Indoor-Outdoor Classroom

New Louisiana Children’s Museum Will Allow LDWF To Showcase Some Of What It Does

story by TREY ILES, LDWF Public Information

It’s hard to beat the New Orleans City Park lagoon system for fishing access. You simply drive, park and walk to a spot where you have a fairly good chance at landing a decent sized bass.

The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has for years partnered with City Park to manage the lagoon system, along with nearby Bayou St. John, and keep it a great and convenient fishing destination.

“It’s a 110-acre lagoon system in the park in the middle of New Orleans where, without a bass boat, you can go after work, take your kids and have the chance to catch the biggest bass of your life,’’ said Mark Schexnayder, LDWF’s Director of Fisheries Habitat Section.

LDWF has also assisted for many years with City Park’s Big Bass Rodeo, held each spring. It’s a chance to bring in young anglers and teach them about not only fishing but also about aquatic habitat, fish populations and how it’s all interconnected.

“The City Park lagoons are hydrologically connected to the Gulf of Mexico through Bayou St. John and lakes Pontchartrain and Borgne,’’ Schexnayder said. “So what happens in that lagoon can have implications for the surrounding estuaries, offering an opportunity for coastal restoration and urban water management as well.’’

Teaching the next generation of outdoors men and women is a vital function of LDWF and City Park’s lagoons have been an important part of that endeavor.

That interactive classroom is about to get much bigger. The Louisiana Children’s Museum has begun construction on a $47.5 million 8.5-acre campus that will overlook one of the lagoons in City Park. The museum is expected to open in the middle of 2019.

LDWF is partnering with the museum to manage the lagoon. It is envisioned that museum attendees will use the lagoon as an interactive tool where they’ll learn about fish habitat, aquatic vegetation and fish populations.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity that we have here,’’ Schexnayder said. “We’ll be able to show them spawning beds, fish stocking, habitat and planting native species, why we do that and what benefits it has. Maybe some of those kids will be interested in working for LDWF. Even if they don’t they learn to be good conservationist stewards.’’

Children’s Museum CEO Julia Bland said bringing in experts like LDWF in developing the new facility was paramount before the first shovel was turned.

“It’s so cool to be pulling together all these experts and the passion that people have on their focus,’’ Bland said. “We’re thinking about educating the next generation of environmentalists. We feel like if we do a good job of getting kids excited about nature and what a healthy ecosystem looks like and smells like and feels like and tastes like then they’ll be better stewards in the future.’’

LDWF inland fisheries biologists have already begun assisting with the lagoon where the museum will be located. A section of the lagoon was drained as construction began.

“We wanted to help mitigate any kind of fish loss,’’ said Gary Vitrano, an inland fisheries biologist. “We got in there and relocated some of the sport fish.

“That’s one step with the construction. The next thing – and this goes along with what we usually do with the park – we help them understand how they can enhance the habitat of the lagoon and fish population.’’

Vitrano said one of the things Children’s Museum would like to do, on the recommendation of LDWF, is add gravel beds to part of the shoreline of the lagoons.

“The bass and blue gill use these gravel beds to spawn,’’ Vitrano said. “It’s part habitat and part increasing recruitment for these species of fish.’’

Once construction of the lagoon is completed, LDWF will restock it.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is also installing spawning beds in the lagoon. Glenn Constant of USFWS said this is part of a new Conservation Legacy program which will help connect college students with natural resource experts and conservation professionals. In turn, they pass on what they learn to the next generation in the form of educational outdoor activities.

Constant plans to pilot the program at the museum. The unique array of conservation exhibits will help college students demonstrate techniques and ideas using hands-on experiences that range from recreational activities like fishing to conservation practices like green infrastructure.

“We’re also talking about possibly doing living shoreline demonstrations in the lagoon system that teach the kids and the parents coastal restoration techniques,’’ Schexnayder said. “What works and what doesn’t work. Get them involved. Maybe let them design some things to put in the lagoon system.’’

Schexnayder also hopes to use Hurricane Katrina as a teaching element in the new venue. When Katrina made her devastating strike in August of 2005, the flood waters that inundated City Park severely damaged the lagoon system.

“Fishing was some of the best in the country before the storm,’’ Schexnayder said. “And after the storm it got back to worse than ground zero. But thanks to what we did after the storm it was, within two years, very much back in balance. We’ll be able to explain what happened, the actions that were taken and how they got the system back into shape in the new museum.’’

The lagoon system will be a great place to learn about what LDWF does for inland fisheries. But the department will have a seat inside the museum, too. And there’s more to learn about than just inland fisheries, Schexnayder said.

The museum will house five indoor exhibit galleries, a parent-teacher resource center, literacy center, sensory garden and floating classroom. LDWF’s education programs will have space in the museum to teach about hunting and fishing programs.

“This environmental education complex will offer a myriad of opportunities to educators, both informal and formal,’’ said LDWF biologist Angela Capello. “Teachers will be able to encourage creative student investigations, which are the focal point of the newly adopted Louisiana Student Standards for Science. In addition, the museum will be equipped to provide professional development training workshops and symposia to teachers for their better understanding of wetland ecology, coastal restoration and other conservation-related topics.”

Bland said the indoor-outdoor transition will be seamless because of how the new facility will be constructed.

“A contractor told me that he doesn’t think we realize yet the beautiful views we’ll have from every single angle of this building,’’ Bland said. “He’s appreciating just how well the indoor part of the museum will connect to the outdoors because of the design that has been so thoughtfully created. It’s 8.5 acres and the lagoon goes around it. And all sides will be continued parkland. It’ll feel bigger than 8.5 acres.’’

One of the exhibit galleries will be called, “Move With The River.’’ The exhibit will be a replica of the Mississippi River from Minnesota to the Gulf Coast.

Along the Mississippi River in Louisiana can be found the success story of the Louisiana black bear, which was removed from the list of species protected by the Endangered Species Act in April of 2016. Much of the Louisiana black bear’s range is along the river in east central Louisiana. The museum exhibit would allow LDWF to take the information and research from management of the Louisiana black bear and better explain it to museum goers.

“It’s amazing what they’re doing in construction of the museum,’’ Schexnayder said. “It’s not formatted traditionally. We’ll be able to house someone there in office and class space to work with kids as they come in.

“Anything that we want to do program wise, whether it’s part of environmental stewardship, our aquatic education, we have a seat there. And we can put programs in where we don’t necessarily have to be there. We can have a touchpad with species of fish in the lagoon system for example. We’ll be able teach them exactly what it is LDWF does.’’

Children’s Museum is currently housed in New Orleans’ Warehouse District and is a big draw. Approximately 125,000 people visit it each year. But museum officials expect that number to grow to 225,000 visitors when the new venue opens.

The new building will certainly be a draw, say museum officials. But equally important is getting to City Park and closer to nature. That’s certainly something LDWF will be able to assist with.

“City Park and Children’s Museum will be a good combination,’’ Schexnayder said. “We certainly look forward to partnering with them. The new Children’s Museum is going to give us a much bigger template and opportunity to reach children and adults alike.’’