Earth Day looked like any other Louisiana festival in Baton Rouge on Sunday — live music, vendors selling fried foods, children staining their mouths and clothes with colorful snowball syrup.
But this festival was about the very thing that has inspired other festivals celebrating strawberries, shrimp and even the state’s heritage: its environment.
Sunday marked the 25th anniversary of the event, which organizers say annually attracts about 30,000 people to Baton Rouge. Booths that stretched from Galvez Plaza to the Old Governor’s Mansion downtown showcased elements of Louisiana’s flora and fauna, and ways people can take action to protect them.
It all comes down to personal responsibility, said organizer Brenda Nixon.
“We’re very unique. Our environment is filled with waterways and, especially in south Louisiana, we depend upon our water,” Nixon said. “If you look at the seafood that we provide … it’s 50 percent of the seafood for the nation. We have a huge system here that has to be kept healthy. It takes each one of us to see that it happens.”
Recycling, for example, is an easy way to keep the environment free of trash that can hurt wildlife and pollute waterways, Nixon said.
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At Earth Day, children were greeted outside a booth by Jade Blanchard, who was wearing a costume made from 700 plastic grocery bags — the number the average person uses per year. Blanchard, a River Parishes Community College student, posed for photos with visitors and encouraged them to use reusable cloth bags for shopping.
East Baton Rouge Parish recycles 34 percent of its waste, which is ahead of the national rate, estimated to be somewhere in the 20 percentile, Nixon said. But there is always room for improvement, and Nixon said she believes “if we teach our children at a very young age, they embrace it.”
As young Louisianians grow up and make more decisions, they also gain more responsibility for preserving the environment.
Natalie Bush, a 16-year-old junior at St. Joseph’s Academy, was helping children plant hackberries in seed cups. Eventually, they’ll be transplanted along Louisiana’s coast as part of LSU’s Coastal Roots program, which gets local schoolchildren involved in growing a variety of native plants that help stop erosion.
“People don’t realize how current of an issue it is,” Bush said. “They think it’s somebody else’s problem, but it’s up to this generation.”
Once relocated, the plants’ roots will catch soil and help build up land, which not only reduces problems like hypoxia, or low oxygen conditions, but also restores animals’ habitats.
“It’s more than rebuilding land — it’s rebuilding an ecosystem,” Bush said.
Down the road, children petted a reddish Louisiana corn snake coiled around a volunteer’s arm. Dylan Guillot, 14, whose father Barry Guillot runs the Wetland Watchers Park in Norco, said corn snakes are beneficial because they keep away rodents, but are often mistaken for venomous snakes and killed for no reason.
“If you get kids to come and look at the animals and actually appreciate them, they’ll understand” their role in the ecosystem, Guillot said.
Sean Tomeny, who brought his 18-month-old son Wilder to Earth Day, said he tries to “make [Wilder] a gardener at home.” Tomeny wants to teach his son how plants provide oxygen, and about the need to take care of the environment.
Tomeny grew up in Louisiana as a hunter — “some of the best conservationists you’ve ever met,” he said, because “they’re out there every day doing what they need to do to make sure they have things for their children to enjoy.”
Victor Brown, 9, distilled the lessons of his Earth Day visit quickly: pollution kills animals, which means no more food, he said.
His mother, Jane Brown, said the festival helps children gain critical knowledge about their planet.
“This is a venue that offers different areas of knowledge that are off the beaten path — solar energy, conservation, the relationship between the sky and the earth and the waters,” Brown said. “It’s important that all this comes together.”