Texas Conservation Corps at the Balcones Canyonlands NWR

Red Crew began its journey together, out in the thick of Ashe Juniper trees, working with the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge’s main priority is to help reestablish a habitat for two endangered song birds: the black-capped vireo and the golden-cheeked warbler. They also host a wildland fire crew which provides support through prescribed burning, and fire mitigation in the refugee and surrounding towns.

Not far off the refuge in Jonestown, Texas, there was an area of overgrown Ashe Juniper and dead oak trees. Eric, from the fire crew on the refuge, needed to institute a shaded fuel break in this area. A shaded fuel break is an area of trees that has the smaller trees and lower limbs trimmed and cut to eliminate the ladder fuels (fuels that bring fire from the ground up into the canopy). With the lower fuels gone, and the canopy providing shade, low shrubs and grasses will grow slower and greener and slow fire down if it should ever attempt to enter. We got out our chainsaws and got to work and after a few days of limbing, bucking, a little bit of felling, we finally chipping it all up with the monstrous wood chipper and the area was now more prepared in case of fire.

After helping with fire mitigation, we got to see another side of fire and learn about how it affects different environments. The refuge was doing a small maintenance burn (about 20 acres) and invited us in for a learning experience to see how the crew planned, briefed and performed the burn. We first sat in on their briefing, and then followed up by watching (from afar) them burn the area. It can be surprising on how fast 20 acres can burn with the correct planning and execution. It was a great experience and turned one of our many cold days into a warm one.

Our second week followed with more fire maintenance on the refuge and helping clean the area up. However we also got to work with the biologist at the refuge, Scott. Scott provided some insight on the birds and refuge. We then worked with him in an area by decreasing the shrub percentage for a better habitat for the birds. We did this by trimming it down, and then using herbicide so that it won’t grow back.

Our project came to an end, and it was a great learning hitch for us. We all thoroughly enjoyed the lessons on fire from Eric, and learning more about the birds from Scott. It was also a big learning experience on how we will work as a crew. We all appreciated the experience, and are looking forward to our next project!

Ian Slingsby, ERT Crew Member

Texas Conservation Corps and Texas A&M – Partners in Pines

It’s 10 AM on a weekend and hundreds of Texas A&M University students are gathered together under a group of  blackened pine trees in a winter woodland silenced a year ago by wildfire.  And they were about to add a bit of spring to this important forest. Over two weekends (February 16 & 17 and 23 & 24)  8,800 drought resistant loblolly pine saplings were planted in the rocky, difficult soils of Bastrop State Park. The six hundred Aggie volunteers were lead by Texas A&M Forest Service, Bastrop State Park Staff, and yours truly – the Texas Conservation Corps.

After a damaging fire in Bastrop in 2011, the park needs help with becoming green again. Some areas in the park were so hot during the fire that saplings are not appearing on their own – and that’s where this group comes in.  On this weekend, an organized team came through with a mission: rebuild this forest.  The overall goal for the next five years is to plant 1,000,000 saplings in this once and future forest.  Nothing is impossible, especially when people come together through weekends like this.

Looking forward twenty years from now, a fine looking forest is on the horizon at Bastrop State Park- all thanks to the men and women that tirelessly put time into this space.  And that deserves an Aggie Whoop!

Joel D’Angelo, Field Crew Member

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