Friends of Cat Island brings attention to unique natural setting

Melvin Harvey’s roots stretch deep into the rich Cat Island soil.

Including his daughter, six generations of Harvey’s family have been going to the same piece of land since his great-great-grandfather, Sheriff John Clack, bought about 1,000 acres in 1823.

It’s been used for timber production, cattle and of course, fishing and hunting. Clack’s daughter and Harvey’s great-grandmother, May Clack Wilcox, inherited the property from her father and loved fishing the area with her 12 children. Harvey’s family members still own about 450 acres and have two camps where they enjoy many recreational activities.

Harvey is president of the board of the Friends of Cat Island, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and enhancing Cat Island for visitors. The group works with parish, state and federal officials to establish priorities, and it has various projects of its own that help with the public’s enjoyment of Cat Island.

Cat Island is northwest of St. Francisville along the southernmost portion of the lower Mississippi River that does not have levees. It floods almost every year. In 2000, Cat Island was established as a National Wildlife Refuge and is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It has grown to about 12,000 acres.

Home to many migratory birds and other species of animals, Cat Island features a variety of unique habitats. There are about 50 private landowners like Harvey who have properties that surround the refuge.

“I grew up down there, I’ve been going there since I was a little kid,” said Harvey, a vice president with the Bank of St. Francisville. “That’s where I learned to hunt and fish.”

Since the August 2016 flooding washed away much of Creek Road, which provided the main entrance to Cat Island, access has been limited. Two other bridges on Cat Island Road were washed out.

West Feliciana Parish President Kevin Couhig has promised to rebuild the Cat Island Road bridges. One bridge will be finished in four to six weeks, so the public will have access at that time.

On Oct. 28, some members of the Friends of Cat Island were joined by a group of Boy Scouts for a workday and restored a wooden platform around the national champion bald cypress, one of the top destinations on Cat Island. They also restored the sign-in station at the entrance to the refuge and cleaned up around some of the signs. Harvey said the Friends of Cat Island try to hold two workdays per year to enhance the user experience for Cat Island. A future project of the group is to restore all of the iron gates to the refuge.

Estimated to be 1,500 years old, the champion bald cypress is the largest of any species east of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. At 96 feet high and a circumference of 56 feet, it is a highlight of any trip to the NWR.

The Cat Island refuge, along with the Friends group, hosted a three-hour bus tour on Nov. 11 during which visitors had an opportunity to hike, bird-watch, photograph wildlife and enjoy the beauty of the wetlands.

“It was a great day and we had people come up from New Orleans to see Cat Island,” Harvey said.

The Friends of Cat Island meet once per month and Harvey invites anyone to join by calling him at (225) 719-7783.

“It’s truly one of the most beautiful pristine places of natural Louisiana beauty that we have left,” Harvey said.

Send news and events for East and West Feliciana parishes to extra@theadvocate.com by 10 a.m. Monday or call (225) 388-0215.

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