Gr8 Neighbors: Wetland warrior is a voice for coastal protection

Gr8 Neighbor

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - At 83, Milton Cambre is always fighting. For more than 50 years he has been a loud voice for coastal protection in St. Charles Parish, and now he instills passion in young people to help his mission to save the Labranche wetlands and the coast.

Cambre’s red truck is part of the landscape on this dusty road in Norco.

“When I got out of the service is when I started coming out here to fish and crawfish,” Cambre said. “That was in the early 60s.”

This Wetland Watchers park is a beautiful 28-acre green space with a pavilion and buildings overlooking the lake. But the land didn’t exist until Cambre started making noise.

“None of these trees were here,” he said. “The lake was right on this edge right here.”

He has the pictures to prove it. This is what it looked like in 1998 - open water that kept claiming more and more land. Hurricane Georges gobbled up the shoreline. Salt water intrusion threw punches at the Labranche wetlands, the brackish marsh visible on the I-10 between Jefferson and St. Charles parishes.

“The I-10 in the 60s, I saw the damage they had done and canals and what was happening in Labranche,” Cambre said.

The Army Corps of Engineers wanted to build a lake levee in the area in the mid-1990s.

“It was where the park is,” said Cambre. “That’s where it was going to tie in.”

Milton Cambre said not so fast.

“I said, hey, this beautiful wetland that we had - it’s not right to develop something for the sake of developing it,” Cambre said. “I could see what the problem was and what it was going to do. Essentially, you’ll destroy the habitat.”

He helped organize the St. Charles Environmental Council to get other citizens involved.

“I don’t know if I stepped forward and everybody else stepped back and left me as president,” Cambre said. “I’m not the one to seek the limelight. I just want to get things done.”

As he fought to conserve the wetlands, he met middle school teacher Barry Guillot, who brought children to the area for interactive field experiences like planting trees. Guillot called his group Wetland Watchers. Guillot and Cambre became a team linking Cambre’s passion with education.

“They have taken this where I could never do it,” Cambre said. “He’s taken it countrywide for all different states to come and see what we’ve accomplished.”

They’ve accomplished a lot. The Corps of Engineers changed the location of the levee, and the Pontchartrain Levee District donated the area where it was to be built in the name of the Wetland Watchers.

“The Levee Board donated 28 acres of their right of way to the park,” Cambre said.

Cambre had a plan: Take construction debris, primarily old broken concrete in the parish, and use it to rebuild land.

“My ideas is that this is a good use for it,” Cambre said. “Why pay to dispose of something that they can put to good use?”

Volunteers filled the shallow lake near the shore with construction junk, then topped it off with a foot-and-a-half of dirt.

“It took them a while to understand this sounds like a good idea with no taxpayer money!” Cambre said. “You getting something for nothing.”

Miraculously, the park took shape. Generous corporate donations helped build this walkway through the Labranche wetlands leading to an outdoor classroom for students here and all over the country to learn about this vital resource. Craig Howat is a teacher in St. Charles Parish who also works with Wetland Watchers. He sees Cambre's impact on a new generation of coastal protectors.

“(Cambre) tells the kids all the time, ‘I don’t have book sense, I have common sense,’” Howat said.

“I try to convince the government we need to take this road bed and fill up these wetlands because we are losing this area,” Cambre said.

Cambre does it all, from rebuilding land to reversing the work of occasional vandals at the park.

“I build the benches, and it aggravates me when you build something and somebody tears it apart,” Cambre said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

Preserving the Labranche wetlands and the shoreline has turned into Cambre’s life’s work. His efforts helped to place a rock berm around thousands of feet of shoreline. He keeps dreaming of ways to contain the lake and protect the area from storms.

"I want to get the shoreline protected from the parish line canal all the way to Freniere Landing,” Cambre said.

“(Cambre’s) a great neighbor because he takes his passion and his time and his networking skills, and he uses that to reclaim this park,” Howat said. “It’s a public park. Everybody from the New Orleans area can utilize this park.”

Milton Cambre walks on land that initially wasn’t there, proving that dreams come true.

“The way I look at it, if everybody did something to improve their community, we’d be living in a better world,” Cambre said. “When you’re respected by your neighbors and you’re looked up to, that makes me feel good, but I’m trying to instill that and get that message to the kids. that’s the reason why I enjoy it.”

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