Parish recreation areas overwhelmed, taking steps

Record breaking numbers of people on Rutherford Beach this early in the year. (Photo by Bobby Doxey.)

By Cyndi Sellers

It has been almost two months since the stay-at-home order was put in place by Gov. John Bel Edwards to control the spread of the novel coronavirus. Children have been out of school; adults have been working at home or laid off. Louisianans are ready to get out of their homes and communities and do something else. And by the thousands they have been traveling to Cameron Parish to experience the fresh air and natural settings of the parish’s wildlife refuges waterways and beaches. In too many cases, they are taking fish, crabs, shells, sunburns and happy memories home and leaving trash and debris behind.

Refuge staffs and beachfront development districts have been overwhelmed by the numbers of visitors arriving weeks before the usual summer influx. Sabine National Wildlife Refuge has seen triple or quadruple the number of visitors normal for this time of year.

Sabine National Wildlife Refuge temporarily closed all recreation areas except the Blue Goose Trail, Monday, May 4, to allow U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff to safely remove the buildup of garbage that has been left behind by citizens using the refuge over the past several weeks.

The refuge complex, which includes Sabine, Cameron Prairie and Lacassine Refuges, only employs 12-13 staff. At Sabine, there is one maintenance employee to clean and maintain all the recreation areas. Trash and garbage have piled up, and with the restrooms closed due to coronavirus concerns, sanitation has become a problem.

The Sabine National Wildlife Refuge recreation areas that were closed Monday, May 4, include West Cove and its associated boat launches, Wetland Walkway, Blue Crab, Hog Island Gully and its associated boat launches, and Northline including its boat launch.

Each area will be re-opened when its cleanup is completed. Visitors are asked to please refrain from stopping vehicles in front of closed gates and/or approaching staff as they work, because the sooner they get done, the sooner it will be re-opened.

Carry In/Carry Out

Southwest Louisiana National Wildlife Refuge Complex Visitor Services Manager, Diane Borden-Billiot, requests that the public please follow the refuge’s Carry-in/Carry-out policy to keep refuges clean and green.

“National Wildlife Refuges belong to all of us, so just like our own homes, it is our responsibility to care for them and protect them for future generations,” she says.

“Carry-in/Carry-out is a partnership between the refuge and its visitors which encourages us to help maintain clean refuge lands and waters; it empowers us to take responsibility in keeping refuges clean to eliminate unsightly and smelly trash and receptacles, which have historically attracted even more trash, detracting from the beauty of the natural environments where we recreate. Be a good partner; carry out what you brought in. Keep it clean, safe and ready to enjoy next time you launch a boat, crab, fish, hike, and/or just enjoy nature.” For further information about this temporary closure, please call 337-563- 3491.

Borden-Billiot says she has gotten calls from as far away as Houston and Baton Rouge from people asking about recreation opportunities, wanting to “get away from the crowds”. With all the major recreation areas filled up, visitors were seek- ing out-of-the-way paces to relax. There were reports of cars lining the back roads in Johnson Bayou, Little Chenier, Creole, and Grand Chenier, and weekenders camping on the beach behind the Cameron Recreation Center. Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge had to restrict entry to Price Lake Road for a while because so many cars were lined up there was no room to turn around.

Holly Beach

Holly Beach, another popular Cameron Parish attraction, saw an enormous influx of visitors this past weekend. The crowds were described as equal to those of July 4th before the hurricanes. Beachfront Development District #1 member JoElla Bott said there is not enough infrastructure to cope with that many people. An emergency plan is being put into place.

“We have been working tirelessly for the past few days with our Cameron Parish officials to create an emergency plan and solution for Holly Beach. Due to the huge influx of people over the past two weekends, the port-o-lets and trash runneth over,” she said. “People are putting glass bottles, beer/coke cans and trash into the toilets. Many are leaving trash next to the toilets and on the beach.”

Bott says on Wednesday, May 6, dumpsters will be in place at five locations next to the port-o-lets: Porpoise, Tarpon, Buccaneer, Lafitte and Morgan Streets. They will all be dumped on Tuesdays. Residents, property owners, renters and business owners are reminded to continue to use the solid waste facility. Dumpsters are for visitors only. An additional eight port-o-lets will be added, bringing the total to three at each beach entrance, including handicapped units on both he east and west side. They will all be cleaned twice a week.

“Holly Beach is a public beach, and everyone is welcome,” Bott says, but she asks that everyone follow the rules. The speed limit in town is 15 mph, and the beach speed limit is 10 mph. Driving and camping on portions of the beach are legal, but the sand is very soft and drivers risk getting stuck. Riding on the dunes is illegal. Stop signs will be enforced. There are children playing and riding their bikes in the streets. A driver’s license is required to operate any vehicle. Glass bottles are not allowed on the beach.

Rutherford Beach

Rutherford Beach was busy over the weekend, too. Local camp owner Bobby Miller and friends counted the cars and said there were about 360 on the beach from the west cattle guard to the east end fence. More were stretched out for miles to the west.

Miller estimates 1,500 people used the main beach each day. Many picked up their trash, which filled the two dumpsters to overflowing. The two port-a-lets were not sufficient for the large crowd so early in the season. Volunteers helped clean up the beach during the week.

All the beaches in Cameron Parish experienced exceptionally high usage last weekend. Visitors are reminded that there is no parish beach cleanup crew to pick up after them. Everyone should bring a trash bag and place their refuse in dump- sters provided or take it home.

Rockefeller Refuge

Phillip “Scooter” Trosclair, manager of Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge in Grand Chenier, reports a marked increase in the number of public users at the refuge’s three recreation areas: Price Lake Road, Joseph Harbor, and East End Locks. Morning counts of bank fishing at Price Lake Road had been around 300 people, but at 9 a.m. Saturday the public use count was 1,132 people.

The crowding forced enforcement officers to direct traffic just to allow vehicles to turn around. “For a portion of that morning enforcement had to stop the flow of vehicles coming in to Price Lake Road until there was room to safely park and turn around,” Trosclair said. “We did not turn people away; we just said there was no place to park or turn around at that point.”

“The boat launch has also been full on the weekend,” he added. “We are trying our best to have places for people to disperse out. If the Refuge was closed it would be worse along the highways, road ditches, along the Mermentau River, and especially the beaches. Seems a large number of people are trying to enjoy the outdoors during these times.”

Rockefeller Refuge has vehicle counters at the entrances to the recreation areas. They show that vehicle counts have doubled or tripled each month since February. Joseph Harbor Launch went from 673 vehicles in February to 2,869 in April. Price Lake Road was closed in February, but went from 4,293 in March to 11,584 in April. East End Locks increased from 540 in February to 4,148 in April. The recreational user count in April was: Price Lake Rd. – 27,134, East End Locks – 9,717, Joseph Harbor – 6,722.

Sheriff’s Dept. Busy

Sheriff Ron Johnson said his deputies were very busy writing tickets over the weekend. He said it appeared there were more visitors in the Parish than residents. “It’s like stay-at-home means come to Cameron Parish,” he said.