Rob Plowes, an ecologist at UT Austin’s Brackenridge Field Laboratory, chanted, “Thou Shalt Not Kill the Elbow Bush,” as he marched several paces ahead of White Crew on The Old Quarry Trail. Rob, who studies invasive species behavior, gave White Crew (a.k.a The Polar Pack) a quick lesson on plant taxonomy before the crew began its task of removing Nandina, and Chinese and Japanese ligustrum. Testing the crew’s taxonomic skills, Rob asked each member to identify the three invasive species. Satisfied that his pupils knew which species to remove, Rob turned to two plants that resemble the Chinese ligustrum: an elbow bush and a Carolina laurel cherry, which is a relative of wild almonds. Rob proclaimed, “Thou shalt not eat wild almonds,” and in the same tone he repeated the command for the elbow bush. 

As White Crew’s first project, the removal of invasive species at Brackenridge presented several challenges. Despite Rob’s mandate and lesson, White Crew was hesitant to identify and remove Chinese ligustrum, preferring to fell Japanese ligustrum and use weed wrenches against tiny Nandina plants. However, by Wednesday the crew was confident in its knowledge of the Chinese colonizer, which resembles the Lernaean Hydra in its mature form. Hesitant at first, White Crew soon gained confidence in its ability to identify all the three target species.

Inexperience with tools and equipment was another challenge White Crew overcame during its first project. The weed wrench was a novelty to most. Yet, by Monday afternoon Saunders and Jake were wrenching out the tallest of Japanese ligustrum trees. In addition, White Crew was fresh off its chainsaw training hitch. Some were hesitant to wield the saw, but by the end of the week almost every member had the opportunity to sharpen their sawyer skills in the battle against ligustrum (Shout out to Ashleigh for becoming a superstar sawyer). 

The work and Texas heat tested White Crew’s mental and physical toughness. Members struggled with the moral implications and visually upsetting effects of using herbicide and eradicating seemingly innocuous organisms. Some of us said prayers for the plants we removed and talked openly to cope with our reservations. In our battle against nature, we learned how to pace ourselves under the blazing Texas sun, to bring extra food in case someone forgets his or her lunch, to drink lots of water, and to be mindful of one another’s work habits. 

We also grew as a team as we learned more about one another. Mel maintains her bubbliness throughout the day; Carlos is obsessed with dinosaurs; Saunders is a quick-witted storyteller; Jake is always willing to lend a hand; Sage is a magician with bungee cords; Ebony is allergic to hornets (stay away from the hill with ground bees); John can fall asleep next to loud chainsaws; Phoebe is intense; and Ashleigh is a great sawyer. 

White Crew ended its week with a welcome respite at the LBJ Auditorium, where, along with breakfast tacos and coffee, AmeriCorps members in the Austin area, promised, for the twenty-fifth time, “to get things done.”

Indiangrass Wildlife Sanctuary – Burn Prep

Despite having little to no shade from the summer sun, constantly checking for huge ticks, and poison ivy lurking in the brush, Purple Crew completed their first project at Indiangrass Wildlife Sanctuary, ending every day with smiles and laughter. We spent our time there prepping about one acre of land for an upcoming prescribed burn.

The days were filled with chainsawing Ashe juniper trees and hauling brush to the appropriate distance, laying it around live fuel in order to create creeping fires.

Learning about prescribed fires was extremely interesting to me and I gained a new appreciation for all the people involved in the hard work it takes to safely create and maintain these burns. If our crew wasn’t busy with projects and hitches you would most likely catch us in our free time watching the burn!

Stephanie Fox – Conservation & Disaster Crew Member (Purple)

Trail Construction at Lakeline Park

Over two weeks, Red, Blue, and White Crew was able to build a .3 mile trail in a fresh patch of land in Cedar Park, TX, which will soon be called Lakeline Park. The park resides in a residential area of the city, and is administered by the City of Austin. The crew is excited to see foot traffic passing through the trail as pedestrians may divert from the unpaved sidewalk into the park, where they will see a small but active creek as well as some large Live Oaks.

Red Crew began the project by removing invasive species such as Ligustrom, Chinese Tallow, and China Berry throughout the park and applying Garlon 3A and Eraser to low-cut stumps to prevent the species from growing again. This aspect of the project was the most educational for Red Crew, who had limited experience in manually identifying the three invasive species. Now, by identifying leaf patterns, the crew has been more fluent in locating the trees and removing them.

The next part of the project involved the cutting of tread for the short trail. Using McLeods, Loppers, Handsaws, and Pulaskis, members opened up the corridor of the trail to 9 feet in width to allow passersby ample space, with an 8 foot height to prevent branches from hanging near people’s faces. The Pulaskis allowed crew members to remove large roots from the middle of the tread, which posed as tripping hazards for those unaware of the rough terrain.

For quality control, Red Crew removed brush from the trail, aiming to minimize sight lines to brush piles. The crew took good care to minimize the size of brush piles with the use of chainsaws if they were to be easily seen. The crew took several passes over the tread to smooth it out, citing some difficulty with some of the rocky terrain. Naturalization was also a large challenge, as several sites near the trail were dedicated to low-stump cutting invasive species, which covered parts of the trail in saw dust.

Dom Alhambra – Conservation & Disaster Crew Leader (Red)

Who Knew: A Poem from Pace Bend

Who knew I’d find comfort of clouds floating across the sky on sunny days.
Who knew I’d find the shapes of rocks compelling.
Who knew I’d be given the Opportunity of stopping and smelling the “roses”  on such a busy day.
Who knew the best nap of my life would be in a truck bed all sweaty.

Pace Bend knew the secrets of peace and comfort and lead me to them for two wonderful weeks. Thank you Pace Bend.

Nakyshia Fralin – Austin Summer Youth Crew Member (Warbler)

Angelina/Sabine National Forests

From May 6th to May 15th, the Green crew was hard at work in the Pine-forested utopias of The Angelina and Sabine National forests.  Spring floods had left many of the recreational areas of the forests unusable and the summer camping season was fast approaching.  Our primary overall task was to remove downed trees and trash from camping areas and thoroughly clean any campground structures.

Between rampant thunderstorms and driving rain, our crew ran chainsaws through countless tanks of fuel to buck the large pine trees littering campsites into pieces small enough to move.  When enough timber was removed, we were able to come in with tractors, trimmers, and mowers to manicure each individual campsite.  Over the eight days that we spent in the forests, we bounced back and forth between 4 of the major recreation areas and covered more than 500 miles on the road.  All sites that we visited were opened to the public the day we left.

Weather played a major factor during this trip.  Rain was a threat almost every day.  Aside from the satisfaction of working to open public land that we all cared deeply about, this hitch was an unbelievable team building experience.  We received two new members to our crew on the day we left.  Through all of the time spent dodging the rain, sliding through the mud, and sweating it out In the unbelievable humidity, we found solace in each other’s company.  We returned to our Austin base exhausted, but as a smiling and cohesive unit ready to take on the rest of the season.

Jeremy Carson – Conservation & Disaster Crew Leader (Green)

Byers Trailhead

The average adult walks 10,000 steps a day. It may not seem like a lot, but over time that is 70,000 steps a week, 300,000 steps a month, and 3,650,000 steps a year. 3,650,000 steps taken every year of each one of our lives. That’s a lot of shoes to go through in our lifetime, but an even greater amount of dirt that is moved around on the surface of the planet.

This concept means that walking paths are extremely important in conservation efforts. They allow us to experience nature without trampling endangered plants and animals and changing the landscape.

Over time, surfaces like trails can wear away, or if not done correctly can wash away. Recently, Gold crew had the opportunity to help restore 0.013 miles of trail in Byers Trailhead in Austin. Over the week, my crew put in two water bars, seven check steps, two drains and seven box steps. Each of these are important in keeping the trail maintained. Water bars allow water to wash off the sides of the trail without taking sediment away with it. Next, check steps allow water to wash down the trail without moving sediment. Then, drains allow water to move off the trail naturally, so the trail does not erode. Finally, box steps help the trail decline at a lower grade, so hikers feeling like they are walking down steps instead of running down the side of a mountain.

Working on this project was a lot of hard work, but a very rewarding experience to see the end product. The next time you have the chance to walk a trail, take a closer look at it. Even though a trail looks like it was naturally placed there, there was a lot of design behind the scenes in placing and forming it there.

Livy Kelley – Conservation & Disaster Crew (Gold)

Grasslands Round Two : Wet Paint

This was our second time working with LBJ grasslands parks and services, though we were in a new location. Our campground was adjacent to a reservoir, a beautiful site (and, personally, a enjoyable way to cool off on the hot days, though most didn’t partake).

The first day had us working with two of the guys from our last hitch. We removed and replaced an old fee collection box at the entrance to one of the campsites, which included some metal poles, a lot of concrete, and a skid steer. The rest of the hitch looked to be less flashy, with painting as the main task. There were fences, gates, bathrooms, and garage doors that were chipping and losing their luster, along with other tasks such as clearing ash from some fire pits, breaking up others with sledges and picks. There were horse trails in need of some lopping, and leaves to be cleared from a camp, to make it more manageable for mowers to mow. While some finished the fee box, others went to start painting fences.

After Tuesday, we worked solely with Colter, who was stationed in the area. The next few days are a blur. It stormed for half days and full days, with lightning deterring our efforts to lop, and rain making painting quite questionable. During these times, we managed to clear some fire pits and leaves, lop a minor amount of trail, paint a garage, and do our best, if somewhat in vain, to stay dry. After the rain cleared, the days became more normal. Raking and blowing leaves, painting bathrooms, walking horse trail maintaining corridors, and breaking up old pits to be replaced. Breaking up the pits was my favorite task for expending extra energy, and it was satisfying take apart something so sturdy. The delays meant we wouldn’t be able to help with putting the pits in, but just having days that weren’t total washes was appreciated. The rain still had its effects after ending, as the horse trails were largely flooded, with some areas looking like swamps, and certain crossings ending up as rushing streams. The one I encountered would have been unpleasant to cross, but there happened to be a fallen log large enough to safely cross. My crew mates found such rushing waters on the other trails, sometimes able to cross, sometimes forced back the way they came. It was more difficult than if it had been dry, but also beautiful in a way.

A good deal of people seemed to enjoy this land. Throughout our stay, there were always trucks parked at various campsites, with the boats they carried out on the water.  A group of high schoolers came by most evenings to jump into the reservoir from a dam. There were various vehicles and campers that came by, stayed for a while, then went on their way. It was nice to see so many enjoying the park. One night we enjoyed some sightseeing by visiting Paris. Surprisingly it took less than an hour to get there and the Eiffel tower ended up being a lot smaller than expected. The last couple days were purely painting on my end, going from gate to gate. I wish we’d had more good days, but was still a moderately productive, if somewhat relaxed hitch.

James Moriarty – Conservation & Disaster Crew (Silver)