to practical, hands dirty, feet in the mud wetlands conservation, DU is the big kid on the block.  They have been doing effective wetland conservation for over 70 years.  Always with a significant Louisiana presence, DU has truly kicked it up a notch in response to the state's wetland crisis.

Until the mid-80s, DU focused its efforts on the waterfowl breeding grounds of Canada.  But with the initiation of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan to address habitat needs throughout the flyways, DU began to direct significant restoration efforts to the states.  It has partnered with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, other state and federal agencies, conservation groups and private landowners to expand wetland habitat and conduct vital waterfowl research in the Bayou State.  That work has improved over 70,000 acres for waterfowl.  Last year, that included almost 5,000 acres, enhancing natural marsh and forested wetlands.  The work involved technical assistance, water control structures and reduction of invasive species that had taken over prime wintering habitat.  DU has been a major partner in funding the Louisiana Mallard Telemetry Project that seeks to determine movement, survival and habitat use of mallards wintering in both southwest and southeast Louisiana.

The biggest contribution Ducks Unlimited made to conservation in Louisiana in 2005 was its commitment to restoring coastal wetlands that are so important to waterfowl.  It is presently involved with 6 North American Wetlands Conservation Act grants for terracing and hydrologic restoration projects that will restore or improve almost 50,000 acres of coastal marsh.  The largest project, the Ensminger-Songe Management Unit on Pointe aux Chenes Wildlife Management Area, stalled in the aftermath of the hurricanes, but DU and numerous partners rallied to complete it before the end of the year.  It was dedicated December 14th.  The benefits of these restoration projects accrue to many species besides waterfowl, and to the local community.

B. E. M. "BEN" Skerrett, III - Governor's Award - Conservationist of the Year

Atchafalaya Man.  Many think they are, or have aspired to the claim.  But for those who knew him, there was only one who earned it.  If you have the image of a wild-eyed Doug Kershaw-type Swamper, you'd be wrong.  If you can picture an accomplished insurance executive with a gentle, respectful demeanor and the tenacity of...well, he defined the meaning of the word ... then you know this gentleman and friend of conservation.  He spent the last 40 years of his life working for the preservation of the Atchafalaya Basin. 

Ben Skerrett was among the first citizens to meet with government officials about addressing sedimentation that was ruining the Basin's swamp habitat.  He organized meetings in the 1960s which led to the creation of the Governor?s Commission on the Atchafalaya Basin, appointed in 1972.  Since then, he continuously pursued the preservation of the Basin, and especially the Buffalo Cove Area on the Basin?s west side.  In 1980, he was involved with the negotiations that led to the authorization by Congress of the management plan to preserve the Atchafalaya, which included implementation of Water Management Units, first at Buffalo Cove.  After a decade of inaction, the Basin management plan got back on track in 1996, with Skerrett leading the Water Management Working Group of the Atchafalaya Basin Advisory Committee. 

Throughout 2005, up until his death in October, Ben Skerrett continued to gently apply his renowned persuasion to bring the Buffalo Cove project home.  He called all of the Corps of Engineers generals he knew in Washington, which was most of them, encouraging them to push the project.  He wrote Department of Natural Resources Secretary Scott Angelle to convince him to sign the cooperation agreement between the state and Corps to do the work.  The agreement was signed in May.  He intervened with the levee board and State Land Office to secure the necessary permission to use their land for project monitoring work.

On December 2, 2005, a large contingent of Ben Skerrett's family, friends and fans celebrated the groundbreaking of the Buffalo Cove Project which he had been supporting for so many years.


 
 
 
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