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Citizen Science at Cibolo

With a new learning center and meeting facilities, Cibolo Nature Center hopes to reach more Central Texans with its conservation message.

By Robert Macias

As I watched several spry retirees fanning out across a field to count milkweed plants, an odd thought occurred to me: Why do people walk in malls? Oh sure, it's a little cooler, but there's so much more going on outside - wind blowing, trees swaying, birds chirping - that I just can't imagine why anyone would do their walking inside. At Cibolo Nature Center, a leisurely walk can do much more than just get your heart pumping - the center's citizen science programs allow anyone to contribute to actual ongoing scientific research.

In fact, a volunteer working on a research project along Cibolo Creek recently discovered a population of big red sage (Salvia penstemonoides), a plant once thought to be extinct. While the showy plant is now easy to find at nurseries, and popular because of its hummingbird-attracting properties, it remains extremely rare in the wild. According to Dana Price, a TPWD botanist, the big red sage at Cibolo is one of only three protected populations in the state.

Jan Wrede, education coordinator, tries to tailor the projects to the skills and temperaments of the volunteers. While the milkweed count was a slow-moving affair, the time-constrained reptile count was nonstop action. Guided by renowned herpetologist David Barker (co-author of A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Texas), boys and girls from age 8 to 17 sloshed through Cibolo Creek's cypress-shaded waters in an all-out race to spot - and catch - lizards and snakes. Most were measured, photographed and released, but a few were transported back to the nature center to be used in temporary displays.

With the recent addition of the $2 million Lende Learning Center, Wrede says, the facility is now able to make its educational programs, research projects and land management workshops available to larger groups. The center includes an ecology lab, research library and computer room. While the previous building had a capacity of about 20, the new one can easily accommodate 50 in the main area, with additional rooms available for breakout sessions and smaller meetings.

Like many independent nature centers around the country, the Cibolo, launched by Carolyn Chipman Evans in 1988, serves a number of functions in the Boerne community. By day, the scenic 100-acre spread is an outdoor recreation center, day camp, meeting place, classroom and hands-on research lab. By night, it plays host to swanky parties, dances and concerts.

It's a never-ending balancing act, with the need to pay the bills sometimes coming into direct conflict with the center's core mission of serving as a model of responsible land stewardship. For example, the construction of the Lende Learning Center had an adverse effect on this year's milkweed crop. In the course of the project, trucks, equipment and building supplies occupied the swatch of land that is also home to the milkweed plants. Despite excellent rainfall that would have otherwise increased their numbers, there were 161 plants this year as opposed to last year's 172. Since the plants are the monarch butterfly larva's sole source of food, even a small change makes a difference.

Yet these minor hiccups don't seem to slow down Cibolo's committed cadre of staff members and volunteers. As I stood on the banks of Cibolo Creek watching a group of men, women and children work a large seine through the gin-clear water, I couldn't help but get caught up in their enthusiasm. When one of the volunteers pulled a healthy, wriggling sunfish from the net, Wrede pretty much summed up her passion for the work as she blurted excitedly, "I love fish!"

To participate in the Cibolo Nature Center's fall bird count or to learn about other upcoming events at the center, visit www.cibolo.org

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