But as of late, they have new neighbors in Rockefeller. About 70 men and women from the Louisiana National Guard's four engineer battalion units have been rotating shifts for months at the refuge. Using heavy equipment, such as front-end loaders and dozers, the teams are laying the foundation for a new 3,700-foot airstrip. Lt. Col. Pete Schneider, a spokesman for the state guard, says it's good experience. "This is what they were doing in Afghanistan, and it's what they'll be doing again in the future," he says. "It's really great training, and it's related directly to their military specialty."
The soldiers are in Rockefeller because the runway is a Community Assistance Project, a routine function of the guard that provides labor and other services for public causes. But unbeknownst to them, the construction project is a source of worry among a few public officials who are concerned the runway offers no real benefit for the state and could be abused if not closely monitored. Other state and local officials, however, tout the strip as a crucial site with multi-faceted uses.
Jimmy Jenkins remembers fighting the issue when it crossed his desk. Jenkins served as Department of Wildlife and Fisheries secretary for eight years under former Gov. Mike Foster and says the project didn't pass his personal smell test. "We looked at it long and hard and decided it just wasn't a good idea to do it," he says. "I didn't think it was cost efficient. It was a waste of money."
Jenkins also says he became cautious when he considered that some entities might want to use the runway for recreational purposes. "Acadian Ambulance wanted to use the runway," Jenkins says, adding that the company lobbied him on behalf of the project. "They thought it would be a good emergency strip, but they have all those helicopters flying over all the time and they can land anywhere." (There's also a landing strip a little more than an hour away at Lake Charles Regional Airport.)
Jenkins says he communicated during that time with Richard Zuschlag, chairman and CEO of Acadian Ambulance, who maintains a camp in nearby Grand Chenier that's well known as a prime spot for Acadian to entertain associates and clients. Zuschlag answered questions concerning the runway in an e-mail.
"When a group of people in the Grand Chenier/Cameron area asked for our support, our company simply wrote a letter to the Refuge saying that should they be in a position to complete the runway it could be used by Acadian Ambulance to evacuate the elderly and handicapped and sick in the event of a hurricane or other natural disaster," Zuschlag wrote via e-mail.
"We do not see any economic incentive for being able to use the runway except to evacuate medical patients in times of emergency," he continues. "In most cases, that is done by helicopter. Fixed-wing would only be used for multiple patients during disasters, so we were simply one of the businesses that suggested that the Refuge consider completing a project that was started 12 years ago. Other than that initial letter that they requested, we have not lobbied for them to finish the runway."
Acadiana Ambulance also has a vested interest in air transportation. The company operates Executive Aircraft Charter Services, a private charter company that offers travel anywhere in North America. Zuschlag did not respond to follow up calls concerning Jenkins' specific comments or the functions of the charter service. Members of the current administration at the DWF say Zuschlag has never contacted them regarding the runway.Â
The project is scheduled to be unveiled the first week of September as a "publicly owned restricted use runway" ' but at press time, the state DWF had not completed a use policy for the airstrip. Officials have stated that "anyone that satisfies the policies that are being developed by the department could land at Rockefeller." A small fuel tank is also being considered for the site, but it would be for state use only.
Bo Behringer, DWF spokesman, says the rules are being drafted by the department's administration with some input from elected officials and public agencies. A draft policy will be distributed at the unveiling and then reconfigured based on feedback from certain parties. As far as a traditional public meeting, where citizens could add public comment, there is nothing being planned, he says. But at least public official is pushing to have it included on the agenda of its regular October meeting.
Henry Mouton, a member of the rule-drafting Wildlife and Fisheries Commission since 2003, says the issue of the department overseeing the construction of a new runway at Rockefeller boils down to a policy concern. "The money at Rockefeller ought to be spent to enhance and preserve Rockefeller for fish and game and to keep it from washing into the Gulf," he says. "Wildlife and Fisheries' mission is not to build runways at Rockefeller. I don't see how this benefits the department."
Mouton is also worried about the rules being drafted. "(The commission) is supposed to set that policy," he says. "That should go through us, and I've asked that it be included on the agenda for the October meeting."
DWF has maintained an airstrip at Rockefeller since the late '50s, but several factors including natural wear and oil activities forced the strip into disrepair during the late 90s. Renovation projects by DWF have been launched and abandoned in the past, but only recently has there been chatter about revamping the existing infrastructure. Earlier this year, the department set aside $1.6 million for design costs and materials, and the Louisiana National Guard was tapped for free labor and heavy equipment. No tax dollars are being used for the project; rather, the money comes from a special fund used solely for Rockefeller. Those dollars originated as oil and gas revenues from the site and grew with interest over time.
With positive and negative feedback in hand, current DWF Secretary Dwight Landreneau has moved the project along at a steady pace. He argues the department will glean many benefits from the runway. Wheeled planes are often needed to conduct waterfowl surveys; search and rescue missions are often launched; and live fishery samples from other states regularly need to be transported. Additionally, the department's enforcement division uses aircraft to patrol for the illegal use of gill nets and other activities.
And out of all the parishes in the state, Cameron has the largest amount of land area without a hard surface runway, he adds. As such, letters of support have poured in from local legislators and several agencies in Cameron, including the police jury, assessor, district attorney and mosquito control. "(The runway) would provide a range of vital services to the community which are presently lacking, like medivac, Civil Defense, and Civil Air Patrol," state Rep. Mickey Frith, D-Abbeville, writes in support of the project.
Gov. Kathleen Blanco, an avid duck hunter who is familiar with the wildlife area, says she was made aware of the project only recently, but adds she is in full support. The Cameron area has been lacking such a facility for years, she says, and it's due time it received the infrastructure and the attention.
Landreneau and others also point to traveling dignitaries, oil executives and outdoor writers as potential users of the runway. Everyone from scientists and businessmen to TV personalities and conservation groups have journeyed to Rockefeller to observe how oil and gas activities can be conducted on a fragile site without adverse environmental impacts, Landreneau says.
While the issue seems to be heating up on the back end of construction, the project will soon be completed, and the area will have its first reliable runway in several years. But many will be waiting to see what's included in the use policy. "You put a runway down there on a piece of property at the refuge, and there could be abuse," Mouton says.
Louisiana has joined nine other states in support of Indiana’s appeal of a federal judge’s ruling that the Hoosier State’s ban on sam-sex marriage violates the Constitution.
The Saints are being cautious in an effort to minimize risk of re-injury.
LSU Health Sciences Center says people with a common, hard-to-treat kind of lung cancer can join a new national trial to test drugs faster.
As New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis spoke about the opening of training camp, steep, tree-covered mountains were in full view behind them.
The family of fallen cyclist Lon Lomas is speaking out after the release this week of the man charged with his death.
"The solutions are obvious: undo consolidation, or amend the charter to make this hybrid attempt at a new form of government work better."
Friday's Blogs from the Bog!
Marijuana source of disputes for HOAs; experts say still safe to fly; Russian-supported attacks on Ukraine and more national and international news for Friday, July 25, 2014.
The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is considering whether to get involved in a lawsuit against Gov. Bobby Jindal for his attempts to undermine use of the Common Core education standards in Louisiana's public schools.
The latest meeting of a south Louisiana flood board that stirred political turmoil with a lawsuit against the oil and gas industry is taking place amid uncertainty over the future of the lawsuit — and the board's own membership.
The photos taken nearly a mile under the Gulf of Mexico are so clear that small holes are visible in a lifeboat that may have gone down or been scuttled when a passenger ship was sunk by a Nazi submarine in 1942.
Advocate columnist and Jindal shill Quin Hillyer has been against the New Orleans levee board lawsuit from day one, but a recent piece targeting author/activist John Barry prompted the perfect rebuttal from the board’s former vice-president, who takes Hillyer to task on just about every distorted claim he’s made on the issue.
Thousands of people who bought health insurance through the marketplace created by the federal health care overhaul face price hikes next year that could top 10 percent.
Louisiana fell one spot in an annual national ranking of child well-being that looks at poverty, education and health access.
A federal judge has decided he doesn't need to hear more arguments in the case of a gay couple who want a Louisiana marriage license.
Saints again bring playoff aspirations into 2014 campaign.
New details in the case against the man arrested for last week’s bomb threat and bank robbery has surfaced, including a MidSouth Bank surveillance video showing the alleged suspect attempt an early-morning bank robbery.
Parents and teachers who support the Common Core education standards sued Gov. Bobby Jindal Tuesday over his actions against the multi-state standards, accusing him of illegally meddling in education policy.
An arrest was announced this morning in connection with last week’s bomb scare at UL Lafayette.
Attorneys, judges and others interviewed by LaPolitics expect 15 to 20 district judge races this year.
"I feel like I'm under siege," an attorney said recently over drinks at Galatoire's Bistro in Baton Rouge. "We all do. Every time I turn around somebody wants a check. District attorney races. The judges. They're killing us."
As a requirement for running for Congress in the 6th District, former Gov. Edwin Edwards has filed his financial disclosure statement with the U.S. House showing his income in 2013 totaling $242,787.
Unlike those swindled by Bernie Madoff, the victims of Texas businessman Robert Allen Stanford’s Ponzi scheme won’t be getting any relief from the Securities Investor Protection Corp.’s emergency fund after a recent appellate court ruling.
The legal challenge is part of a continuing struggle over Common Core, which has become controversial since the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education adopted the standards in 2010.
The lone Democrat to announce he's running for governor, state Rep. John Bel Edwards, criticized Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal's budgeting tactics as "running the state like a big Ponzi scheme."