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Louisiana State Park History

The BeginningDesegregation of Louisiana State ParksA New Beginning - the 1970s
Hard Lessons of the 1980sChallenges of 2005 - Hurricanes Katrina and RitaWhat's Ahead for Louisiana State Parks

Louisiana's State Parks System began in 1934 with the passage of legislation creating the State Parks Commission of Louisiana, a state governmental agency charged with the "establishment, protection, and management of state parks and recreational centers."

The State Parks Commission assumed the operation of three existing sites, which had been acquired by other commissions. These three sites -- Camp Moore (now operated by the Camp Moore Historical Association), Fort Pike/Fort McComb State Historic Site and Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Site -- comprised a total of 298 acres. Picnickers during the 1930s and 40s enjoying the shade at Longfellow-Evangeline State Commemorative Area.Over the next few years, four additional recreational sites were purchased or transferred to the State Parks Commission, bringing the total state park land holdings to more than 10-thousand acres. As with many State Parks systems in the south and across the country, the Louisiana State Parks Commission benefited from the Civilian Conservation Corps. The Corps, under the supervision of the National Park Service, provided the much-needed manpower and even some materials for the development of many sites that would eventually join the Louisiana State Parks system.

World War II Slows Expansion
While no new park development occurred during World War II, the war did bring some new temporary residents to one state park. Two to three hundred German prisoners of war were housed at Longfellow-Evangeline State Park, at a camp built by the Department of Agriculture. The POWs were not used on park projects, but instead, provided agricultural labor for nearby farmers.

In 1944, 1946 and 1947, the commission purchased three new parcels of park lands. These included a historic plantation house -- Oakley House at Audubon SHS and two recreational sites -- Sam Houston Jones SP and Lake Bistineau SP, which added 1,918 acres to the system.

Louisiana Parks Commission logoThe Louisiana State Parks and Recreation Commission
In 1952, legislation broadened the role of the State Parks Commission to include the development of outdoor recreation programs and resources in Louisiana. The newly-created Louisiana State Parks and Recreation Commission now operated with the following goals:

  • to study the recreational needs of the state;
  • to assist local governmental subdivisions in providing recreation facilities;
  • to aid in recruiting, training and placing recreation works, and to promote recreation institutes and conferences;
  • to establish and promote recreational standards; and
  • to cooperate with state and federal agencies, private organizations and commercial recreation interests in the promotion of recreational opportunities.

 

Four historic sites and one recreational park -- Marksville SHS, Mansfield SHS, E.D. White State Commemorative Area (now operated by the Office of State Museums), Fort Jesup SHS and Lake Bruin SP -- were added to the State Parks System during the 1950s. The addition of these sites brought the total of parks operated by the Commission to 16, with a total land holding of a little more than 12,000 acres. But in addition to increasing recreational opportunities around the state, social and cultural changes of the 1950s brought expansions in services and facilties at many of the parks.

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Desegregation of the Louisiana State Parks System
The task of desegregating Louisiana's State Parks System was in large part overseen by the Louisiana State Parks and Recreation Commission. The official progress of desegregation lasted roughly ten years, from 1952 to 1962; however, actual integration of the system lasted many years longer. For the most part, the desegregation of Louisiana's park system was not driven by directives, but rather by concerned citizens and community culture on a park-by-park basis.

Desegregation was localized and varied in extent based on the norms and culture of the local communities serviced by State Parks. Some communities, and their parks, were more "segregated" than others. During this period, there was no organized or legislated attempt to integrate the Parks system. The existence of 4-H Camps for use by African Americans, developed as early as 1933, excused the need for an integrated Parks System, or so the Parks and Recreation Commission thought. By the early 1950s, this was to change.

In 1952 the Louisiana Legislature passed Act 569, authorizing $50,000 to the State Parks and Recreation Commission for the development of another 4-H Camp for use by African-American citizens in Grant Parish. The Jesse Harrison 4-H Camp included ten cabins, two restrooms/showers, dining and recreation hall, office building and a recreation pavilion. After the park was built, it was found that the well water was unusable, and the camp was closed rather than incur the cost of drilling additional wells. African-American youth were sent to the nearby white 4-H Camp, ending the Parks and Recreation Commission's initial foray into developing a park for the sole use of African-American citizens.

After several African-American children drowned in the Bogue Falaya River in 1953, both the white and African-American communities recognized the need for recreational swimming facilities. It was at this time that the Parks and Recreation Commission established the "Negro Advisory Committee." The Committee, made up of prominent African-Americans such as Ernest Miller from Shreveport, Dr. Martin from Lake Charles and Joseph Bartholomew from New Orleans, met in Baton Rouge on January 5, 1954. The Committee agreed to the establishment of park facilities in the New Orleans, Monroe, Lake Charles and Shreveport areas. The Committee also pointed out that money would be saved if the Parks and Recreation Commission were to provide facilities for the use of African-American visitors at existing parks. Most importantly though, the Committee stressed that the integration of the existing State Parks System should be the ultimate goal of the Commission, and this goal should be taken into account with all other recommendations of the Committee. The Commission opted to pursue the second recommendations, and planned to expand facilities for African-American visitors at existing parks.

Lake Bistineau State Park was chosen as the first State Park to have developed facilities for use by African-American visitors. The development of separate facilities for the use of African-American visitors still did not constitute an integrated park system. As justification for developing separate facilities at existing parks, a Louisiana Statute of 1956 proclaimed that all public parks, recreational centers, playgrounds, etc. would be segregated "for the protection of the public health, morals, and the peace and good order in the state and not because of race." In other words, the State was attempting to justify separate facilities based on the safety of the facilities' users and not on race. One of the common fears was that allowing African Americans into areas previously reserved for "white" visitors would lead to violence. The Parks and Recreation Commission considered closing parks if forced integration were to occur and violence erupted, as was the case with the South Carolina and Georgia State Parks systems. The threat to close down parks was directly aimed at Fontainebleau State Park, due to concerns of violence over the use of the "White Only" restroom. Additionally, feedback from Fontainebleau users, to the Commission, indicated strong opposition to integration at the park.

Meanwhile, an interesting situation developed at this time around Chicot State Park. Several white citizens from the community of Ville Platte petitioned the Parks and Recreation Commission in 1958 to allow the use of the fishing area reserved for African-American visitors, at least for "three weeks in the spring." Petitions read, "We, the undersigned, do petition you to leave the road open to White as well as colored people, up to the Spillway in Chicot State Park," and "We, the undersigned, do protest prohibition of white fishermen of using the road to the Spillway and Chicot Bayou. The white and colored have been fishing together for years and no trouble. Why not leave conditions as they are?" The Commission responded to the petition, retracting the regulations that provided for separate fishing areas for African-Americans. This is another example of localized desegregation at a park facility as orchestrated by community practices and culture.

Girl Scout encampment at Chicot State Park.Even though by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 African Americans could legally utilize any State Park facility, the stigma of segregation lasted for many more years and the use of facilities previously designated as "White Only" facilities by African-American park visitors remained extremely low. It wasn't until 1972 that the State of Louisiana removed the last of its Jim Crow Laws from the books, fully opening the door for use of all public facilities in Louisiana to African-American visitors. The fear of violence, local cultural tradition and the habit of segregation policies still prevented visitation of African-American visitors to State Parks facilities throughout the 1970s. Just as the process of officially desegregating Louisiana's State Parks system was a long gradual procedure, the challenge of creating welcoming recreational opportunities for Louisiana's African-American citizens proved to be a gradual process as well.

The 1960s also saw continued expansion of the State Parks System, with eight parks and historic sites added. Additionally, the Louisiana State Arboretum was created out of a parcel of Chicot State Park, leading the way for the development of state preservation areas in the following decades.

One of the most far-reaching developments of the 1960s was the birth of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The Louisiana Recreational Advisory Council was formed to advise the director of the State Parks and Recreation Commission on L&WCF matters, but the State Parks and Recreation Commission assumed these duties later.

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A New Beginning -The '70s
The early 1970s saw a major transformation in Louisiana State Parks. The system was primarily developed through the efforts of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and early '40s. Between then and the early 1970s, the growth and development of the parks as a statewide system was fairly static.

Many of the areas in the system were small and inappropriate for state park status. Some units had simply been transferred from local governments to the state in order to avoid the operational cost and responsibility. Professional management was non-existent, since many of the staff and most park managers had been employed prior to the enactment of the classified service program. Political patronage was a way of business and each park operated independently of a strong central organization and common purpose. Most depended entirely upon the support of the local legislators to obtain funding for operation and development.

In 1972, before reorganization, the State Parks & Recreation Commission was a policy-making unit of state government. Newly appointed members of that Commission, working closely with an energetic new State Parks Director and enthusiastic staff, began to plan a course of action which was intended to make the Louisiana State Parks System one of the most dynamic and professionally operated units of state government. From then and throughout the 1970s and until the present, many of these changes have and are occurring.

One of the very first objectives of the Parks Commission, following the 1972 appointment, was to develop a unity of purpose, and a strong organization with specific goals and objectives; one which would have all of the individual park units and their staff pulling in the same direction. This was accomplished by developing a strong central administrative core with authority to develop and issue policy objectives. The State Parks & Recreation Commission, through the Director and administrative staff, provided this ingredient.

circa 1970s Louisiana State Parks logoIn order to develop the unity necessary to function as a cohesive unit, much attention was given to the agency personnel. Efforts were made to develop a team attitude, a sense of esprit de corps. These changes were subtle but effective. Management training seminars were initiated and all managers and administrative staff were en- listed. The National Park Service conducted several week-long seminars of "Management by Objective Techniques". An agency logo was adopted. One of the most dramatic and effective accomplishments was that of providing uniforms to all public contact personnel.

Park Wardens, who had never been trained in law enforcement but who carried weapons, made arrests, and had full law enforcement power, were enrolled in the Louisiana State Police Training Academy. Certification and law enforcement standards were developed, and now all State Park Wardens (park Rangers and Managers) are fully certified as graduates of a "Peace Officers Standards & Training Curriculum", conducted by the Louisiana State Police Training Academy. Requalification, training and recertification of all State Park Wardens are now conducted on an annual basis.

At the field level, four districts representing the four quadrants of the state were established. The existing parks were assigned to these districts based on their geographical location. Four of the most promising young professional managers were selected and promoted to the position of District Manager, having supervisory authority over all other unit managers in their respective districts. A Chief of Operations was selected from the field managers to act as the immediate supervisor of the four District Managers and to coordinate activities between the field operations and the administrative support function.

A classified position of Assistant Director was developed and established as the senior classified administrative position of the agency. This provided the stability required at a staff level to maintain the necessary continuity of program and development objectives over a long period of time. Prior to this, the Director -- serving at the pleasure of the Governor -- changed every time the Governor changed and there was no principal staff position below that level with the administrative leadership necessary to continue program goals once they had been established. As a result, the system was deplete with half accomplished development projects and programs which were cancelled before they really had an opportunity to mature. In other words, practically everything in the agency changed on a four-year cycle.

These organizational accomplishments in the early '70s were essential in order to implement a program of long-range planning and development that would transcend periodic political leadership changes in the state. This was a foundation for a professional rather than political oriented function of state government.

Comprehensive Long-Range Planning
By the 1970s, the need for a more orderly and definitive plan for a State Parks System had been recognized. Studies of Louisiana' s state parks and those of other states led to the inescapable conclusion that Louisiana lagged far behind in meeting its citizens' recreational needs.

In 1974 the State Parks & Recreation Commission completed a fifteen year Capital Outlay Master Plan for improving and expanding the Parks System. The purpose of this plan was to establish a clearly defined set of goals for both operation and expansion. A classification system was developed which served to identify areas according to a specific purpose. State Parks would serve to provide outdoor recreation opportunities in a natural setting. State Commemorative Areas would serve to protect and interpret significant aspects of our state's history. State Preservation Areas would be acquired and developed in such a way as to preserve and portray the significance of some of our most unique natural features and landscapes.

History reenactment at Fort St. Jean Baptiste State Historic Site.Given these specific types of needs and objectives, those properties that did not fit the classification system were disposed of, usually transferred to local units of governments to serve local historical or recreation needs. New areas were identified for inclusion into the system and cost estimates for both acquisition and development were established. Concurrently, costs for upgrading and improving the existing areas that met the classification standards were also considered.

This fifteen year capital improvement program was presented to the 1975 Louisiana Legislature and was adopted at a proposed cost of $118 million over a fifteen-year period.

The state's long-term bond authorization program was abolished several years later and the fifteen-year authorization became a year-to-year struggle for capital outlay funds needed to implement this program. Over $77 million has been invested in State Parks land acquisitions and improvements since 1975. The system has grown from a landholding of approximately 14,000 acres to almost 40,000, consisting of 50 individual holdings statewide.

Technical and Financial Assistance
Over the last 40 years, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has invested more than $68 million in Louisiana through grants for the acquisition and/or development of outdoor recreation facilities. The Office of State Parks serves as a State liaison Office that administers the Federal Land & Water Conservation Fund Program. As such, funds are made available from the U. S. Department of the Interior on an annual basis. These have ranged I from one-half million to as much as $3 million annually. The State Parks & Recreation Commission, as a body, sets priorities for the allocation of these funds to other state agencies and local political subdivisions annually. This is done on a 50 -50 matching fund basis. Many small communities, which would not otherwise be in a position to afford outdoor recreation facilities, have benefited from this program. In addition to allocating funds, the Office of State Parks has the responsibility to continually monitor the facilities and programs, which have been funded to ensure that the funds and development are used strictly for the purpose intended-public outdoor recreation.

In 2008, Governor Bobby Jindal issued an Executive Order, transferring the Recreational Trails Program from the Governor's Office of Rural Affairs to the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism. This program provides federal funding through the Federal Highway Administration for the purpose of development and maintenance of recreational trails and trail-related facilities for both non-motorized and motorized recreational trail uses.

Reorganization
In 1977, a sweeping reorganization of state government occurred. The Office of State Parks was created within the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, one of 20 departments of state government. State Parks became one of five offices within that department, and this move strengthened the relationships between the State Parks System and other departmental agencies such as Tourism and Historic Preservation. The State Parks and Recreation Commission became an advisory body to the Secretary of the Department, an appointee of the governor and in whom all powers for operating the department were vested. An Assistant Secretary, also an appointee, oversaw the regular operations of the Office of State Parks. During the 1970s, 16 new sites were acquired, increasing state parks holdings more than 150 percent.

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Hard Lessons of the '80s
While the 1970s were a very good decade, economically speaking, for the State of Louisiana as a whole and for the State Parks System, the past decade has been the reverse. Because the Louisiana economy depended heavily on the health of the petroleum industry and the current market value of the state's considerable oil and gas resources, it was particularly vulnerable to the fluctuations of the world oil market. The glut of world oil, beginning in the early 1980s, put Louisiana's economy in an ever-deepening sea of red ink.

While budget cuts began in 1982, the Louisiana State Parks System did not suffer publicly until 1985. That fall, all 22 of the state's commemorative areas closed for a period of 9 months. Subsequently, four of these sites were transferred to local units of government. The others reopened the following summer, and also that year, three new state parks that had been under development for several years prior to 1987 opened to the public.

However, this rosy time was short-lived, and budget cuts in 1988 forced the transfer of six commemorative areas, the closure of three, and seasonal operation of one state park. Acquisition of new properties had ceased two years before, and planning and development of existing holdings were limited to that which had begun prior to 1986. These types of projects had been funded largely through bond sales since 1975, and when the state's bond rating plummeted along with the price of oil, this source of money all but disappeared for the State Parks System.

The downward budget trend for the Office of State Parks ended in 1989. That year, the legislature approved a measure to dedicate the revenues from user fees to a fund solely for major repairs and improvements at existing parks (prior to this time, all revenues went into the State General Fund.) This important step provided a predictable source of funds for a function neglected by necessity for the past few years; however, it did not provide a much needed dedicated revenue source for general day to day operations.

An organizational change also occurred in the 1980s. The Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism was placed under the Office of the lieutenant Governor in 1986, and thus, the Assistant Secretary of the Office of State Parks became an appointee of that official; however, the members of the State Parks & Recreation Commission remained subject to appointment by the Governor.

Acquisitions, New Facilities and Improvements
The late 1990s and into the 2000s saw the beginning of a dynamic era for Louisiana State Parks. With Tourism becoming the second-ranked industry in the state, legislative funding and support favored Louisiana State Parks. Since 1995, the Office of State Parks has constructed more than $80 million worth of new facilities and improved facilities, investing in the $77 million worth of acquisitions since the mid-1970s.

Rosedown Plantation State Historic Site, acquired by the State in 1999.Two brand new parks opened over the next 15 years - Tickfaw State Park in 1999 and South Toledo Bend State Park in 2004 - while the Office of State Park acquired and began operations of three new properties - Rosedown Plantation State Historic Site in 1999, Poverty Point Reservoir State Park in 2003 and Hodges Gardens State Park in 2007.

In addition to brand-new parks, many existing parks received updated and improved facilities. The creation of the Central Reservation System in 2000 highlighted, for the Administrative Office, the popularity of Louisiana State Parks to overnight visitors. It became evident that additional overnight facilities would be welcomed. Cabins were built at parks that previously offered only camping, including Lake Claiborne State Park, Cypremort Point State Park and Fontainebleau State Park. Additional cabins were built at Chemin-A-Haut State Park and Chicot State Park. The number of overnight guests increased with each new addition; by 2002, Louisiana State Parks topped 2 million in annual visitation.

One significant change in the State Parks system was the change in designation of "State Commemorative Site" to "State Historic Site" through 1999 legislation. The Historic Sites of the Louisiana State Park system also saw a number of additions and improvements. In 2000, an Acadian Farmstead area opened at Longfellow Evangeline, interpreting the life of a typical Acadian family along Bayou Teche in the early 1800s. Over the next few years, brand-new visitor centers opened at Audubon State Historic Site, Fort St. Jean Baptiste State Historic Site and Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Site, complete with exhibits and interactive displays depicting the cultural and historical significance of the individual site.

Two Louisiana State Parks sites were placed on the National Register of Historic Places - Otis House at Fairview-Riverside State Park in 1998 and Rosedown Plantation State Historic Site in 2005. The addition of those two sites bring the number of Louisiana State Parks sites on the National Listing of Historic Landmarks to seven.

Hollywood South
With the institution of the 25% tax credits offered to production companies filming in the state, Louisiana State Parks sites hosted a number of production crews working on theatrical films, made-for-TV movies, national and local commercials, and documentaries. From the beach at Fontainebleau State Park serving as the English Channel for the 2008 Brad Pitt-Cate Blanchett vehicle, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to the popularity of Forts Pike and Macomb in “Expendables 2,” “GI Joe: Retribution,” and the television series “NCIS: New Orleans” and “The Zoo” on CBS and “Into the Badlands” on AMC, park sites have offered a variety of natural and geographical settings to film scouts and producers. Historic structures, including Otis House at Fairview-Riverside SP and the main house at Rosedown Plantation SHS, served as backdrops for commercials and catalogue shoots for nationally-recognized publications such as Toyota, Williams-Sonoma and L.L. Bean.

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Challenges of 2005 - Hurricanes Katrina and Rita
Aerial image of Hurricane Katrina damage to Fort Pike State Historic Site.August and September 2005 saw probably the biggest challenges to face the Louisiana State Parks system - Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. A number of parks previously had undergone temporary closures due to Hurricanes Isidore and Lili in 2002 and Hurricane Bill in 2003. As the numerous news reports and succeeding media programs have shown, prior experience with hurricanes did little to prepare anyone for what happened with Katrina and Rita. Sites in the New Orleans area - St. Bernard State Park, Fort Pike State Historic Site, Fontainebleau State Park and Bayou Segnette State Park - suffered first-hand damage during Katrina, while Rita caused closures of Cypremort Point State Park and Sam Houston Jones State Park. In addition, parks that were not directly impacted by the hurricanes worked with FEMA and became evacuation centers, by providing housing and services for people who had been displaced by the storms.

Most impacted parks had completely re-opened by the following spring, with the exception of Fontainebleau SP, St. Bernard SP and Fort Pike SHS. Fontainebleau SP re-opened in stages, culminating with the opening of brand-new cabins in April 2008; while St. Bernard SP remained completely closed until December 2006. Fort Pike SHS had already been under consideration for structural work due to the age of the fort proper; and while Hurricane Katrina exacerbated some of the structural issues, the site was considered suitable for public use and re-opened in May 2008.

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What's in Store for Louisiana State Parks
After opening two brand new parks – Bogue Chitto State Park, near Franklinton, and Palmetto Island State Park, south of Abbeville – and a new historic site – Forts Randolph and Buhlow State Historic Site in Pineville – in 2010, improved and new facilities at existing sites were planned. Hurricane Isaac in 2012 damaged the lakefront cabins at Fontainebleau State Park, resulting in their complete renovation. Meanwhile, funding was provided to build cabins and replace the group camp at Bayou Segnette State Park; both of which had been severely damaged during Hurricane Katrina. A new visitor center at the Louisiana State Arboretum provides exhibits on native flora and fauna, and work continues to improve the gardens at Hodges Gardens State Park. Also in store is the development of Tunica Hills State Preservation Area, which will include an interpretive center focusing on the preservation and conservation of the state's natural resources. 

Mound A at Poverty Point World Heritage SiteHistory was made in 2014, when Poverty Point (Mound A pictured, left) became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The site is the 22nd World Heritage Site in the U.S. and joins the ranks of others worldwide including the Great Wall of China, Stonehenge in England and the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt. Poverty Point was the U.S. Department of the Interior’s lone nomination for world heritage status—adding to the site’s honors as a National Historic Landmark, National Monument and Smithsonian Affiliate. The 3,400-year-old site is considered one of the most culturally significant Native American sites in the U.S. Programs and tours are offered daily and show visitors how life might have been for the prehistoric inhabitants of the area.

 

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