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

Texas Conservation Corps Takes Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge ( or: Yaupon, More Like no-pon!)

Day 1: Lean Mean Green Bean Machine (LMGBM) arrives at Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, armed with chainsaws, backpack sprayers, loppers, brushcutters, and the drive to save the critically endangered Attwater Prairie Chicken. The habitat of these unique birds is also endangered. Once stretching from Louisiana to Texas, the coastal prairie habitat is now reduced to less than 1% of its original grandeur.

 

Day 2: Waking up before the sunrise, LMGBM prepares for their first full day of work on the prairie. After receiving some lore about the prairie chicken and the reserve itself, we venture out onto the prairie with brushcutters in hand to begin removing the native but invasive shrubby species that enable birds of prey to have an unnatural advantage against the prairie chicken.

 

Day 3: LMGBM brings out the big guns (chainsaws) to more efficiently combat the invasive yaupon and baccharis species. After an extremely productive chainsaw morning, we break for a well deserved lunch and get back to the daily grind of saving critically endangered species.

 

Day 4: Prairie chickens sited! On a foggy, ominous morning, our spirits were low but expectations of prairie chicken sightings were high. These majestic creatures are keen on practicing their mating dance, called “booming,” on days such as this because they are less easily spotted by predators. With orange air sacs inflated, ear feathers up, feet stomping, and mating calls echoing across the prairie, about ten males and females dramatically emerged from the fog to display their dance for us.

 

Day 5: After the prairie chicken siting, we have renewed enthusiasm and vigor for destroying yaupon. LMGBM also start showing signs of reverting to a more primitive state. We have forgotten the sounds of the city and hustle and bustle of metropolitan life. We have only one thing on our minds: saving the Attwater Prairie Chicken.

 

Day 6: LMGBM makes a brief return to civilization (and Mexican food). While fueling up on chips and salsa, tacos, and enchiladas, we hear rumors of the infamous Prairie Joe, a local enigma who lives off the unforgiving prairie. Many and more mysteries are solved.

 

Day 7: Our chainsaw and herbicide application skills have dramatically improved. This stuff is now second nature. We realize we were born to do this work.

 

Day 8: Compared to P-Day (Prairie arrival day), we are seeing the fruits of our labor across many acres of prairie. Where there was once yaupon dotting the horizon, there is now only fair and native grasses blowing gently in the breeze, providing an ideal home for the prairie chicken.

 

Day 9: Evidence of Prairie Joe found. Perhaps we are not alone.

 

Day 10: Last full day of work. We feast on a delicious potluck prepared by our gracious hosts at the reserve. With very full bellies, we return triumphantly to our last afternoon of destruction. Dedication blazes in the eyes of every LMGBM member as we work late to leave our final positive impact on the land. Yaupon is no match for the LMBGM.

 

Day 11: We return to TxCC (Snake Farm), victorious and closer than ever as a crew/family. We have conquered 370 acres of prairie, enabling the majestic Attwater Prairie Chicken to live and boom on in their restored natural habitat for years to come. You can put that on yo’ toast.

Ariana Lisefski, Field Crew Member