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New park ranger making plans for Bonnet Carre

Leonard Gray / L’Observateur / May 18, 1998

NORCO – For Debra Stokes, newly-appointed park ranger for the Bonnet Carre Spillway, this is a dream job.

Stokes, 44, a native of Davenport, Iowa, has been in public service nearly 19 years, having earned degrees in forestry and park planning and management.

Her past jobs include massive facilities in Georgia and smaller coast facilities in New England. She first joined the U.S. Army Corps ofEngineers in St. Louis, Mo., worked for a time with the U.S. Forest Serviceand is back with the Corps.

“At one place, I had 69 recreational areas and 11 campsites on the border between Georgia and South Carolina,” she said.

However, this is her first exposure to south Louisiana, and she admits she’s in love with not only the cooking and music but the helpful people she’s met since arriving here less than two months ago.

Stokes came to Bonnet Carre seeking a new challenge, and she said she’s found it, as the spillway had no previous park ranger. “It’s an opportunityto start an all-new program from the ground up.”Her challenges in the new job, however, are many. Not the least of these isthe widespread and habitual dumping which takes place in the spillway, everything from tires to large appliances to garbage. “It’s a really bigproblem here,” she said.

Stokes’ first priority is to execute the Corps’ master plan for recreational development, working closely with local officials and the sheriff’s office.

In recent years, the Corps worked with local agencies and held a public hearing at Destrehan High School, where they heard input from users ranging from model-airplane fliers to ATV riders to dog trainers, all of whom use the spillway facilities.

Other plans include development of ATV trails, more camping areas, nature trails and a link in the Ring Around the Lake bicycle path.

Her function will also include giving presentations, hosting groups from area schools and enforcing federal law as it relates to the spillway.

The 8,000-acre spillway was begun in 1929 following the disastrous Great Flood of April 1927. It was completed in the spring of 1931. Theguide levees were finished the following year, and the highway and rail crossings were completed in 1936.

Since it was completed, the spillway has been used eight times, including last spring. It is designed to move a quarter-million cubic feet per secondof water, diverting high water from the Mississippi River to Lake Pontchartrain 5.7 miles away.Stokes finds the spillway structure fascinating and commented, “There’s a lot of potential here.”Use of the spillway for recreation activities was unregulated in many respects until recent years, but now there is a curfew on access to the area, closed 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. every night.”Everybody has had free rein,” she said, but added that has ended. “You’llnever know when I’m going to be out there.”Stokes observed, “We can all have a piece of the area, but there has to be consideration of others.”Her free time is taken up with cooking and gardening. She added, “Mymother enjoys my job because it gives her new places to visit.”However, there is one problem with living in south Louisiana, she said. “Ilove snow!”

Photo by Rebecca Burk.

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