Swamp center throws party _lowres

Advocate file photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- BREC's Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center will celebrate its 17th birthday with events 9 .am.-5 pm. Saturday,

BREC’s Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center celebrated its 16th anniversary Saturday with a day-long party featuring wide-eyed, energetic youngsters, live animal presentations, and animal-themed birthday cakes.

Adults milled about with their children, many of whom were enthralled by the various snakes, turtles and lizards on display in cages and enclosures.

Paintings by the Louisiana Art and Artists’ Guild as well as sculptures made out of plastic utensils created by students at Glasgow Middle School adorned the room where Claire Coco, director of the center located on North Oak Hills Parkway off of Bluebonnet Avenue, acted as part guide, part hostess. She interacted with guests and asked the adults to fill out forms asking what they thought about the park and what features park officials should try to add next.

In past surveys, some of the more-requested additions included a suggestion that the park have a place for birthday parties as well as Wi-Fi access across its 103 acres to allow for various online social media uploads and posts.

Coco said the questionaires were part of Saturday’s celebration of the center’s continued growth.

One addition on course to be unveiled in early 2014 — depending on the upcoming hurricane season, Coco said — is the new education center that will allow the staff to check one longstanding request, the capacity to host birthday parties, off the list of needed improvements.

“We’ve got a huge amount of growth potential coming,” Coco said in an interview Friday. “It gives us the ability to expand and grow what we’re doing.”

The 250-year-old habitat is home to a large number of animal and plant species, including turtles and snakes, and has three trails that loop into each other and offer visitors a tranquil walk through the woods and wetlands.

Coco said one idea she and her staff have floated around that would utilize the ample wooded area is putting on a “Swamp Teen Scream,” in which they would set up a haunted house environment in the woods for teens.

“It’s not hard to scare teens in the woods,” Coco said with a sly smile Saturday.

While the center itself may be only 16 years old, the roots of the swamp go back to the early communities and families that settled the Baton Rouge area, Coco said.

The swamp was formed when those early families developed and filled in the natural levee created by the Mississippi River’s flood zone. The natural levee eventually became Highland Road, which explains why the roadway has a bluff on one side and ground sloping toward the river on the other, Coco said.

When settlers filled in the bottlenecks, the water that used to drain very quickly had no where to go and the swamp area was formed.

Fast forward to 1984, when the Nature Conservancy in Louisiana noticed the uniqueness of the area and purchased 65 acres to preserve it. The conservancy then approached BREC about creating a nature-based park.

“I’m sure it was in their long-term ideas, but it was just an opportunity that dropped into BREC’s lap,” Coco said. The conservancy donated the land to BREC, which purchased more than 30 acres surrounding the original 65-acre site to develop the park facilities. The park opened in May 1997.

Coco said she regularly hears from people in their 60s, 70s and 80s who tell her how they used to hunt in the area. Now, a younger generation tramps through the woods with different ideas in mind.

Liz Hogstrom, 33, said she and her 3-year-old son Kade Hickman visit the center often because he loves reptiles and other things he doesn’t see at home.

She said because of the uniqueness of what the center offers, she would like to see more hands-on demonstrations, not just during special events, but on regular days.

Coco said she would love to do more live, hands on demonstrations, but she needs more staff members to offer such events.

“What we do is directly dependant on how many people we have,” she said.