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
Y’all can call me Flo, also to be known as the commentator affiliated with the wonderful team which is Purple Crew. So far during these last 12 days we have seen 9 total members and 2 crew leads by the name of Nate and Molly. We have expanded and shrunk in anticipation and we closed the third week knowing what our crew would look like for the rest of the year.
Throughout it all we had constant progress from the start: being a shakey, confused, less efficient group of individuals to a team that eventually had our flow so down pat that we fed off our energy, our movements mimicking a water fall. Our project encompassed planting (just shy of) 20,000 lost pines with our amazing sponsors at Treefolks by the names of Matt Mears and Paul Schuman in Bastrop, TX. These gentlemen facilitated as we planted exactly 19,038 trees in 32.83 acres over residential areas devastated by fire.
With an average of 1586.5 trees per day we were rocking and a-rolling with high hopes and good spirits on our first project. Of course, with this being our first scenario coming together as a team we had a few concerns for our future voyages and worries about goals still left to accomplish. But the opportunity to interact with the community there in Bastrop settled our nerves as we recognized how grateful and welcoming our work was in the community. Through this experience I feel as if we were pumped up enough to conquer anything handed our way. Our attitude will remain unyielding as we push through increasingly difficult trials that will ultimately merge us all. We will continue to be fueled by the basis of a better tomorrow for our generation and for those in the future.
With steep goals and aspirations we hope to gain the choice to never have to go back to a desk job, to become self-sufficient, to build ourselves mentally and physically, and most importantly, to lift up our fellow comrade in a true test of working outside of your comfort box while also simultaneously being able to freely communicate within a group.
We know our crew leads are here to put everything out on the line for these projects and we are preparing to step up to the plate and exceed expectations. We are ready. We are strong. We are one.
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.
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.
We carried our weapons on our backs. The sprayers with three gallons of herbicide (Roundup Pro, Garlon 4, and Habitat) weighed us down, but lightened as we showered the brightly dyed chemicals onto leaves that would then drip with the hot pink or aquamarine blue liquid. For over a week we’d hunted down the many invasive plants that have insidiously infiltrated Mississippi’s Gulf Islands National Seashore. Our hope was that the negative cost of using herbicides would be outweighed by the positive results of protecting fragile wetlands from destructive exotic plants. We’d looked in low marshes for thick patches of torpedo grass, gazed through dense brush for the sneaky curls of drooping honeysuckle vine, and peered up over the canopy for the pale, heart leaves of Chinese tallow. These plants reproduce so quickly they choke out diverse ecosystems and threaten the survival of native plant and animal species. Our hope was that by spraying potentially harmful chemicals we could mitigate the damage our unknowing society had caused by introducing these foreign plants.
As with every work hitch the terrain challenged us in unique ways. The harsh, burning rays of direct sun, the poison ivy, and thorny briars we had encountered before, but the marshlands offered up a new challenge. Mud. Very stinky mud. Each day there were casualties on our crew. We sacrificed dry, clean-ish clothes to the methane, smelly muck. Curtis, our undaunted leader, fell during our first foray into the marshes. After facing down an overfriendly alligator used to yummy handouts from visitors, he reached out to steady a crew member and in the process he himself ended up sideways in the mud. The next day Seth – always a “Johnny-on-the-spot” – sludged around the edges of a pond until a hidden deep spot engulfed him up to his chest and filled up his rubber waders with murky water.
Our relief from the marshes came on the couple days that the winds calmed and our helpful National Park Service guides, Gary and Jeff, took us out to the barrier islands: Sand, Horn, Petit Bois (pronounced “petty boy”) and both West and East Ship Islands. Riding in the boat, feeling the spray of saltwater, and seeing dolphins play in the waves rejuvenated our spirits. On the islands we scrambled over sand dunes with our backpack sprayers until we came across nearly impenetrable stands of tall reeds called phragmites, which we then attacked with herbicide.
As the week wore on it dawned on the crew that this Sisyphean fight against invasives meant we played a small, short-term role. We could see where Chinese tallow trees had been cut just a couple years before and the dry, brown poles of previously treated phragmites. Now they’d returned with a vengeance. With every vehicle carrying exotic seeds into the park and with every hurricane creating sunny opportunities for dormant weeds to spring up our hard efforts would come undone. We needed to trust future conservationists to carry on the work and continue to fight against each fresh wave of harmful sprouts or perhaps find new solutions to the problem.
For me the words of the prominent conservationist, Aldo Leopold, offer encouragement: “We shall never achieve harmony with land, any more than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve, but to strive.” AmeriCorps members strive. While each of us strives for social justice and freedom, there is that quirky branch made up of Conservation Corps that strives for harmony with our rich and beautiful land. This ragtag group of members consists of types who judge the day’s productivity by the amount of sweat and dirt caked onto their pants, who take humble responsibility for the wounds their society inflicts on the environment, and who have a tendency to romanticize their work as guardians of the wilds.
Goose Island is a relatively small State Park near the town of Rockport, TX. The park is thickly vegetated – filled with Coastal Live Oaks, Youpon Holly, Mustang Grape, and Greenbriar. Like most upland coastal habitat in South Texas the area is an overgrown remnant of coastal savannah. When fire was common there, it was able to keep the vegetation down and maintain the cover of grasses and interspersed Oak trees. After western civilization moved in, we suppressed the fire (due to the ostensible danger of letting fires run rampant in a developed land) and the understory vegetation was able to crowd out the grasses. Left unchecked, the vines are able to creep up and eventually bring down even the oldest of Oak trees. There are still many left, but even those are slowly succumbing to the sheer weight of vegetation ever present upon them
Arborculture aside the thick mass of vegetation also presents a tremendous fuel load. Replicating the mistakes of western civilization across North America, in suppressing the naturally occurring fire cycle we increased the damage potential of a catastrophic fire exponentially. While not a new concept, it is a notion that has moved to the forefront of every resource and park manager’s mind after the colossal Bastrop County Complex Fire in 2011 which destroyed over 1600 homes and much of Bastrop State Park itself. It is not economically feasible to fix the vegetation problem entirely in Goose Island, as the fuel load is so great that it would be much too dangerous to burn and would have to be removed mechanically. It is, however, feasible to mitigate the spread of such a fire by implementing fuel breaks to slow the rate of spread. Which is where we come in.
Texas Conservation Corps was contracted to construct several thousand feet of fire break around the park, protecting campsites and structures. The breaks were 30 feet wide, and herbicide was applied to slow the eventual regrowth of the understory. Oak trees were also left as an implementation of a shaded fuel break. The going was slow, mechanically removing thick vegetation is a difficult process. But after 2 11 day spikes trips and over 160 hours of work the crew was able to construct fireline around most of the park’s “Lantana Loop” (the most thickly vegetated camping area) as well as both park restrooms and some of the park residence. With the work completed the crew and park were both able to rest easier knowing that the work they had done might save lives some day.