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49th Annual Governor's Conservation Achievement Recognition Banquet

February 24, 2013 3:00 PM

The 2012 Governor's Conservation Achievement Award Winners were recognized and celebrated at a reception and banquet held February 23, 2013 at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Baton Rouge. Thanks to Dr. Rex Caffey for serving as master of ceremonies. Presenting the awards were Mary Van Kerrebrook, member of the NWF Board of Directors, Region 8, and Warren Singer, LWF President.  Join us in congratulating these inspiring people for their contributions in 2012: 

2012 Governor’s Award for Conservationist of the Year - Mr. John Walther

The creation of artificial reefs show an almost immediate benefit for fisheries enhancement. But managing that kind of project as a volunter cannot be easy.  Communicating the message, design and development, securing adequate funding,  permits and coordinating the civil work are only parts of the bigger picture of bringing an idea to fruition.  One extraordinary individual who seems to have easily mastered the art of “moving mountains” for marine habitat restoration is John Walther.

John has been described by his peers as one of Louisiana’s “giants” of conservation, not only for his extraordinary accomplishments, but for his lifetime of commitment to the outdoors and giving back to Louisiana with his personal time and innovation. Serving as chairman of CCA’s Habitat and Conservation Committee since 2002 he has enthusiastically sought millions in private and government funding to spearhead 11 artificial reef projects to date, including one completed in late December 2011, and two 2012. He was instrumental in seeking approval from state and federal agencies to use salvaged concrete materials from the I-10 twin spans and the Buras High School demolitions for reef creation projects after Hurricane Katrina, saving millions of dollars in material costs, with plans for many more in the future.

Transporting thousands of tons of rock or concrete materials to reef sites in is no small chore in itself, but John has learned the importance of preparation and planning before construction to assure the success of the ecosystem you are trying to create. Factors such as the bottom’s ability to support the added weight, maintaining safe water levels for navigation and access and researching the proper surrounding environment’s ability to generate and sustain the food and fishes you target. But to appreciate his work, you must know how to find it, for the mountains he moves are completely invisible to the naked eye on the surface.

Aside from his extensive artificial reef projects, John has also been a driving force in the development of Louisiana’s Derelict Crap Trap Removal Program, an annual event held across coastal Louisiana that he eagerly participates in and actively promotes. To date, in 2012, the program reported the removal of some 22,000 derelict or abandon crab traps which experts contribute to countless deaths of marine and aquatic animals and form navigation hazards in many waterways across the state.

In 2012, as is the norm every year in John’s life, he also assisted in organizing several bayou trash clean-up events, a fundraising fishing tournament for Louisiana Farm Bureau’s youth education activities and initiated a 4-H club fishing seminar program for CCA volunteers to educate and mentor young leaders in sport fishing and principles of conservation.

Another first for Louisiana, John has used his network of contacts to promote an ingenious marsh creation design in “floating Island” projects where he annually coordinates volunteer organizations and landowners, together to plant and install floating mats of native grasses in extreme land loss environments, which to date have shown considerable success in development.

Though a naturally quiet and modest family man, he attributes his career in state government and education in environmental science for his background in learning to navigate the complex processes of building conservation projects. John has made his mark in the Conservation Community taking home the 2007 and 2010 CCA Volunteer of the Year Awards and made national news by being a finalist in Field and Stream Magazine’s “Hero of Conservation Award” in 2010.

The 2012 Governor’s Award for Conservationist of the Year adds to a fine list of distinguished accomplishments for this “quiet giant” of conservation, John Walther.

2012 Conservation Professional of the Year - Mr. Michael Balboni

The tremendous responsibility of managing such a huge natural resource like Kisatchie National Forest should present an enormous challenge to any professional manager. But apparently not so much for Mike Balboni.

Mike is the Forest Supervisor for all of the Kisatchie National Forest. And along with all the immense responsibilities required of a manager of one of America's most productive national forests, Mike somehow finds a way to go far above and beyond what most would consider the customary requirements of his position.

Under Mike's guidance, the Kisatchie National Forest entered into a partnership with the Rapides Parish School Board to create a school dedicated to the vision of its namesake, Caroline Dorman, also known as the "Mother of the Kisatchie". Caroline Dorman Junior High School is a one-of-a-kind public school which emphasizes environmental themes like wildfire prevention, litter abatement, clean air and water, and general forest and wildlife conservation. Such a school would be a huge lifetime accomplishment for most people, but in Mike’s inspiring story, it's just the beginning.

Under Mike's guidance, the native population of red-cockaded woodpeckers has increased to the extent that dozens of breeding pairs of the endangered birds are now being relocated to other suitable forests throughout the south; a new program was established to provide added protection to the rare and endangered pearl shell mussel; programs were implemented to restore natural prairies and officially register them as state natural areas; and the Forest Service has opened its first ever Bird Dog Training Area to foster the great tradition of bird dog hunting.

Mike's list of accomplishments goes on and on, and have been recognized by Louisiana Public Broadcasting, the LSU Ag Center, several local news affiliates, dozens of national newspapers, and National Geographic Magazine.

But perhaps the succinct and wise words of Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Robert Barham sum it up best; "Mr. Balboni clearly understands that "his" forest is not just about pine trees!"

In recognition of his unwavering commitment to his role as a leader in the conservation effort to educate our youth, to protect and manage our plants and animals, to provide good hunting and fishing to our Louisiana residents, and to keep our forests and streams clean, healthy and productive, LWF presented Michael Balboni with the 2012 Conservation Professional of the Year award.

Youth Conservationists of the Year -

Most of us experienced the frustration of wanting to help suffering animals in the aftermath of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. It was difficult to know what, as individuals, we could do to make a real difference.

But for Rory and Maeve McCracken, a remarkable brother and sister team from Baton Rouge, there was to be no sitting around watching TV and feeling helpless. Rory, a regular kid who likes to fish and scuba dive, wanted so badly to help the animals affected by the spill, but being only 11 years old, he knew he couldn’t just take a boat out into the Gulf to rescue oiled animals. So he decided to do the next best thing; he would do what he could to help the people who were on the front lines.

Rory founded a new group called "Kids Love the Gulf" to enable other kids to help. And with a little assistance from a local t-shirt shop, Rory designed a t-shirt that his new kids' organization could sell to raise funds for the Audubon Institute.

Rory’s sister Maeve wanted to help too, and she came up with the idea to make glow-in-the-dark wristbands. Together, they designed a new website,, which they use to sell their t-shirts and wristbands. The website even has an interactive wildlife trivia game to educate kids and adults about the wildlife and ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico.

The McCracken family routinely spend their evenings packaging orders from the website for shipment. They’ve filled orders from as far away as London, and since inception, Kids Love the Gulf has raised and donated more than $8,000 to the Audubon Institute’s rescue and rehab program for marine mammals and sea turtles.

But in 2012, they decided to do more. Rory and Maeve understand better than most that education is the key to wildlife conservation. So using what they had learned and with the help of family and classmates, Rory and Maeve wrote and published their own book. The book is titled "G is for Gulf", and each page features a different creature from the Gulf of Mexico, along with some interesting facts and a “did you know” section about each Gulf animal.

Rory and Maeve’s book is available for purchase on Amazon and at major book retailers, but as usual, they don't keep any of the profits for themselves. Instead, they use all proceeds from the sale of "G is for Gulf" to donate more copies of their book to school libraries. Their goal is donate copies of "G is for Gulf" to every elementary and middle school library on the Gulf coast.

For their hard work and dedication to the wildlife of the Gulf of Mexico, LWF presented Rory McCracken and Maeve McCracken with the 2012 Youth Conservationists of the Year award.

 Business Conservationist of the Year - Marsh Dog, LLC

Most of us know the challenges facing coastal Louisiana. Nutria destroying wetlands with their voracious appetite for marsh vegetation are just one of the problems needing a solution. Now you and your dog can help protect Louisiana’s wetlands in a unique way. Thanks to Marsh Dog, a company making dog treats out of nutria meat, dog owners can be a part of the solution.

By creating a private market demand for nutria, an invasive species, the population can be reduced.  Marsh Dog LLC has seized the opportunity to offer consumers a way to contribute and it is an initiative that deserves recognition.

In 2011, siblings Hansel Harlan and Veni Harlan received a grant from the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program to seed a business that would create demand for nutria meat by making and selling all-natural healthy dog treats. The logistics of acquiring and preserving nutria meat that is only available December through March was overcome, a competitive price was set, and research guided production of a treat that dogs are giving “two paws up.” 

By May of 2012, Marsh Dog treats hit the stores in several Louisiana cities and the marketing strategy includes education on wetlands awareness.  “Save the wetlands – eat more nutria” may not mean anything to dogs but it resonates strongly with buyers -- Louisiana citizens who understand the importance of maintaining a healthy coastal habitat and want to take an active role.

Demand in 2012 was strong enough to signal an increase in production plans for 2013, and the company plans to put out nutria jerky and a freeze-dried nutria product this year. The effort may be a small start in the overall effort to protect our wetlands but company owners hope it will inspire other entrepreneurs to think about how they can build a business while focused on greater social good.

For their courage and commitment to start a business that provides consumers a unique way to help protect the coast, LWF presented the 2012 Business Conservationist of the Year award to Marsh Dog LLC and owners Hansel Harlan and Veni Harlan.

Conservation Educators of the Year - St. Mary Parish 4-H and St. Mary Parish Government for “Louisiana Wetlands & Black Bear Awareness in St. Mary Parish” Project

Black bears really love living in St. Mary Parish.  It’s one of the three largest Louisiana black bear habitats.  Since being listed as endangered in 1992, black bears are making a comeback and people are encountering more bears in St. Mary Parish. 

St. Mary Parish Government received a grant to develop a black bear awareness program and hired Catherine Siracusa as the St. Mary Parish Black Bear Conflict Officer to handle the increased encounters citizens were having with bears.  Meanwhile, St. Mary Parish 4-H was working on wetlands education programming.  In 2011, guidance from local youth and adults in the St. Mary Parish 4-H Advisory Committee encouraged a focus on black bears. From there an education and outreach collaboration was born. 

Adriana Drusini and Jenni Ducote with St. Mary Parish 4-H and Catherine Siracusa, the St. Mary Parish Black Bear Conflict Officer,  teamed up to lead the education program “Louisiana Wetlands & Black Bear Awareness in St. Mary Parish” in the  2011 - 2012 school year. They have continued this education initiative in the 2012 – 2013 school year due to its success.

In one year, they visited every 4-H club meeting, parish activity, and every public parish event, as well as non 4-H school events. They educated youth, their families and the public about  the importance of conserving habitat that is ideal for black bear and maintaining the native plant food supply bears need, which is not food scraps in the neighborhood garbage can.  This initiative is making the connection through education that bears need enough wetlands habitat to thrive and people can help by supporting wetlands conservation and native plant diversity while taking action to limit littering and managing their garbage to discourage a bear visit.

This is just a snapshot of this terrific service learning project that provides science-based, hands-on activities and also engages youth to help go door-to-door in communities to get black bear information to people.  Students are hearing the message that black bears and people can share the same parish, if we understand the bigger picture.

LWF presented the 2012 Conservation Educator of the Year award to the collaboration of St. Mary Parish 4-H and St. Mary Parish Government for the “Louisiana Wetlands & Black Bear Awareness in St. Mary Parish” program.  Adriana Drusini and Jenni Ducote with St. Mary Parish 4-H and Catherine Siracusa, the St. Mary Parish Black Bear Conflict Officer, accepted the award.

Conservation Organization of the Year - Bayou Grace Community Services

Louisiana’s threatened coast is in the spotlight now more than ever thanks in part to Bayou Grace Community Services.  Bayou Grace works to restore the areas surrounding and including Bayous Point-aux-Chenes, Terrebonne, Petit Caillou, Grand Caillou, and Dularge.  Founded in 2005 when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated Louisiana’s coast, Bayou Grace mobilized the five bayous’ community into action and advocacy for its restoration.

While much of the initial work was in disaster relief, the group has since incorporated environmental outreach and education.  Bayou Grace has partnered with the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program in a volunteer program called the “Louisiana Estuary Experience”.  During 2012, nearly 300 volunteers from across the nation, and as far away as Germany, contributed over 5,500 hours to learning about, protecting, and restoring our precious and imperiled coast.  Through Bayou Grace’s outreach, volunteers participated in restorative marsh plantings, invasive species removal, native species gardening, debris cleanup, and other activities that promote the health of the five bayous’ estuary.

By the end of 2012, Bayou Grace hosted ten dinners and served over 600 delicious meals through their “Building Community Resilience Through Community Dinners” program.  The dinners provide an avenue for attendees to learn about advocacy opportunities for their communities, engaging residents in important issues like the 2012 Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast, the Natural Resources Damage Assessment process, Terrebonne Parish restoration and protection initiatives, and more.  There’s also a smart phone app designed to highlight our imperiled historic and cultural sites.  Moving forward, they hope to build on the success of the community dinners with a more intense “Lunch and Learn” project.

Also in 2012, Bayou Grace marked the second year of its “Why Should We Save Coastal Louisiana?” photography project.  Moving from a growing stack of posters and online images, the photos graced the walls of art studios and museums with a traveling exhibition documenting a diverse array of reasons why people think it’s important to restore and protect Louisiana’s coast.  This project continues to connect people from around the country with Louisiana’s unique heritage and our importance to the economic and ecological health of our nation.

For its continued efforts to create awareness and advocates from near and far to restore and protect our beloved coastal communities, Bayou Grace Community Services was presented with the 2012 Conservation Organization of the Year Award.  Accepting the award was the executive director of Bayou Grace, Rebecca Templeton and Diane Huhn.

We appreciate this year's Convention sponsors:
Bald Eagle
Shell Pipeline Company, LP
Wild Turkey
Inspection Point Seals, LLC
Alligator Snapping Turtle
East Ascension Sportsman’s League
Land Trust for Southeast Louisiana
Red River Waterway Commission
T. Baker Smith, LLC
Edgar Veillon
Volks Constructors, LLC
Hummingbird Sponsor
Bayou Federal Credit Union
Fred and Linda Borel
Barney and Donna Callahan
Floyd ECOnsultants, LLC
Douglas and Diana Harris/JPMorgan Chase Foundation
Clint and Virginia Mouser
Keith and Cindy Saucier
State Representative Clay Schexnayder
Shamrock Energy Solutions


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