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On Sheldon’s Ponds

Opportunities for education and recreation abound at newly refurbished Sheldon Lake state park — only 13 miles from downtown Houston.

By Bill Dawson / Photography by Earl Nottingham

About 13 miles northeast of downtown Houston’s towering skyscrapers, Sheldon Lake State Park is located on a site that has undergone numerous transformations over the past six decades. Undeveloped land on the eve of World War II, it became a 1,200-acre reservoir feeding wartime industries, then a municipal water supply, then a state wildlife management area with waterfowl refuge and fish hatchery, and finally the wooded, marshy and pond-dotted park of today.

Although situated in a rapidly urbanizing part of Harris County near a number of industrial plants, the 2,800-acre park is a haven for wildlife such as alligators, deer, coyotes, bobcats and a profusion of bird species including ducks, geese, herons, egrets and sometimes bald eagles and osprey. It’s an enclave of nature that seems much farther from the center of the state’s largest city than it actually is.

The latest transformation at the property, which is still unfolding, involves a multimillion-dollar project that is significantly expanding and upgrading the Environ-mental Learning Center established at the park in 1998. It was launched to serve Houston-area students, particularly disadvantaged and inner-city children with little, if any, exposure to outdoors activities in such natural settings. Supporters of the center intend it to be a model for similar facilities serving other Texas cities.

“If we can do it here, I know we can do it in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and the San Antonio area and in other parts of the state — acquainting and reacquainting kids with the outdoors,” says Al Henry, a Houston resident who became the leading supporter of the Sheldon Lake center during his just-ending six-year tenure as a member of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission.

Henry, the first African-American ever to serve on the commission, grew up in Houston’s historic Fifth Ward, a neighborhood near downtown that was settled by freedmen in the 19th century. He recalled that when then-Gov. George W. Bush appointed him to the commission in 1999, “He asked me to use my background to make sure that all Texans benefit, and particularly to attend to the needs of urban youth who have so little contact with the outdoors.”

His personal history had prepared Henry to take the admonition to heart. He grew up in an inner-city neighborhood, but participated in hunting, fishing and other nature-related activities during regular rural visits, which left him with an enduring appreciation for outdoor life. Beginning in the 1960s, however, and accelerating through the 1980s, he noticed that various social trends — rural relatives moving to cities, for instance — meant fewer and fewer inner-city young people got such opportunities.

“Kids today have very little familiarity with the outdoors, and this is particularly true of urban kids and especially inner city kids,” he says. “They know little about the problems of air and water pollution, the land and natural resources, the cultural resources of Texas, of their own families or their own areas.”

His observation chimed with recommendations in recent years by university researchers. A 1998 study at Texas A&M pointed to the crucial importance of expanding outdoor opportunities for urban youth and the state’s expanding ethnic populations. In a 2001 study, “Texas Parks and Wildlife for the 21st Century,” Texas Tech researchers likewise identified “the need to increase parks and green space in and around Texas’ urban areas.”

When Henry joined the commission, two former commissioners from Houston, Terry Hershey and John Kelsey, told him that Sheldon Lake’s new Environmental Learning Center would be a great place for him to focus his attention as he sought to address these issues.

“I was not familiar with Sheldon Lake State Park,” he says. “I had heard of it but had never been there. I went to visit, and I was not only impressed but was amazed that something that significant was so close to downtown Houston and so many people didn’t know anything about it.”

The site, which had been managed as a state wildlife management area since the 1950s, was reclassified as a state park in 1984. However, with no traditional park facilities for activities such as picnicking and camping, the park for several years mainly continued to serve its earlier public function as a popular fishing spot. Then members of the park staff hit upon the idea of trying to create a center for environmental education there.

“The staff here saw a need to provide an education resource,” says Robert Comstock, superintendent of the park since its founding 20 years ago. “The educational community was hungry for a facility like this. Other nature centers in the area are booked solid in February.”

One Houston educator, Angie Nobles, can attest to the need that was served by the center when it began operating in 1998, and to its popularity with students and teachers alike. Nobles is a counselor at Travis Elementary, an economically and ethnically diverse school located in one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. She brought children to the Sheldon Lake center when she was a third grade teacher at Travis. “It’s a wonderful hands-on experience for kids,” she says. “It’s amazing how many had never gone fishing before. They also went wading in the water with containers, taking pond samples for microscopic study. It ties into the state curriculum, and it’s just 30 minutes from our school.”

On one visit, Nobles’ students released a baby alligator — “and of course the kids named it Travis,” she says. Another time, even rainy weather failed to dampen the enthusiasm of the volunteer instructors. Under shelter, they engaged the students with impromptu activities including an examination of animal skeletons.

One key early backer of the park staff’s concept for an Environmental Learning Center was Hershey, a longtime conservation leader and park advocate in Houston. She, in turn, interested Ann Hamilton, a grant officer at Houston Endowment, a leading philanthropy.

“The first time I saw (Sheldon Lake) I was absolutely captivated,” Hamilton says. “It’s so unique and incredibly beautiful, for being in what’s practically a brown field, an area with industry all around it. To have something that could be turned into a learning opportunity, it just needed an infusion.”

That infusion came in the form of an initial $200,000 grant from Houston Endowment in 1994 to get the environmental education project going. Including three other grants since then, the philanthropy has now donated a total of $1.9 million toward the project.

The biggest single boost came in 2001, when Texas voters approved Proposition 8, one of 19 constitutional amendments that authorized as much as $850 million in bonds for 13 agencies including Texas Parks and Wildlife. Pending required legislative authorization, TPWD’s total is expected to be $101.5 million. Earmarked for construction and repair projects, that amount includes $2.58 million that lawmakers approved for the project that has been ongoing in recent months at Sheldon Lake.

This construction is expected to be complete in time for use by school groups by early spring of 2005, allowing the Environmental Learning Center to accommodate more than double the 7,500 students that already have been visiting the facility annually. With a total budget of about $5.8 million, it represents just the first phase of a two-step plan. A group of community leaders, including Henry and other current and former Parks and Wildlife commissioners, is seeking private donations for additional improvements that would constitute a $9.6 million Phase 2. This campaign is in collaboration with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation, TPWD’s designated nonprofit funding partner.

The Phase 1 work, which will multiply and diversify opportunities for learning experiences at the park, is concentrated around the 28 old fishery ponds. The intention was to convert the modest facilities already in use into a giant outdoor classroom, complete with habitat enhancements. Phase 2 would add an education and visitor center, “tree-top” cabins and other camping facilities, plus additional trails and habitat restoration.

Completion of Phase 1 means the first stop for visiting students will be the Pond Center, a 4,600-square-foot open-air pavilion. The center, a renovation of the former fish hatchery headquarters, will provide an initial orientation spot (as well as a larger rainy-day instruction setting) for up to 100 people at a time.

Another Phase 1 facility is the Pond Plaza, comprising 15,000 square feet of landscaped areas with a new observation deck big enough for an entire classroom. It’s also the embarkation point for a network of renovated trails that are being built to be accessible for individuals with disabilities.

The trails lead through the centerpiece of the first phase work, which is a cluster of four Pond Learning Stations. Here, students will engage in a variety of participatory activities focused on the park’s pond ecosystem.

The first two Pond Stations are Aquatic Lab 1, a covered deck, and Aquatic Lab 2, an open deck, located in the middle of different ponds. These are the places where students will collect water samples for microscopic study. The design allows ambulatory children to walk into water about six inches deep while they scoop up their samples. Children in wheelchairs will use a special ramp that allows them to park in water a couple of inches deep.

The third station is known as Pond Crossing — a connected boardwalk and outdoor classroom built across another pond. In a forested area at the western end of the ponds, the fourth station is called Pond Pavilion, which includes a trailhead and observation deck.

Efforts to incorporate habitat enhancement and restoration, as well as to use building materials and techniques that are environmentally friendly, have been woven into the planning, design and construction of the new facilities. The goal is to achieve the highest certification under the U.S. Green Building Council’s prestigious rating system.

The sustainability-minded features being included at Sheldon Lake will serve both conservation and instructional purposes, park officials say. For instance, the Pond Center has been designed with natural lighting and recycled oilfield pipe. Its roof sheds rainwater into storage. This collected water — up to 15,000 gallons — will be used to irrigate native plants that are being gradually planted in place of invasive non-native species that are being removed around the center.

“We’re demonstrating some of the things people can do,” says Tom Olson, education director at the park.

In another example of the project’s sustainability focus, the Pond Plaza has been constructed with recycled brick, pipe and concrete with a higher-than-normal content of fly ash — the powder left over from burning coal to produce electricity, which is often dumped in landfills. Hot water will be heated by sunlight, and Forest Stewardship Council-certified lumber used in construction.

Likewise, wood products elsewhere were chosen to meet high environmental standards, such as the council-certified wood used along trails and lumber for the Aquatic Labs, which was sustainably grown and doesn’t require chemical treatment.

Besides solar units to heat water in restrooms, the new facilities also include three other demonstrations of renewable energy technologies, all funded by a $100,000 grant from the State Energy Conservation Office through West Texas A&M. Photovoltaic arrays will generate three kilowatts of power and have mechanisms for classroom monitoring. An 80-foot wind turbine in an agricultural field, which is being converted to native coastal prairie, will produce one kilowatt. And water pumped from six geothermal wells will provide heat and substitute for air conditioning, through heat-exchange technology, at the Pond Center.

“When we’re not running the air conditioner, we’re not taking electricity off the grid,” Comstock explains.

In another important conservation-related action, the park’s crucial inflow of water from its watershed is being safeguarded through agreements with upstream users including the city of Houston and private developers.

TPWD officials became concerned in the mid-1990s that development and drainage projects had reduced Sheldon Lake’s watershed by about two-thirds in the previous decade and were starting to threaten its wildlife. In one publicized case, the agency argued that drainage work at a large new subdivision was diverting water from the park, and federal officials eventually cited the developer for violating wetlands-protection rules.

As a result of the subsequent agreements, TPWD will be able to stabilize water levels in Sheldon Lake, essentially mitigating any further reductions in the water flowing into the park, Comstock says. Officials don’t expect the park will ever again receive its historic pre-development flow levels, however.

Ultimately, securing the environmental health of the park’s lake and pond also secures the future viability of the Environmental Learning Center, which was launched there because of the ecosystem and wildlife that those water bodies support.

On a stroll through the new facilities, Olson noted some of the details that make the park such a good place for an Environmental Learning Center. A turkey buzzard soared overhead as he pointed out the two ponds where students can try their luck fishing during their visit.

“Most kids do it,” he says. “There’s almost always an alligator here, and wading birds.”

Along this trail, on quarter-mile or half-mile “habitat hikes,” students will be greeted by new signs with graphics and interpretive materials, learning about the differences between forest and pond ecosystems, and about disturbed and developed wildlife habitats. Other curricula, associated with other activities, cover subjects such as conservation and renewable energy, water quality and the food web in the Environmental Learning Center’s ponds.

At one pond, resplendent with aquatic vegetation, Olson identified some of the different plants that carpeted the water — the fragrant water lily was putting out white flowers amid the taller stalks of American lotus, which blooms in yellow.

“The beauty of this place is that it’s pretty lush, it’s in a compact area — you can see it in a quarter-mile or half-mile hike — and it’s close to town,” he reflected. “Those are its three advantages.”

The Environmental Learning Center’s growth and its growing popularity have brought additional obligations for the people in charge of the program, but they’re hardly an unwelcome task. One thing on the minds of park staff members as the Phase 1 work drew near completion, for instance, was the expanding need for more volunteers to instruct the thousands of additional students who would soon start arriving.

It’s just part of the educational mission at Sheldon Lake, whose importance Henry sums up this way:

“Most of the population of this state and country lives, or will live, in urban areas. If we can’t teach the kids in these areas to learn about the environment, how can we expect them to appreciate it and, to the extent possible, improve it?

If you're interested in making a contribution to the Sheldon Lake project through the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation visit www.tpwf.org.

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