Texas Conservation Corps Returns to Lake Amistad

AmeriCorps members from the Texas Conservation Corps program frequently help the National Park Service and their Exotic Plant Management Team in their quest to keep invasive species from dominating the landscape in our National Parks.  Here is the story from our recent trip to Lake Amistad.

The sky was dark and the wind howled as we, the red crew, loaded into our trusty AmeriCorps van and returned to the West Texas desert at Lake Amistad National Recreation Area, near Del Rio, Texas.  Here we would once again take up arms against a formidable enemy, giant cane (Arundo donax). Arundo, much like its look-a-like bamboo, is a tall rigid cane that is native to the Mediterranean, eastern and southeastern Asia. The plant was originally brought to the United States in the early 1800s for roofing material and as a form of erosion control but quickly spread across the south via ornamental yard plantings and the natural seed dispersal that followed. Arundo is also one of the fastest growing terrestrial plants in the world, able to grow nearly four inches a day under ideal conditions, which enables it to out shade native plant species. And unfortunately arundo does not serve as a food source or good nesting habitat for wildlife, thus resulting in vast swaths of low quality habitat in this desert landscape.

Our team’s weapons of choice for this epic battle were chainsaws, loppers, and brush cutters, which allowed us to cut the fiendish grass as low to the ground as possible. Our project partner, Pat Wharton of the National Park Service’s Exotic Plant Management Team (EPMT), will follow up to remove the young arundo shoots which will reappear in the coming months. According to Pat, that 1-2 punch has been the winning combination that has resulted in about an 80% reduction of arundo in the Rio Grande canyons were we were working.

Having (for the moment) defeated one invasive species, the fight quickly moved to the eradication of two other highly invasive species, tree tobacco (Nicotiana glauca) and salt cedar (Tamarix spp.). Our new target site was along the banks of Lake Amistad, a reservoir that is split between the United States and Mexico; the name symbolizing friendship between our two countries.  Moving ever forward, we set to work chain sawing and lopping the out-of-place plants. Within several days we had cleared the entire area of tree tobacco and all of the larger salt cedar trees. As the brief moment of Texas summer returned to winter, our AmeriCorps team left the park ready for its own return to its original state, as high quality Rio Grande floodplain habitat on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert.

 

Will Miedema, AmeriCorps Emergency Response Team Crew Member, Texas Conservation Corps

The Season Begins at Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge

The Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge is a beautiful expanse of land in Central Texas, home to several species of endangered birds. It features rolling hills of Ashe-juniper and oaks with shallow water lolling in rocky river beds that cut through the landscape. Our newly formed crew of seven was anxious to find out what our first project would be out in this densely forested wilderness. Upon meeting our project partner, Eric, however, we were to discover that our new project would not actually be on the National Wildlife Refuge, but rather on adjacent private land. Eric, an imposingly built “C” sawyer with a demeanor akin to Owen Wilson, explained that our first project would be “fire-wising” a new property. Outside of the refuge, the rolling hills continued with the addition of a speckling of spacious mansions popping up right out of the cedar. On one of these hills, right up the road from the housing complex graciously bestowed with the name “The Bluffs at the Hollows”, we pulled up in our duct-tape decorated van and trailer to begin our first project.

Fire-wising a property or tract of land is performed in order to prevent future fires from becoming the kind of raging hell beasts that burn hot and fast and scorch both homes and the environment. It often utilizes controlled burning to mimic the kind of fires that might naturally occur and prevent extreme damages from future fires started of natural causes or otherwise. Our task didn’t involve flame-throwers, but rather chainsaws as we set out to clear the undergrowth and limbs of Ashe-juniper and oak that fell below the six-foot mark. This was to prevent the fire from having a sort of ladder by which to engulf the entire tree and spread to other trees nearby. While at first it felt strange to many of us to be working for an individual person, the benefit of fire-wising this one property would not solely fall to this one man, but rather the entire community and surrounding lands. It would serve as an example to the neighborhood of a way to prevent all-encompassing wild fires from occurring, presented in a bird-friendly and aesthetically appealing package.

Our second day once again took us to a dense patch of trees, this time almost exclusively shin oak, and into the hands of a wildlife biologist and his black-capped vireo. The black-capped vireo, currently living it up in Mexico, is quite the prima donna for such a small, endangered bird. The shin oak in which it nests must be thick, but not too thick. It must include plenty of open areas within the woods, called open-oak shinneries. The shin oak woodlands must additionally be of a certain height and age. Our job that day, trading in one particular boss for another, would be to prepare señor black-cap’s house for his return from Mexico. More exactly, on that overcast Tuesday, we would be creating these open-oak shinneries that the black-capped vireo loves so much. These would-be quiet, peaceful havens for the little bird were anything but quiet in their creation. Our chainsaws thrummed steadily as we cut our way through shin-oak growing so thickly together that it was nearly impossible to clear out what was already cut. Instead, we tromped across the fallen timber in our pursuit to hack and slash down yet more in a circle that was to measure approximately 22 meters in diameter. The thought does cross the mind as one hacks through endlessly dense gnarled shin-oak that maybe a little more flexibility on the vireo’s part might have kept him off of the endangered species list in the first place. After an area had been chain-sawed into submission, we came in with a blue-tinted “poison” to cover the open wounds of our target trees before they had a chance to heal.

In a week that was anything but straightforward, we discovered that conservation work isn’t the pretty tree-hugging picture many might imagine it to be, rather it sometimes more accurately resembles an episode of Dexter. On this, our first hitch, we learned a lot about the idiosyncrasies of our chainsaws, about the natural world, and about each other.  I, for one, am excited to see what other challenges to previously formed thoughts the rest of the year will bring.

Laurie Cale, ERT Crew Member