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

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

Texas Conservation Corps at Cooper Lake – Part 3: The Escape

At the time of writing this entry, the Trails Across Texas Crew has spent an entire month of our lives in Cooper Lake State Park. Cooking, eating, cleaning, sleeping, working, etc. In addition to the routine, we’ve survived a tornado and a small fire (don’t ask). We have been frustrated with park staff and each other, as well as failing tools and machinery. We have also felt annoyed by the limbo temporarily imposed upon us by a misinterpretation of the contract responsible for our team’s existence and funding. Before our third and last consecutive spike at Cooper Lake, it seemed like all we had done was put in check-steps to repair a badly eroded horse trail, efforts that seemed futile once April showers turned our labor of love into a mucky mess. We were all a little bitter to be returning after our previous experiences in the park.

We made the journey from Austin to Cooper Lake on April 18th, spending the rest of the day setting up camp and cooking dinner. We woke up in the Buggy Whip Camping Area on the 19th with a new project: cutting tread for four new reroutes. Spirits improved at the thought of creating a trail that was planned to be inherently sustainable, rather than installing trail Band-Aids in the form of check-steps and drains. The week before, our Field Coordinator Erick had flagged a new corridor for the trail reroutes. One sawyer and one swamper cut the large stuff along the corridor with a chainsaw, while the rest of the crew followed behind with a combination of McLeods, picks, and Pulaskis removing material and uncovering our new trail. We then covered up the old dilapidated trail with our cuttings. Despite plenty of pauses and sidetrips to catch our breath, make action plans for felling uncooperative trees, and go on herpetological safaris, we finished the bulk of the eleven day project in three days.

On the 22nd, we awoke to a park and trail saturated from the previous night’s rainstorm. In order to protect the wet trail from our boots and tools, we used this as our half-day. We celebrated Earth Day on the drive home by cheering on our crew leaders as they rescued turtles crossing the road and moved them to truck-free locations.

The following days were dedicated to installing more trail features. Crewleaders David and Layla located anticipated problem areas where topography and soil type suggested a likelihood of erosion. The crew responded by installing check-steps and check-dams, waterbars, and turnpikes. Each of these structures created a more burly, sustainable trail through the clever use of rocks, timber, and shaping and compaction with hand tools.

The final night in camp, it seemed as though hundreds of fathers and children descended upon our campsite ring. It turns out that in the morning, the park was hosting a children’s fishing competition. Tents popped up everywhere complete with screaming and running children, adding a claustrophobic feeling we had yet to experience in our home away from home. In any other moment, I would be extremely annoyed with all of the activity and noise that kept me awake and distracted from the following days’ work. I took a moment to stop being selfish and realized that this park, which I associated with unpleasant weather and redundant work, was actually where a lot of people escaped.

This was a place for children to run around without the fear of city streets and strangers. It was a place where parents might turn their phones off and where groups of old friends planned their annual motorcycle ride/fishing trip. The trail that we maintained might be one of the most accessible and safe equestrian trails in the area for rookie riders in a state with very little public land. With this thought, our month spent in Cooper Lake immediately meant a lot more. With our low cost and our high motivation to constantly get the job done in spite of the conditions, Texas Conservation Corps members make public land in Texas a more viable cause. Texas Parks and Wildlife is an organization still recovering from natural disasters such as widespread wildfire and drought, as well as fighting the occasional political battle to secure the state funding that maintains basic operations. The work that our Trails Across Texas team provides may free up labor and financial resources for higher priority initiatives. I am convinced that the Texas Conservation Corps helps State Parks use quiet places to connect people to natural resources, and that our work is worthwhile beyond the enjoyment and growth I receive from it. These thoughts helped me tune out the other groups sharing our campsite long enough to fall asleep.

The next day, we put some finishing touches on the trail, packed up our trailer and van, and headed back to Austin. TAT left two days earlier than planned in anticipation of a storm and potential F5 tornado. After a short weekend, we made up these missed work days with local projects, split between a saw project in McKinney Falls State Park and a wet masonry project at Reimers Ranch. Next Stop: Martin Dies, Jr. State Park.

Andrew Spurlin, Trails Across Texas Crew Member

Texas Conservation Corps Goes to the Davis Mountains and Encounters Nocturnal Spirit of Darkness and Hate

“Get out of here! Go away. GO. AWAY.”

Headlamps flicked on sporadically, and bobbed out of their tents.  A handful of strained voices, containing equal parts anger and exhaustion, pierced through the quiet of the cool evening.

“Oh my God. Is it a- he was in my rainfly!”

“Are you alright!?”

“(Expletive)!”

“It’s the skunk. He’s back. It’s him,” called one voice, arriving at the point. “GO AWAY,” the voice continued, sternly. This command was followed moments later by the clattering of rocks.

We had been haunted for several nights by this foul specter, grim and pale-faced and terrible. It was bold and crafty, and carried with it the menacing payload of stank.  This malevolent being would sneak into tent vestibules with the cool assurance of a seasoned scavenger. Lurking was its business. And business was good.

This well-honed dagger of the night was the product of months, perhaps years of poor Leave No Trace ethics, and it paid us nightly visits. And yet, through some bizarre twist of circumstances, it adhered to the very doctrine whose poor execution had made it so bold. Never did it take food (In truth, we left little for the taking), nor did it leave behind any hint of its presence after it was gone. It just… stared.

And now, after many sleepless nights spent in suspense, under the veil of creeping, lingering, fear, the crew had had enough. Rocks cascaded blindly towards the empty creekbed into which our intruder had slipped. Accompanied by vulgar challenges and primal cries, the stones rained for what felt like hours but could have only been seconds, each of which was pregnant with the threat of smelly counter-fire.

We never did see that skunk again, after that night. Perhaps our retaliation scared it off. Maybe the devil found a new campsite upon which to inflict his unique brand of terror.  Or, could be he found himself on the wrong side of (that’d be underneath) a passing semi on dusty TX-118.

But I don’t think any of those things. I think he just got smarter. I think he stopped getting caught. I think he’ll keep staring until he finds whatever it is he’s looking for and, sated, will slip quietly, unseen, back into the darkness.

Matt Lore, Trails Across Texas Crew Member

Texas Conservation Corps at the Bastrop Wildfire Academy

The Firefighter Training & Introduction to Wildland Fire Behavior (S130/190) course conducted by the Capital Area Interagency Wildfire & Incident Management Academy was an extremely rewarding experience. Myself along with 9 other members of the Texas Conservation Corps were provided the opportunity to learn about the expanding world of wildland firefighting. Our instructors- Larry Weaver, Willie Mcinnes and Mark Elliot—are experienced professionals who used hands-on experiences to teach us.  During the first few days, we learned about the most important factors of predicting fire behavior and how conditions on a fire can change from minute to minute and hour to hour. Even though there were a lot of technical aspects of fire behavior analysis our instructors taught us practical skills, such as using a sling psychrometer to measure relative humidity, and how Relative Humidity affects the fire’s fuel and burn behavior.  Each day built on the previous day’s knowledge and we were challenged to think critically about how fire behavior adapts, not only with weather conditions, but also due to the terrain. Depending on where a fire starts, we learned about how natural geographic features, such as box canyons, saddle backs and other terrain elements can accelerate the fire’s spread and intensity. Our instructor’s taught us fire vocabulary but also to use natural barriers within an environment (such as roads, waterways, and rocky areas) as anchor points to fight fire. I can hear our instructors now: “work smarter not harder!”

When we transitioned to the fire fighting portion of our course (S190) we simulated a fire camp and were able to participate in the construction of a fire line and a prescribed burn. You know the saying, “you don’t fight fire with fire?” Well, in wildland fire fighting this just isn’t true. In the classroom we learned that fire creates its own weather conditions, but in the field we were able to see how setting a fire within the constructed fireline can use the convective properties of fire—drawing it to itself—and how this actually extinguishes the fire. The fireline construction, fuel reduction and “mop up” were the most exciting aspects of the course. In our Nomex suites and full protective gear we constructed a fire line using the one-lick method. Each person, wielding a different tool, scratched out a small portion of the fire line until the line is down to mineral soil. Working with my fellow classmates, I could sense the camaraderie that develops on a fire crew. As we walked, each one of us pointed to widow makers and stump holes, preventing the crew from slowing down and ensuring each member’s safety. Once the fireline was complete, the instructors allowed me to light a fusee to begin the fire. Once the fire was going we could observe fire behavior and use the tactics learned in the classroom to extinguish the fire by drawing it to itself and eliminating unburnt fuel. The S130/S190 course was an exciting and extremely engaging experience with which to end my year.

LaJuan D. Tucker, SLA Crew Leader 

Texas Conservation Corps – It Will Change You!

A year ago, I was sitting in a cubicle in Washington DC. My days were spent filling out excel sheets, pinging emails back and forth, and periodically checking ESPN for the latest NFL injury reports. The fantasy football season was in full tilt.

Although I couldn’t always explain why, for most of my childhood and into my adulthood, I had intended to join the military. What I wanted all along, I learned to realize, was a career with a pace that would keep me engaged and challenged, filled with excitement and opportunity. The armed forces seemed tailor made for me. In my junior year of college, however, I learned that I was ineligible for service.  And so, just like that, I found myself in a cubicle instead.

In between the routine I described above, I checked USA Jobs constantly, trying to find something exciting- a career that I could really love. I stared enviously at the postings I found there. Sometimes I applied. I looked at jobs which had exciting words like “Helitack”, or more mundane ones like “Handcrew” in their descriptions. And of course, the most desirable postings of them all were those which ended with the word “Smokejumper” in parenthesis. But no matter what they called themselves, all of those postings represented something I wanted. The first step, the last step, or somewhere in between along a career path I had imagined for myself, somewhere down the road.

Wishes notwithstanding, I was laughably unqualified. I wracked my brain searching for ways to get the experience I needed.

And then I found out about the conservation corps world. I had friends from Texas, and I knew it was an area which was under constant threat of wildfire. I applied for all of the Texas Conservation Corps positions, hoping that I’d get accepted and once there, learn practical skills and the value of hard work in unforgiving heat. And maybe, just maybe, find a way to get my foot in the door with a job I day dreamed about.

I’m not in DC anymore. I’ve forgotten how to navigate the Excel taskbar and learned how to operate a chainsaw. My experience to date has been more rewarding in more ways than I ever could have imagined. I’m excited to have gotten that chance to put my foot in that door, and open up a world of opportunities which thus far has remained off-limits to me.

Matt Lore, Field Crew Member

Texas Conservation Corps – Finally in the Field

Texas Conservation Corps, what can I say about this program? I have been involved with it for only a short two weeks but man this has already been the longest two weeks of my life! Don’t get me wrong, I have loved every minute of it, at least mostly every minute, but I have learned more in these past two weeks than I honestly ever have. Everything I’ve ever known was from behind a desk or in a book, but TxCC has taught me so much more than that. It’s taught me how to listen, not just hear the words that are being spoken to me but to fully comprehend and absorb the material that is being transfered to me. The biggest lesson I would have to say I learned myself would be that we, the members and leaders of TxCC, are not individuals but instead a whole. I’ve only been in the program two weeks but I have started to develop bonds with my fellow members that I find incredible in this short of time. TxCC may give me learning skills and the best body I’ve ever had in my life, but the best thing it has to offer is the family it created.

Signed (your fellow TxCC member)

Julia Breslow, Field Crew