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Volunteerism Thrives At Big Branch Refuge

Tegan Wendland

The Big Branch National Wildlife Refuge is between Slidell and Mandeville. Founded in the 1990s, it protects endangered birds and combats coastal land loss. It’s not just wildlife that thrives at Big Branch. The park’s volunteer program brings people of all ages and backgrounds together.

Learn more about volunteer opportunities in 2016 here.


Big Branch is a huge park along Lake Pontchartrain encompassing marshes, hardwood forests and pine ridges. But on this day, volunteers stay close to headquarters, to tidy it up.

Park Ranger David Stoughton led a crew of volunteers on what he calls a “work-play day,” where volunteers spend the morning working, and then go canoeing after lunch.

Stoughton said there were more than 400 varieties of camellias at the park. “This is the perfect time to start trimming them up — we want them to look like this: from the hip down everything is kind of bare to the trunk of the tree, and then we’ll put a little bit of this pine straw down here to make it look pretty. And the pine straw helps prevent future growth and weeds and things, that’s the goal. So we’ll start right on this row on camellias and we’ll break down and spread out in a line and once we get going we’ll make some pretty good progress.”

Park Ranger David Stoughton leads volunteers as they remove underbrush from the gardens at Big Branch.

About 30 people weeded and mulched the garden beds and trim underbrush.They were planted in the 1930s by a judge from New Orleans, then sold to former governor Richard Leche. He’s the one who sold the land to the Redemptorists order of priests. They built a seminary and took care of the gardens until the conservation fund bought it for the Fish and Wildlife Service in the 1990s.

Kevin Park is a med school student at Ochsner. He just moved to Louisiana and was happy to be outside on a warm spring day, working alongside his classmates.

Park said, “Living in a big city like San Francisco, we do get some opportunities — but not quite like this, and it’s never organized. So I would have to actively go out and search for it. So it’s great to actually get outdoors and be able to see the different sides of Louisiana.”

Refuge Manager Danny Breaux said volunteers like Park play a huge role. With 18,000 acres and only 20 full-time staff, it is a challenge to get everything done.

“We try to do a lot of things within the budget that we have, we’ve lost a lot of our budget over the past ten years. Volunteers are a component that sort of emerged out of that. In the past we’ve kind of done our own thing, but we found when we were short of staff and we were short of funds we have to do something different,” said Breaux.

So they’ve partnered with a number of volunteer groups, like the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.

George Burrier, a retired attorney from Illinois, migrated with his wife for the winter in order to live at Big Branch and volunteer. He spread pine needles under the camellias near a parking lot where his RV was parked. He explained, “They provide electricity, propane, sewer and water for us, so it makes it very nice. It’s very secluded and quiet, and it’s a lot warmer than Illinois. They’ve been having below zero temperatures and a couple feet of snow. So it’s been nice to be here!”

Credit Tegan Wendland / WWNO
George Burrier, a retired attorney from Illinois, spreads pine needles under the camellias. He and his wife are wintering in their RV at Big Branch in exchange for their labor.

He said they’ve been to a few different national parks to volunteer for the winter months but Big Branch is their favorite.

Ranger Stoughton said volunteers enjoy the work and learn from it.

“For a lot of people it’ll be the first time they’ve gone on a canoe or the first time they’ve had an opportunity to walk a nature trail in the area, first time to kind of gain a greater appreciation for the natural resources and some of the other animals that live here,” said Stoughton.

After all of the camellias were trimmed and mulched, volunteers climbed into canoes for a little fun on the bayou.

Credit Tegan Wendland / WWNO
Park Ranger David Stoughton gives volunteers a canoeing 101 lesson before sending them out on the bayou.

It was Park’s first time in a swamp. He wondered at the natural beauty, “This is such a new scenery for me. Magnificent and gorgeous. The trees and water coming together, skies all melting into the surface of the water, reflecting trees, moss just dangling and blowing through the winds, you hear the birds... it’s quiet. It’s wonderful.”

He says the work was definitely worth it for the play. Due to the help of 500 volunteers like Park each year, Big Branch is as beautiful and thriving as ever.

Credit Tegan Wendland / WWNO
Volunteers launch out into the bayou after a morning of helping clean up the gardens at Big Branch.

The Northshore Focus is made possible with support from the Northshore Community Foundation, a center for philanthropy in the Northshore region.

Tegan has reported on the coast for WWNO since 2015. In this role she has covered a wide range of issues and subjects related to coastal land loss, coastal restoration, and the culture and economy of Louisiana’s coastal zone, with a focus on solutions and the human dimensions of climate change. Her reporting has been aired nationally on Planet Money, Reveal, All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, BBC, CBC and other outlets. She’s a recipient of the Pulitzer Connected Coastlines grant, CUNY Resilience Fellowship, Metcalf Fellowship, and countless national and regional awards.

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