By Charles Paxton.

Celebrated Louisiana Naturalist and Author, Kelby Ouchley

Sunday, June 14, 2020 at 3 pm there was a COVID-19-friendly award ceremony held to celebrate the awesome contribution that Louisiana Master Naturalist, Kelby Ouchley has made, and is still making, as a naturalist in Louisiana.

The 2020 Caroline Dormon award ceremony was organized by Dr. Bette Kauffman, president of the Northeast chapter of the Louisiana Master Naturalist Association (LMNA) and hosted on the Zoom platform.

Outstanding Louisiana Naturalist of The Year 2020, Kelby Ouchley wins this personalized prize shirt (above) and award plaque (below) in recognition of his magnificent contributions to conservation and environmental education. (Images and copyright B.J. Kauffman 2020)

LMNA President, Dr. Bob Thomas, Professor of Communications at Loyola University in New Orleans, spoke on behalf of the State’s naturalist body to introduce some background historical context of the group that he founded, and also the prize that the group awards annually to the outstanding Louisiana naturalist of the year.

Interestingly, we learned from Dr. Thomas’s ten-minute peroration that he and Kelby Ouchley both conducted their postgraduate studies in the same building at Texas A&M University and at the same period, but without actually meeting up. Dr. Thomas studied Herpetology in the basement while Kelby was studying Wildlife Management up on the top floor.

We learned how Dr. Thomas with some kindred spirits in the Greater New Orleans area in 2010 and 2011, first formulated and later realized his hopes to establish the statewide group of naturalists that would engage in environmental service and educational events and outreach activities with loose affiliation with LSU Ag Center as independent 501(c)3 organizations under the main Louisiana Master Naturalist Association umbrella.

Now the association is represented in pretty well every place that conducts environmental education in Louisiana and has a memorandum of understanding with the Dept. of Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries. There are seven regional groups including the northeast group, with whom Kelby Ouchley is affiliated. Thomas emphasized the focus on fun, enjoyment of nature and nature education, saying members must also obey the established set of rules, pay an annual membership fee, engage in their further education and contribute at least ten volunteer hours per year.

We learned that the annual prize was named after Caroline Dormon. She was a highly accomplished, influential and intriguing artist, teacher, author and naturalist born in Acadia in 1888. She developed a keen interest in Botany and amongst other accomplishments was the first female in the US Forestry Service and founded Louisiana’s wonderful Kisatchie National Forest, the Louisiana State Arboretum in Ville Platte, and  Briarwood Nature Retreat. There’s an impressive resume!

Dr. Thomas noted that the Louisiana Master Naturalist Association is blessed to have a lot of very good naturalists in its membership and that LMNA members nominate their preferred candidates for the award each year and the finalist is selected by a committee. Normally the prizes are formally awarded at the annual Louisiana Master Naturalist Rendezvous gatherings, but the zoonotic pandemic this year necessitated postponement of the scheduled event at Camp Hardtner and a virtual award ceremony was organized in lieu. In 2021, Kelby will be a keynote speaker at the Rendezvous where he can be celebrated in person by the membership.

Dr. Bette Kauffman then delivered a twenty-minute illustrated presentation celebrating Kelby Ouchley’s outstanding contributions to Natural History in Louisiana. We learned that Ouchley has a B.S. in Wildlife Biology, M.S. in Wildlife & Fisheries Science and a life-time of experience in wildlife management, attaining the rank of Wildlife Refuge Manager. He’s an acclaimed author of six books and a popular media personality who has probably done as much or more for Louisiana’s nature interpretation and environmental education than anyone before him.

Kelby is a super story teller! Bette J. Kauffman image and copyright

Ouchely retired from his exemplary career of thirty years service in the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service where he worked with American alligators in the coastal marshes, Canada geese in Hudson Bay and established the highly popular Black Bayou Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Monroe. He also helped create the Mollicy Project, a 19,000 acre restoration project beside the upper Ouachita River undertaken with his brother Keith, the Director of The Nature Conservancy in Louisiana, and he helped improve the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge.

He now runs “Heartwood” Nature Area in Rocky Branch, a registered natural heritage site wildlife sanctuary beside Bayou D’Arbonne with his wife Amy, also a Louisiana Master Naturalist, children’s book author (Swamper) and an accomplished artist. Amongst other things of interest there, such as a diverse flora including mature bottomland hardwood forest, they have recorded observations of rare dragonflies.

Kelby guiding the Louisiana Master Naturalist Northeast group around Heartwood Natural Area

Kelby has published the six books named below and contributed a range of articles to popular magazines and journals. Kelby’s writing constitutes a popular and important repository of regional knowledge that spans generations.

Flora and Fauna of the Civil War: An Environmental Reference Guide
Iron Branch: A Civil War Tale of a Woman In-Between
Bayou-Diversity: Nature and People in the Louisiana Bayou Country
American Alligator: Ancient Predator in the Modern World
Bayou-Diversity 2: Nature and People in the Louisiana Bayou Country
Natural Words: A Dictionary for Naturalists (with Amy Ouchley) 

I think the Bayou-Diversity books are an excellent way to self-study Louisiana nature, being beautifully eloquent, entertaining and informative. They’re written in nice, digestible chapters that while individually delivering stand-alone satisfaction, collectively portray a fine mosaic of local nature. I’d recommend them to be required reading for all Junior High School students in Louisiana, as knowledge of one’s home environment is fundamentally grounding, the quality of writing is very fine and I think it would inspire a useful sense of pride in the natural heritage of Louisiana.

I also greatly enjoyed Kelby’s book on American alligators after attending his illustrated talk on the creatures at the Union Museum of History and Art and wrote a brief review of American Alligator: Ancient Predator in the Modern World for this blog.

This blog has a focus on wildlife photography and it’s probably fair to say that Ouchley has in some way enabled eight out of ten images of northeastern Louisiana wildlife that I enjoy on Facebook these days!

When we can, my wife and I like to take refuge ourselves in the beauty of Black Bayou Lake and the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuges! When we eventually get a 4-W-D vehicle we’ll enjoy exploring the Mollicy Unit.

So, thank you very much again and congratulations, Kelby Ouchley!