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Ecotourism benefits touted for Miss-Lou

VIDALIA — Skip Hawkins thinks Miss-Lou residents are missing out on tourism opportunities in their backyard.

Hawkins, Tensas Bank chief executive officer, spoke to the Concordia Chamber of Commerce Tuesday, urging those present to become eco-tourists.

“Eco-tourism is hiking or paddling or bird-watching; it’s taking advantage of the multitude of opportunities that we have in this area,” he said. “One of my missions is to do eco-tourism and promote it in the local economy.”

Hawkins efforts are part of a larger effort by the LSU AgCenter and the Walton Family Foundation. The foundation has funded projects from Memphis, Tenn., to Concordia Parish to showcase outdoor tourism opportunities.

Hawkins’ speech focused on kayaking and canoeing.

“When I first Googled paddling, I got only got two or three hits in the entire state,” he said. “Not a single location or trail or put-in or landing was north of Vidalia or east of Monroe. There are a multitude of rivers and lakes in this area, but low awareness.”

Hawkins referenced multiple wildlife refuges in the area as opportunities for eco-tourism. He said the refuges are under-utilized and mostly frequented by hunters.

“For example, Tensas National Wildlife Refuge, other than a few kids programs, they just don’t bring people in,” he said.

Bob Strader, refuge manager of St. Catherine Creek and Bayou Cocodrie National Wildlife Refuges, said he agrees with Hawkins.

“St. Catherine Creek gets about 20,000 visitors per year,” he said. “About 75 percent are hunters and fisherman. We would like to get it to about 50 percent, where 50 percent are tourists.”

Because Bayou Cocodrie is bottomland hardwood, it is an untapped resource for bird watching he said.

Bayou Cocodrie is Hawkins’ next project. He is working with Strader to develop 10 or more hiking and canoeing trails.

Executive Director of the Concordia Chamber of Commerce Jamie Wiley said she envisions mothers touring antebellum homes while fathers and sons kayak.

But Hawkins’ goal isn’t only focusing on tourism. He also suggested that Miss-Lou residents begin kayaking and canoeing.

“People see you in a kayak and think you are really exerting yourself, but it is really a wonderful craft and not difficult,” he said. “I’d like to bring it to a point where businesses here could get into rental and outfitting opportunities.”