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Life's better outside.

Find out why at the 14th annual Texas Parks and Wildlife Expo.
October 1 and 2

By Ernie Gammage

Fourteen years ago, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department presented its first Expo at department headquarters in Austin. No one had any idea how many people might come to learn about wildlife, wildlife management and hunting, but on that first weekend of October 1992, a surprising 7,000 people showed up. Since then, almost 400,000 Texans have trekked to Austin for this annual autumn gathering to learn about outdoor recreation and conservation. It's become the biggest event of its kind. And it's free.

Originally called the Texas Wildlife Expo, for the first few years the event focused solely on wildlife management and hunting as a way to bring recognition to hunters for their contributions to conservation. Today, hunting and wildlife management are still essential to Expo, but now, just about every facet of the Texas outdoors has been added to the event. This year's visitors to Expo will find angling, paddle sports, camping, outdoor skills, cultural history, mountain biking and even rock climbing.

What makes Expo so special is that these activities can be experienced, not just talked about. "Learn by doing is the basic Expo concept," says TPWD Executive Director Robert L. Cook. "There's an old and very true saying that the first fish you catch catches you. We feel that giving Texans an opportunity to try, hands-on, many types of outdoor recreation will interest them in exploring the outdoors."

Why is this important to TPWD? Because experience tells us that recreating in the outdoors leads to caring about it. As Texas continues to urbanize, establishing this important connection to the natural world becomes even more important. Especially for today's young Texans, discovering the natural world through recreation - whether it's fishing, camping, hunting or birdwatching - can be the starting point for life-long involvement in the outdoors and its conservation. Almost half of Expo visitors are under 17 years old with an average age of 8. These are the visitors for whom Expo is not only fun, but important. It will be their actions that set the stage for the outdoors of tomorrow.

But there are other benefits as well.

"We've seen improved grades, better discipline and the development of leadership skills as a direct result of their involvement in the outdoors," says Amelia Valdez, director of education and substance abuse prevention at the Boys and Girls Club of San Antonio. The club began attending Expo in 2000 with a van full of 10 kids and their chaperones. Last year, almost 300 youth attended, including those from other organizations and nearby neighborhoods. "We use Expo as a reward for good behavior and performance throughout the year. The kids look forward to Expo all year long."

Boys and Girls Clubs typically focus on sports like baseball and boxing, and introducing outdoor recreation was initially a stretch for the organization. "We saw getting our kids into the outdoors as an expansion of our environmental programs," says Valdez. "When we first introduced archery, for example, it was very strange to them. These are inner-city kids and most had only seen a bow and arrow on TV or in the movies. They had no idea it was a sport! Now we offer fishing, camping and kayaking as well."

One youth, 16-year-old Patrick Rodriguez took to these skills immediately. "Patrick started with us when he was 6. He comes from a single-parent home and has had to overcome many obstacles and adversity. Through participation in the archery program, he became better disciplined and a better student. Archery really turned him around. Now he wants to be a competitor!" Patrick has also graduated to become a Junior Staff member, training and mentoring other kids.

Another Expo participant, Megan Perez, found a passion for the outdoors and has benefited from it in ways she never dreamed. Kayaking especially has grabbed her interest, and at a recent outing to Mustang Island State Park, she helped teach the sport. Now 16, she has become a lifeguard at the Boys and Girls Club recreation center and shows a keen interest in many other outdoor activities. "The girls have found out that the outdoors is fun, challenging, and opens doors to a whole new world. These are inner-city kids, and seeing them find themselves in these sports is a great experience for all of us," explains Valdez.

For the Boys and Girls Clubs, Expo has become "family day," a chance for parents and their kids to connect in ways that aren't available in the city. "Our families all look forward to it. We've seen real personal growth in these kids. They've been all over the state and as far away as New Mexico on camping trips and learned important life skills that they'll carry with them always. And it all started at Expo," Valdez says.

For LaVaughn Mosley, extension agent for 4-H at Prairie View A&M University, the annual visit to Expo is a dream come true. "To have all these activities in one place is just outstanding. To experience everything that outdoor recreation has to offer is just phenomenal. Expo lets them just be kids. Too often, life in the city robs them of their childhood. The outdoors gives it back."

A couple hundred youth from Harris County have come to Expo each year for the past three years, including 11-year-old Mark Jamison. "Mark is absolutely mad about fishing; he wants to fish all the time! To see him excited about something is amazing. He's passed this skill on to his younger siblings, and one of the things he talks to them about is personal responsibility. Almost immediately his parents saw a change in him, in his behavior and in his grades. His mother told me now he even offers to take out the trash!"

Mark is excited about a new program incorporating a shooting team into his 4-H club. "It all started at Expo. Kids tried out the five-stand sporting clays and really liked it. Some people express misgivings about inner-city kids taking up the shooting sports, but we see it as extremely positive. Proper training teaches safety and personal responsibility, both attributes that we encourage. We also see the shooting sports as offering an engaging activity for young men of 13 and 14, an age when they typically start to lose interest in traditional 4-H. We're working on this right now and hope to have the program underway in the spring." Mark Jamison for one will be there.

Just as 4-H looks to freshen its programming, so does Expo. This year, water takes on a new focus as Texans come to better understand the issues surrounding this vital resource. TPWD's series titled Texas: The State of Water has pointed out the competition for water in Texas, competition that includes municipalities, agriculture and industry along with wildlife and aquatic life. A new presentation, Texas Water Ways, will combine many of the water-related activities and exhibits at Expo.

In the state parks area of Expo, a new display will be devoted to the San Jacinto Monument. The monument and its visitors' center are beneficiaries of proceeds from the Friday night Expo Conservation Banquet. Over the past several years, many new archeological finds have been made as the site is returned to its original landscape. Never before seen by the public, these artifacts will be on display at Expo, along with re-enactors and even pieces of the original limestone covering the famed monument. During refurbishing, damaged slabs were removed and pieces of the rock will be available for purchase at Expo.

The wildlife management and hunting tent will have a new focus. Basic tools of the trade - including axes, plows and guns - will be graphically presented in a way that will engage and entertain visitors. For some Expo visitors, those who already enjoy the outdoors and have a strong connection with it, these kinds of presentations are just what the doctor ordered.

The city of Orangefield is outside of Orange, in southeast Texas. A rural community, its high school of some 520 students offers a strong agricultural science program that includes a semester of wildlife management. What do these teenagers gain from Expo? "It's all the hands-on activities that Expo offers that appeal to our kids. Their eyes are opened to all the various aspects of wildlife management and outdoor recreation," says agricultural science instructor Chad Jenkins. "Fishing, fly-tying and even the Dutch oven cooking presentations get their attention."

Jenkins' group, about a dozen kids a year, comes up on Friday night so they can hit the grounds on Saturday morning. "We don't go home until Sunday and still can't see and do everything." Sponsored by Beaumont businessman Tony Houseman as part of a group of 50 kids and chaperones that have come from Orange County to visit Expo for each of the last several years, this group of 14- to 18-year-olds uses Expo as a way to expand their knowledge of and contact with the Texas outdoors. "It's great! The kids always want to go," says Jenkins.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Expo continues to provide a great opportunity to reach new - and current - users of the outdoors. It's an event where Texans can experience all that the outdoors has to offer while learning about how to ensure its future. Spend a day at the 2005 Expo and learn why "Life's Better Outside."

Details

Texas Parks & Wildlife Expo takes place at Texas Parks and Wildlife Department headquarters, 4200 Smith School Road, in Austin on October 1 and 2, from 9 to 5 daily. Admission and all activities are free. For information, call (800) 792-1112 or go to the Web site at www.tpwd.state.tx.us/expo. For information about the Expo Conservation Banquet held Friday, September 30, call (800) 221-0981 or go to the Web site at www.tpwf.org.

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