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Natural Partners

Hats off to the volunteers who work to preserve the great outdoors in Texas.

By Carol Flake Chapman

When Clarence Forse, 75, retired from his job as a shift supervisor at Dow Chemical Company, he didn’t realize that he would be making another commitment in 1995 that would put him on track for more than 5,400 hours of work over the next 12 years.

That commitment would lead to a brand new facility that was to become nearly as identified as Dow with his hometown of Lake Jackson: Sea Center Texas. Forse, a longtime saltwater angler, was a member of the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA), an organization of recreational anglers who first came together in the 1970s in response to the declining population of redfish in the Gulf of Mexico. The CCA and Dow joined with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to create a new state-of-the-art fish hatchery that would produce juvenile red drum and spotted seatrout to stock in Texas bays.

Dow donated the land, the CCA raised funds and TPWD provided the staffing. As Forse recalls, he helped with recruiting, and a substantial Sea Center volunteer group was ready to get to work even before the first building was completed. As the center grew into an aquarium and nature center, the volunteers, many of them Dow retirees like Forse (and like my dad, Raymond Flake), embraced the center as their own, helping with everything from construction work to organizing fishing programs for kids. The volunteers, who now include a number of young people as well, have been indispensable, says Sea Center Director David Abrego, who keeps promising Forse his own desk at the center.

Forse and the CCA are among the strong and diverse network of volunteers and nonprofit partners that help with nearly every aspect of the work of TPWD, from fundraising, education and outreach to hands-on maintenance work. TPWD’s partners have helped create, maintain and improve state parks, wildlife management areas, historic sites, and fish hatcheries; they have supported game wardens in multiple ways and have worked to protect and restore the state’s fish and wildlife habitat and its natural resources. They staff park gift shops, bake cookies for benefit events, clear brush from park trails, build campsites and cabins, dress in period garb and lead tours at historic sites, teach city kids how to bait a hook and cast a line, help control fire ants and invasive aquatic plants, donate lunkers to the Sharelunker bass program, count birds, remove abandoned crab traps from coastal waters, and convince friends and associates to donate time or money to restore wetlands.

More than 60 friends’ groups partner with state parks, historic sites and fisheries, and an equal number of other nonprofit groups partner with the department in other ways.

“We just couldn’t operate without them,” says Parks Division Director Walt Dabney. He points to such groups as the Washington-on-the-Brazos State Park Association, the oldest of the park support groups, which was founded in 1936. When asked about the contributions of the association, Park Superintendent Tom Scaggs says, “They are absolutely essential for us to be able to accomplish the mission at Washington-on-the-Brazos.” The group even raised funds to provide a year’s salary for a farm manager while the Barrington Living History Farm was being built.

Jim Ellison, former president of the group, says that once you join the group, you get committed to it. “You just get hooked on the history of the place,” he says. “It’s the birthplace of Texas. It gets in your blood.”

Just as committed to their park is the Brazos Bend State Park Volunteer Organization, whose members rack up about 20,000 volunteer hours a year. The reason for the group’s success, says park staffer David Heinicke, is the strong team effort at Brazos Bend. The volunteers work alongside the park’s staff in a wide variety of tasks and projects, doing meaningful work to improve the park. At the end of the day, the volunteers go home with a true sense of accomplishment.

“We’ve got people from car salesmen to rocket scientists who come out to volunteer,” Heinicke says. Another reason for the steady flow of volunteers, he points out, is the allure of the park itself, with its swampy habitat and resident wildlife, including river otters and alligators. “It’s just such a neat place,” says Heinicke.

Volunteer Rick Dashnau, whose day job is in seismic exploration, agrees. “What could be cooler than helping the park and working outside? And there are alligators.” Dashnau, who leads nature walks at the park, maintains a Web site with photos of the gators and other inhabitants of the park. He even enjoys pointing out the park’s banana spiders, the huge but benign arachnids whose complex, shimmering webs often line park trails. “I also happen to be a spider guy,” he says.

In addition to spider fans and history buffs, many of TPWD’s partners come from the ranks of hunters and anglers. “We’re natural partners,” says TPWD Small Game Program Director Vernon Bevill of such groups as Ducks Unlimited, the National Wild Turkey Federation and Quail Unlimited, which have helped substantially over the years with habitat and species restoration projects. “Each has an expertise and a shared mission with us in these projects. We’ve been blessed with conservation partners who roll up their sleeves and work with us. They all come to the table with a conservation ethic, forged by years of experience. They understand that if you don’t take care of a resource, you lose it.”

Bevill cites the late Johnny Walker, who served as president not only of the state branch of Ducks Unlimited, but of the national organization. “He was one of those guys who understood ducks and the connection between ducks and wetlands,” says Bevill. “He was an over-the-horizon thinker. He made an organizational difference to Ducks Unlimited and an individual difference in our lives. His footprint in Texas lives beyond his years.”

Walker’s son-in-law, Bill Ansell, who serves on the Game Bird Advisory Board as well as on the board of Ducks Unlimited Texas, has carried on the tradition. “We want our children to hunt, to have waterfowl, to have clean drinking water,” he says. Of hunters and the outdoors, he says: “We appreciate it in a different manner than non-outdoor people. We like to sit out there on a cold dreary morning and see the sunrise with wildlife around.”

That irresistible passion for the outdoors is shared, too, by the anglers and anglers’ groups who have worked with TPWD to restore fish populations and habitat. “It’s just pure pleasure,” says Dick Hart of his work for the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center, which has been supported by a number of organizations. Hart first joined a fundraising group called the Friends of the Freshwater Fisheries Center and founded another group called the Schooling for Bass Club, which helped raise money for a new conservation center with classroom facilities. Hart’s love for fishing is so great, he admits, that he had to miss the ceremony for his induction into the Freshwater Fisheries Hall of Fame because of a long-planned fishing trip to Maine.

It’s that strong feeling for the outdoors that Texas game wardens, too, can count on, with groups like the Texas Game Warden Association, which was formed in 1971 by game wardens concerned with conserving natural resources around the state. As the group was joined by ranchers, farmers and other landowners, it became more focused on outreach and educational programs to enlist young people in outdoor activities like hunting and fishing. The association has recently become involved with TPWD in building a new training center for game wardens. And in acknowledgment of the more perilous side of wardens’ work, the 100 Club, a law enforcement support group, has provided line-of-duty death benefits to families of wardens killed in the line of duty.

In fact, many TPWD support groups have been formed or strengthened in the face of challenges to the resources, parks or wild places they’ve come to treasure. In 2001, the Texas Coalition for Conservation was formed in response to budget constraints that were going to force TPWD to cut back park hours and services and to lay off park employees. “We wanted to bring together as broad a group as possible to save the parks,” says coalition director George Bristol. “We felt that the parks needed a champion.” The group includes dozens of nonprofit, sporting, conservation and community organizations, particularly from areas that were being affected by park cutbacks. They were joined by the Texas Recreation and Park Society (known as TRAPS), which supports local parks.

“We studied the issues for a year and decided that the missing link on park funding was the economic benefits of state parks,” says Bristol. The coalition has sponsored studies and gatherings to bring those economic issues to the attention of the public.

As for the rewards for their work, TPWD partners can cite both tangible and intangible benefits. For members of the CCA, it was the return of redfish to the waters they love to fish. For those who work with Ducks Unlimited, it was the growing number of ducks returning to the marshes where their numbers had begun to dwindle. Members of the Wild Turkey Federation can enjoy watching Eastern wild turkeys strut and gobble in areas of East Texas where they had disappeared. Some partners talk about a satisfaction that they are helping to create a new generation to appreciate the outdoors.

“Sometimes it’s just getting young people out to feel the earth under their feet,” says Paul Farrell of the Wild Turkey Federation.

Pat Canan of the Texas Game Warden Association remembers the look of stunned triumph on the faces of a group of city kids at summer camp who were able to find their way in the wild after taking an orientation class and learning to use topographical maps and compasses.

“At first you see the panic, then you see them start to get their bearings. It’s really something, seeing that look of wonderment that they can really do it, the look of knowledge they get on their faces.” For Clarence Forse, nothing beats the look on the face of someone catching their first fish, whatever their age. “You should have seen the look on the face of a 92-year-old woman who caught her first fish here at Sea Center, an eight-pound redfish.” What could be better than that?

The Value of Volunteers

During fiscal year 2006, 3,400 trained volunteers provided more than 46,000 teaching hours, at a value of more than $740,000 to TPWD, in training students in mandatory hunter education programs and in the mandatory Texas Boater Education Program. Angler education volunteers performed more than 8,000 hours of service at a value of nearly $139,000 to the department.

What is the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation?

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation, based in Dallas, serves as the official, designated nonprofit funding partner for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The Foundation, which was organized in 1992, has brought together companies, corporations, organizations, communities and individuals to raise more than million to support the work of the department. The foundation operates the Lone Star Legacy Endowment Fund, which establishes endowment funds for every state park, wildlife area, historic site and fish hatchery in the state. It assisted in the creation of the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center as well as the World Birding Center, Government Canyon State Natural Area and Sheldon Lake Environmental Learning Center. Now, however, the foundation is focusing on only one or two projects a year, according to director Dick Davis. Currently, the main projects include a buy-back program for commercial shrimping licenses in order “to reduce pressure on that resource and restore that resource,” says Davis. The other main goal this year, he says, is assisting the Texas Game Warden Association in building a new facility for training game wardens. Meanwhile, the foundation is always trying to recruit more supporters, he says, including the recently founded Corporate Conservation Coalition, which aims to bring in corporations involved in producing natural resources or in outdoor activities.


DETAILS

Coastal Conservation Association (CCA), <www.joincca.org>, (800) 201-FISH (3474)
Washington-on-the-Brazos State Park Association, <www.birthplaceoftexas.com>, 979-830-1824
Brazos Bend State Park Volunteer Organization, <www.brazosbend.org>, 979-553-5123
Ducks Unlimited, <www.ducks.org>, (800) 45DUCKS (38257)
National Wild Turkey Federation, <www.nwtf.org>, (800) THE-NWTF (843-6983)
Quail Unlimited, <www.qu.org>
Friends of the Freshwater Fisheries Center, <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/spdest/visitorcenters/tfc/becomepartner/>
Schooling for Bass Club, <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/spdest/visitorcenters/tffc/becomepartner/>
Texas Game Warden Association, <www.texasgamewarden.com>, (800) 322-8492
The 100 Club, <www.the100club.org>, (877) 955-0100
Texas Coalition for Conservation, <www.texascoa.org>
Texas Recreational and Park Society (TRAPS), <www.traps.org>, 512-267-5550
Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation, <www.tpwf.org>, 214-720-1478

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