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A Helping Hand

Foundation helps TPWD build hatcheries, train game wardens and conserve game.

By Tom Harvey

Dawn broke with a light mist falling on the South Llano River near Junction. It was May 9, 2013, and the hot days were already telling of oncoming summer. The cooling rain was a welcome respite for a little flotilla of kayakers putting in to the spring-fed stream.

Leading the group was Tim Birdsong, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department rivers expert who’s pioneering a new watershed-scale approach to conservation. Birdsong is part serious scientist, part river rat and part fishing aficionado. He has a rare talent among such folk: the ability to find big dollars for big projects.

By his side that day was Pat Robertson, a donor brought to the river by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation, the state agency’s official nonprofit partner. Like Birdsong, he grew up rambling on a family farm as a boy. He never lost a love for the outdoors, despite his work as an investment adviser.

“I put my life preserver on backwards, and that got a good laugh,” Robertson said. “They gave us a nice little lesson on how to paddle downstream, how to paddle backwards. I’d been in a kayak, but I’m not really a kayaker.”

As the morning flowed by, Robertson and the group paddled downriver, shooting over small waterfalls of white foam in places. Nearby were Anne Brown, foundation executive director, and her right-hand fundraiser Susan Houston. Spirits were high.

It was an up-close and personal chance to sense the soul of a river.

“These rivers and the waters that run down through them are subject to development and other factors that could degrade them, and that’s why we need to conserve watersheds,” Robertson said. “Anybody who took a trip like that would see the wisdom in donating to help not only the South Llano but other rivers.”

Occasionally the kayakers drifted and cast fishing lines into the clear water, and Robertson reeled in a Guadalupe bass, the feisty little state fish of Texas. Once common to Hill Country streams, they’re threatened today by hybridization and threats to their river habitats.

South Llano

The South Llano River has been a focus of recent TPWD conservation efforts. The agency and its partners are improving habitat, encouraging recreation and stocking Guadalupe bass.

Stocking the South Llano with Guadalupe bass is one element of a plan put in place by the South Llano Watershed Alliance, which facilitates river conservation and restores habitat with help from university scientists, conservation groups, riverside towns and others.

“We’ve raised more than $2 million for conservation throughout the Llano watershed,” Birdsong said. “We’re now partnering with 26 ranches along the Llano, more than 64,000 acres. We’re actively implementing more than 2,400 acres of habitat improvements, with direct benefits to more than 45 miles of stream corridor along the Llano and its major tributaries.”

A big chunk of this is federal money, which necessitates the acquisition of matching private donations.

“We’re now expanding this model and approach to the Blanco and Pedernales rivers,” Birdsong said. “And in every situation we would not be able to access federal funds without the foundation bringing private donations to cover that nonfederal cost share. That’s a problem for most state agencies. The federal grantors want to see leveraging. The foundation fills that gap for us.”

Yet, Birdsong emphasized, chasing the money is just a means, not an end.

“We’ve had opportunities to bring in certain donors who wanted us to work on projects they were close to, but we weren’t in a good position to do that, even though it would have meant substantial money,” he said. “And there was zero pressure from Anne and Susan. They seem less concerned about just raising dollars and more about doing meaningful conservation in Texas.”

Back up more than two decades, to 1991. That’s when the foundation was born through the vision and will of several leaders, including Andrew Sansom, agency executive director at the time, and Ed Cox, former Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission chairman.

“At the time, the department needed additional sources of funding,” said Sansom, who now leads the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University-San Marcos. “It made sense to explore private donations that could supplement what we were getting from the state.”

Cox helped lead the foundation’s first big project: funding the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center, a combination fish hatchery and tourism and educational center. In an ingenious first, they invited communities to bid on hosting the facility, lured by the promise of jobs and tourism.

fisheries center

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation’s first big project was construction of the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center.

In those days, few department employees knew much about fundraising. The foundation changed that.

“The foundation created the opportunity for cities to bid on the project,” said Allen Forshage, director of the fisheries center, which opened in the East Texas town of Athens in 1996. “That was a big deal. It meant about $4 million for the agency. After that, we did consecutive fundraisers three years in a row in Dallas, because we could raise more money there, and we raised $2.5 million. And we’re still going. In October 2012, at our most recent event, we raised $50,000, which is pretty good for a small town like Athens.”

Indeed, although the Athens facility is the foundation’s oldest big project, it remains one of the most enduring and successful.

“It’s the perfect example showing how if you invest in private philanthropy and build supportive relationships, the venture thrives long-term,” Brown said. “That partnership model, framed around the department mission, is the point. We’re not successful because we come up with great fundraising ideas; we’re successful because the department has fantastic staff and programs.”

The foundation’s ability to move quickly, faster than government, is often cited as a vital strength.

“A salient example is the recovery of Bastrop State Park following the horrible 2011 wildfire,” said Carter Smith, TPWD executive director. “The foundation was able to quickly raise funds to help with post-fire stabilization and early restoration. That was not only essential for the park, but also for the morale of the employees who were laboring so hard in the wake of the fire. It meant a lot to all of us.”

When it comes to state parks, the foundation’s finest hour may have come in December 2010, with acquisition of the Devils River Ranch. The department had originally proposed a “land swap” to trade the existing Devils River State Natural Area for the new 18,000-acre property farther downriver. But after objections about loss of existing parkland threatened to derail the deal, in a matter of weeks the foundation raised $11 million in private donations to help buy the new tract and keep the existing park.

“The Devils River deal shows how nimble the foundation can be,” said former TPWD Communications Director Lydia Saldaña. “They were able to marshal the resources to turn a controversial moment into a tremendous Christmas gift to the state of Texas, one that will be there forever.”

Smith agreed. “There are unquestionably some Parks and Wildlife projects that cannot be funded without the support of the private philanthropic community, and the Devils River acquisition is a prime example,” he said. “The dividends to accrue from that will be unfolding for generations to come. It’s hard to put a value on a project like that. It’s simply immense.”

Earlier that same year, the department opened a new Game Warden Training Center in Hamilton County, replacing an aging facility in Austin.

“The foundation raised close to $11 million of the $14 million we’ve put into infrastructure out there,” said Lt. Col. Danny Shaw, deputy director of law enforcement and former training center director. “The other $3.1 million came from sale of the old Austin facility; every other penny was raised through the foundation. Without them, we wouldn’t have the capabilities we have out there now. They were paramount in raising money for the auditorium, the firing range, pretty much everything.”

The foundation invests in people, too. In 2012, TPWD’s Law Enforcement Division began a forward-looking expansion of its special ops teams, under director Col. Craig Hunter. That includes functions like search and rescue, boat accident investigations and the agency’s first-ever K-9 corps.

K-9 corps

Private donations raised by the foundation paid for development of a K-9 corps and construction of a new Game Warden Training Center.

“The startup costs for these things can be daunting,” said Chief Grahame Jones. “That’s where the foundation comes in. A search-and-rescue training for K-9 trainers and dogs, you’re looking at around $25,000 for that, and we don’t always have the money in our base budget for that. They funded our first 10 dogs. We decided to go with Labs, a kinder, gentler animal. A big part of what we want those dogs and wardens to do is outreach; they’re not attack dogs.”

By outreach, Jones partly means recruiting a more diverse workforce among game wardens.

“We require the K-9 teams to do one outreach event per month at schools, from elementary to colleges, as part of our recruitment effort. We want to show people that we don’t just check hunting and fishing licenses. We hope K-9 work, and search and rescue, may appeal more to a diverse pool of game warden cadet applicants.”

Just as the historically rural department is trying to engage a new generation of Texans in big cities, the foundation connects urban money to conservation out where the deer and the antelope play.

“Since around 2009, we’ve been watching serious declines in pronghorn populations in the Trans-Pecos,” Smith said. “Thanks to the foundation, we were able to form a partnership with the Borderlands Research Institute at Sul Ross University. They helped fund graduate student work to look at impacts of predation on fawn production, support pronghorn translocation from the Panhandle and help examine internal parasites believed to contribute to herd health issues. All of that was absolutely indispensable to support research for applied management to conserve a flagship species of the Chihuahuan Desert.”

With a governing board of 21 trustees overseeing seven full-time and two part-time staff members, the foundation has raised more than $80 million since its inception. This success has spawned imitators at river authorities and other state agencies. But the department may have a unique advantage.

“People like parks,” said Gene McCarty, a former department deputy director. “People want to do more for open space and conservation. So having a foundation in this arena is a great fit.”

That feeling is echoed by long-running foundation board member Pat Murray, who also leads the Coastal Con­servation Association.

“Honestly, I love the foundation because of how much I love the department,” Murray said. “A main reason that Texas has such great natural resources is because of the department’s vision. Look at examples like the shrimp license buyback, which has been wildly successful to get shrimping to a manageable level. Core funds came from the $3 angler fee. The foundation helped get private funds to create a final big push. It was a neat moment where the private sector could come in and make an additive difference to the good that was already going on in the department.”

Though it may not be well-known to average Texans, the work of the foundation touches many lives.

“The great thing is it manifests in the things we love — fishing, hunting, hiking and camping, parks,” Murray said. “Anyone who enjoys the outdoors is enjoying some of the work the department does, and the foundation is right there as a crucial partner behind them.”

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