Monday, December 21, 2009

Get a Tree, Do a Good Deed

from the December, 2009 issue of Texas Highways

The Nature Conservancy’s Davis Mountains Preserve rises above the surrounding West Texas desert. “Sky islands” within the preserve form cooler and wetter areas covered in pinion- juniper woodlands. Every December for the past 10 years, the preserve has opened its gates on select dates (Dec. 5 and Dec. 12 this year) so families can cut one of these sturdy trees for Christmas.

Participants can enjoy an entire day at the scenic site, which offers hiking trails, great birding, and picnic areas. By taking home a tree, they also help protect a special piece of Texas, says The Nature Conservancy’s John Karges. Historically, he explains, this ecosystem contained roughly 30 trees per acre along with wildflowers and grasses. Slow-moving, low-intensity natural fires maintained that arrangement, clearing out the underbrush and most tree seedlings. After decades without such fires, though, thousands of trees now fill each acre. Efforts to restore the savannah include prescribed fire and mechanical thinning, which is where the Christmas-tree hunts come in. The events provide an opportunity to raise awareness about the importance of conservation, and are lots of fun.

For more information on the 2009 hunts, call 432/302-0550; (go to Events).

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Shopping with Heart

From December issue of Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine

Support conservation when you buy holiday gifts.
By Melissa Gaskill

Put your shopping dollars to work supporting wildlife and natural habitat around the state. Conservation commerce — the idea of selling appropriate merchandise to raise conservation funds — is catching on, and the products listed here directly support programs in Texas. We’ve provided just a sampling, so keep your eyes open for more.
Clay Turtles

Residents in the Mexican village of Tepejuahes, a community historically dependent on sea turtle poaching, now create a variety of handmade ceramics, from incense and candleholders to coin banks and wine chillers. The ceramics provide alternative income to villagers and, therefore, help protect the turtles, which also nest in Texas. Look for the items at Sea Turtle Inc. on South Padre Island and the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, where the wine chillers are particularly popular. Sea Turtle Inc. also sells turtle charms carved from coconut shells that wash up on the nesting beaches. or
Local Honey

The LEED Gold-certified store at Trinity River Audubon Center near downtown Dallas sells Extra Virgin Zipcode Honey, produced locally by the Texas Honeybee Guild. Community gardens and wild areas supply guild owners Brandon and Susan Pollard’s bees with the flowers necessary to create honey. The Pollards even installed hives on the center grounds. All sales at the shop help support the center, part of the largest urban hardwood forest in the United
Wildlife Photographs

Color photographs of Texas wildlife and landscapes fill the pages of Images for Conservation Fund Book One, The Texas Hill Country and Book Two, Coastal Bend of Texas. Sold in select bookstores and on the ICF website, the books support the organization’s efforts to promote conservation on private lands through photography contests, says ICF founder John Martin. The growth of nature photography into a $4 billion industry is changing land management, says Sally Crofutt, manager of Fennessey Ranch, a first-place winner. The ranch made more money from wildlife photography than from cattle in 2008, she adds, and no longer shoots coyotes or even rattlesnakes.
Bracelets and Buttons

The Houston Zoo’s conservation bracelets support its Texas programs protecting the Houston toad, Attwater’s prairie-chicken, black bears, diamondback terrapins and sea turtles. Last year, the items raised around $25,000, says Peter Riger, director of conservation. “These make unique gifts, a keepsake that will remind you of wildlife conservation or a specific animal down the road.” All of the zoo’s gift shop sales help support conservation efforts.
Special Plates

Texas drivers can purchase horned lizard license plates to help fund projects under the Texas Wildlife Action plan, bluebonnet plates to support state parks, white-tailed deer plates for wildlife management and research, or largemouth bass plates to fund neighborhood fishing and world record programs. Ducks Unlimited plates benefit wetland habitat and the waterfowl that live in
Join, Adopt

Many conservation organizations provide membership gift packets. Those working in Texas include The Nature Conservancy, National Wildlife Federation and Audubon Society. Some groups also offer “adoptions” of an animal. Adopt a turtle through Padre Island National Seashore’s sea turtle recovery program to net a certificate, pin and bumper sticker packaged suitably for gift giving. Order by phone, 361-949-8068 or at At Sea Turtle Inc., adopt a resident turtle, a hatchling or a nest of turtle eggs, which includes a phone call invitation to the hatchlings’ release. Order at; click on “adopt a hatchling.” Bat Conservation International mails bat adopters a certificate, a color photo, species information and a bumper sticker. Order at

People Power

From the Winter 2009 issue of Wildflower Magazine
For 10 days last fall, Phillippa Francq of St. Petersburg, Florida, hiked muddy hills in the Puerto Rico rainforest, taking measurements and recording data. Francq, 70, joined other volunteers on an Earthwatch expedition helping to research sustainable tropical rainforest management. A veteran of many such trips, Francq came away from this one feeling as if she had contributed to something significant. “The forest is very denuded in Puerto Rico, and this project is helping it grow back. Just look at the impact it is making and how it is changing the landscape.”

Kate Quinn, manager of volunteer programs for Earthwatch, found it exciting to observe different growth patterns in project test plots and was impressed with items made from the sustainably harvested blue maho and mahogany trees. The work can be a little rigorous, she admits. But there is a free day and recreation on-site, including evening slide shows, music and dancing. Volunteers stay in tents on a covered platform or in a bunk house and have access to flushing toilets and running water. There is a full kitchen.

Francq enjoys the work on these projects but also the other volunteers. “It is generally all ages, from people older than I am down to teenagers. I love the moment when the team first meets. There is a sense of anticipation. We’ve come halfway around the world to be in this place at this time, and we’re all interested in the same subject. It’s an immediate connection.”

In 2009, Earthwatch sponsored more than 120 research projects in 38 countries and 20 U.S. states. Since 1971, volunteers have contributed $72 million worth of time to scientific fieldwork. Those who go on an expedition often return for another, Quinn says. “They find that this is the new way they want to see the world.”

Combining volunteering with travel, dubbed “voluntourism,” has clearly caught on. In 2007, more than 3.7 million Americans volunteered at least 120 miles from home, according to a study by the Corporation for National and Community Service, while another 1 million volunteered overseas. More than half of respondents to an MSNBC and Condé Nast survey expressed interest in volunteering on vacation, and 95 percent of volunteer travelers intend to do it again. Whether they come out of a desire to give back and make a difference or because of a connection to a particular cause, volunteers like Francq say they feel a sense of satisfaction, of having done something meaningful.

With demand on the rise, David Clemmons, founder of, says opportunities for volunteer travel have increased as well, perhaps as much as a hundredfold in the past five years. The types of offerings have greatly expanded, too, with a wide array of activities and everything from luxury accommodations to roughing it, in nearly every corner of the globe.

The Sierra Club offers some 90 service trips each year, many that involve removing invasive plants or planting natives. These outings contribute around 47,000 hours of labor annually, valued at $450,000. A typical project includes four work days and one day off. The club provides a trip leader, cook and accommodations, often at a campground.

The Sierra Club offers a service trip to Martha’s Vineyard, where partnering organization The Nature Conservancy owns a 90-acre farm. Trip leader Sandra Raviv says a typical work week includes a couple of days in the nursery, weeding or collecting seeds, then a few days removing non-natives around the farm or other locations there.

“I think most people who come on the outings enjoy meeting other people of like mind,” Raviv says. “Most everyone shares a love of the outdoors and a desire to preserve what we have. I have gone back a couple of times, and you can see a difference in areas where previous work was done.”

Now in its 10th year, the Vineyard trip is quite comfortable by Sierra Club standards, says volunteer trip leader Kermit Smyth, since participants stay in a farm house. Smyth believes in providing a variety of work, including chores for those less physically able. Trips come together quickly in terms of shared interests and people feeling at ease with each other, so he can often stand back and lets the group figure out how to work together.

“The finishing of good, hard work is very satisfying for people, and they enjoy that aspect,” he says. “People see this as a vehicle to give back and also to see another place. Sierra Club leaders are usually knowledgeable about a place, and that contributes to what you take away from a trip.”

Volunteers who take another Sierra Club service trip to Point Reyes, California, participate in an ongoing effort to remove ice plant and cape weed from the bluffs and European beach grass from the dunes.

“This takes a special type of person, someone willing to spend their vacation doing something to renew themselves and give back. But it can be incredibly rejuvenating,” says Didi Toaspern, who chairs the service subcommittee of Sierra Club national outings. Trip leaders recognize that people are on their vacation and so accommodate an individual’s work pace and comfort level.

For those unable to commit a week to the Sierra Club, Point Reyes has twice-monthly, staff-led workdays, says Sierra Club volunteer Harriet Dhanak, and tries to accommodate drop-in travelers. “The park lacks funds, so they need volunteers. I think it’s a wonderful way to introduce people to conservation; it’s very hands-on.”

There are many other opportunities to work for a few hours or a few days while traveling. The national park system, for example, relies heavily on volunteers. In fiscal year 2005, 137,000 volunteers system-wide provided 5.2 million hours of work worth $91.2 million.

Golden Gate National Recreation Area enjoys one of the largest and most vibrant volunteer programs and welcomes drop-ins. Last year, 22,121 volunteers put in 414,000 volunteer hours there, equivalent to more than 200 full-time employees, says Terry Kriedler, volunteer manager for the park. “Without those extra hands, our habitats would not be coming back and visitors would not be served at the level they are now. Folks can’t necessarily give us every Wednesday morning, so we let them come whenever they have time. Staff members understand the importance of working with volunteers and creating opportunities for them in the park.”

Golden Gate is a collection of sites along 60 miles of coastline near San Francisco, including Alcatraz, Muir Woods and the Presidio. According to staff member Chris Powell, many volunteer opportunities involve removal of nonnative plants, planting natives or working in park nurseries.

“For people who work in an office or live in an urban environment, this is a great way to reconnect with nature,” Powell says. “If you can drop in for a few hours, that is great. We offer a variety of chores based on people’s physical ability and desire.”

He agrees that, without volunteers, not nearly as much work could be done. “Every individual who comes out doubles or triples the work we get done in the park.”

On Sunday mornings, teams remove invasives, plant natives and collect seeds at various locations. Invasive plant patrol takes place seasonally on Wednesday mornings. While drop-ins are welcome, calling ahead is advised.
Those planning to visit other national parks or whose travels take them close to one can call the individual park about volunteer opportunities. Some, such as Golden Gate, also have volunteer information on their websites. People looking for a particular type of volunteer work can search the National Parks Service or Take Pride in America websites.

Single-day work experiences also can be found at many nature preserves. Every Saturday morning, Ives Road Fen Preserve in southern Michigan swarms with volunteers. Since 1990, they have been slowly but surely removing invasive buckthorn and honeysuckle.

“Seeing a restored section gives you a sense of what this land looked like many years ago,” says Chuck Pearson, volunteer crew chief. “You get a feeling of accomplishment.” Volunteers also get to see more than 680 species of flowering plants, 177 species of birds and countless butterflies. The preserve provides fresh cookies, too.
Work days are posted on the website, and Pearson says no particular skill is needed. Tools are provided, as are boots and gloves if necessary. Sign-up is available online, and drop-ins are welcome.

While public workdays are uncommon at The Nature Conservancy’s Clymer Meadow Preserve in northeast Texas, preserve manager Jim Eidson often works with master naturalist groups and hosts corporate workdays. These volunteers help with wetland restoration and riparian enhancement projects or work in the preserve’s container nursery and outdoor growing area.

“If anyone is traveling through and wants to volunteer on a drop-in basis, I suggest they call. We can always use help,” says Eidson. “It’s mainly field work, for someone who wants to get dirty and sweaty and worn-out.”
Some major hotels are getting in on the volunteer travel act, offering short-term projects for their guests. The short time commitment and comfortable accommodations offer an easy introduction for those new to volunteer travel.
For example, guests at the Ritz Carlton Key Biscayne in Miami can help remove invasive plants and restore native vegetation in Florida’s Bill Baggs Cape State Park. The park, listed as one of the country’s best beaches in 2008, suffered damage from Hurricane Andrew.

Park staff dispense information about the area’s ecosystem and lively history, which includes shipwrecks and pirates. Post-work, volunteers climb the park lighthouse for views of Miami, the Atlantic and, sometimes, manatees.
The Mandarin Oriental Miami Hotel on Brickell Key partners with Everglades National Park, where volunteers spend the morning planting native south Florida trees or removing invasive species. After a hotel-provided box lunch, rangers lead a tour of the lush park.

Arizona’s Sonoran Desert inspired the Four Seasons Scottsdale Troon North’s Desert Preservation Hike in neighboring Pinnacle Peak Park. Park Coordinator John Loleit leads the hike, pointing out wildlife, archaeological sites, geology and native plants, including edible and medicinal ones. Participants then plant native species such as buckhorn cholla cactus in carefully chosen locations. Desert plants tend to live a long time, Loleit adds, so volunteers who come back in five or 10 years can see the one they planted.

The chance to see tangible results, say leaders and volunteers alike, is what it’s all about.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Viva Terlingua!

Three Days in the Field, Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine, Nov 09

By: Melissa Gaskill
Bring a flashlight and your hiking boots to this remote outdoor heaven.

The town of Terlingua straddles several miles of FM 170, an eclectic string of mostly odd buildings amid cactus and brush on dun-covered hills. At first glance, it doesn’t look like much, but those who look again find colorful history, inspiring views and nights dark enough that stars still put on a show. Best of all, Terlingua makes a great base from which to explore the wonders of Big Bend National Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park and the scenic River Road.

My family arrived on Friday night, stopping first at the no-frills Chili Pepper Café for authentic Chihuahuan beef tacos made from scratch. Down a dirt road through the Ghost Town, an envelope taped on the office door at La Posada Milagro Guest House instructed us to proceed up the rocky hillside, where our key dangled in the door. The four guest rooms, formed from the dry stacked rock ruins, enjoy wide open views that include Big Bend’s Chisos Mountains and Mule Ears, and peaks in nearby Mexico.

From the spacious gravel patio, we watched as the setting sun behind us painted the distant cliffs and peaks before us in a riot of colors, eventually fading to deep blue. Cue the clichés — stunning, jaw-dropping, breathtaking, magnificent. Darkness brought a chill to the desert air, but a ready-to-light fire pit kept us comfortable. More stars appeared as it grew darker, and I had the poignant experience of explaining to my 15-year-old city child that a hazy cloud spilled across the blackness was, in fact, the Milky Way galaxy.

The next morning, after coffee, fresh juice and handmade tacos on the ocotillo-covered patio of the guest house’s coffee shop, “Espresso ... Poco Mas,” we headed to Big Bend River Tours, one of several outfitters in Terlingua. Since we had only one day, a professional guide seemed the way to go. Jack Lowery has worked for BBRT since 1999, and even he hasn’t seen all of Big Bend’s 800,000 acres. But he’s certainly seen a lot of it, and we counted on him for a memorable experience. He combined an off-the-beaten-path hike to Ernst Tinaja with an iconic one, The Window, for our Big Bend Day.

Reaching the first required about five miles of bouncing on high-clearance, four-wheel-drive road. The actual hike covers roughly two miles round trip, ending at the eponymous tinaja (a Spanish word for water vessel), a rock-lined pool of water that seldom dries out. The hike is a scenic study in Big Bend’s complex geology, covering millions of years in its short mile.

Following a picnic lunch, we drove into the Basin, a bowl in the center of the Chisos Mountains, igneous rock exposed by eons of erosion. The Basin’s higher elevation and twice-as-abundant rainfall create a green island in a sea of desert, where temperatures can be 20 degrees cooler. Inside the ring of peaks ranging from 5,688 to 7,825 feet sit a visitor center, store, campground, picnic area and lodge. The Window, a notch formed by water erosion between Ward and Vernon Bailey peaks, drains all the rain that falls in the Basin. Starting near the visitor center, the trail follows the natural drainage for nearly three miles, through open chaparral slopes, terminating at the pour-off at 4,600 feet. The westward view from here makes the uphill return hike worth every step.

If you have another day (okay, we cheated and took one), hike the South Rim trail, where vistas of the Basin, Blue Creek Canyon and Boot Canyon and of the 2,500-foot escarpment to the Sierra Quemada, Santa Elena Canyon and Mexico’s Sierra del Carmen will have you filling up the camera memory card. The entire trail is rugged, taking hikers up and down for 14.5 miles, pushing the limits for one day, but numerous backcountry campsites make it easy to turn it into a two-day trip, and route options cut the distance to 13 miles, or nine, sans the escarpment overlook.

The trail ascends on steep switchbacks and steps through evergreen sumac, mountain mahogany, madrone, beebrush, junipers, pinyon pines and even quaking aspen. We spotted several Carmen Mountain white-tailed deer, found here in the Basin, as well as bright blue Mexican jays and wrens, rock squirrels and canyon lizards. On a rest stop at Boot Springs, we spied fresh scat likely left by a resident black bear. Mountain lions prowl the area as well, so keep a watchful eye. Pick up a Chisos Mountains Trail Map for $1 in the visitor center, or tote a copy of 100 Classic Hikes in Texas by E. Dan Klepper, which covers this and many other Big Bend area trails.

That evening, La Posada’s outdoor kitchen-with-a-view tempted us, but we opted to dine at the Starlight Theatre restaurant in the former mining camp movie theater next door. Generous portions of chicken tacos and pork medallions revived us all. We didn’t mind when our waitress requested “Amarillo by Morning” from the guitar player and took a short break to dance.

The next morning, we headed to the Barton Warnock Environmental Education Center, 12 miles west, which serves as an eastern gateway to Big Bend Ranch State Park. It would take weeks to explore this 300,000-acre park. But we got a taste at the Warnock’s indoor exhibit on 570 million years of geology and natural history, and a self-guided tour of the outdoor botanic garden, home to hundreds of plants from the Chihuahuan Desert’s five biological landscapes.

We had lunch on the spacious outdoor patio at Lajitas Resort’s Candelilla Cafe, then continued on FM 170, aka the River Road. It rises and falls, winding along the Rio Grande from Lajitas to Presidio. A picnic area featuring large fake teepees provided a stop to gaze into Mexico and ponder the work of floods of historic proportions in September 2008. The rushing water dramatically altered the river landscape, removing dense invasive brush and sculpting new gravel bars and channels in the river.

Roughly 20 miles from Lajitas, we hiked Closed Canyon, a tall, narrow slot canyon. It extends about 1.5 miles to the Rio Grande, but depending on rainfall and other conditions, water-filled tinajas can render the route impassable. While we managed to scramble around a few of them, steep walls and an impressive beehive finally stopped us, probably less than a half-mile from the end. I recommend this unusual hike, even if only for a short distance.

Fort Leaton State Historic Site anchors the western end of River Road. First built in the late 1800s as a trading post, the presidio now features both restored rooms and others revealing original adobe bricks and stucco. An indoor exhibit covers the area’s natural and archaeological history, as well as that of residents in the 15th century. Park staffers put together a notebook of impressive photographs from the 2008 floods.

From Presidio, we headed north on Highway 67 to Cibolo Creek Ranch. Luxurious guest rooms featuring fireplaces, tile floors and rustic furnishings occupy an adobe fort built by Milton Faver in the 1800s and restored by current owner John Poindexter. Some rooms look out on a spring-fed stream through a lush courtyard, others on a serene lake. Accommodations include three meals a day, served family style.

Our final day’s agenda included a tour in a modified Humvee, with open seats offering a 360-degree view. Our guide, Dugan Taylor, headed up a ridge bristling with cane cholla and brushy grass. Cibolo Creek Ranch covers 30,000 acres of the Chinati and Cienega mountains, where visitors in the 1800s described an “ocean of grass” as high as a horse’s belly. Overgrazed first by cattle, then sheep and goats, that ocean became a wasteland of invasive creosote, cedar and mesquite. The ranch is restoring the grassland with selective removal of invasives and ongoing maintenance, and has reintroduced bison and elk.

We viewed the falls, then bounced through a narrow passage between two hills to emerge at 5,200 feet with a sweeping view of the ranch and all the way to Mexico. The route descended a steep slope to the Cibolo creekbed, lined by about a dozen rock squatter’s ruins. Taylor pointed out rock paintings from 800 to 2,500 years old, and along the way we spied jackrabbits, mule deer and a variety of birds.

We headed north, reluctantly, toward home. In three days, we may have hit the highlights of Terlingua, but just barely. On the long drive back to Austin, we plotted our next visit.

• Big Bend National Park,, 432-477-2251
• La Posada Milagro Guest House,, 432-371-3044
• Lajitas Resort,, 432-424-5000
• Big Bend Ranch State Park,
• Barton Warnock Environmental Education Center, 432-424-3327
• Fort Leaton, 432-229-3613
• Cibolo Creek Ranch,, 432-229-3737

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Eco-travel blog

I wrote a piece for fellow writer Tracy Barnett's eco-travel blog, Roads Less Traveled, about my Baja sea turtle experience. Slideshow included.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Sea Turtle Experience

See a post about my Sea Turtle Monitoring and Kayak Expedition in Baja California on the SEE Turtles web site. (You'll have to go to 2009 posts; mine is dated 13 November 2009.)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Fellowship Announcement

I had the honor of being selected as a 2009 Ocean Science
Journalism Fellow at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
This year’s program took place September 13-18. I learned about everything from ocean acidification to how sonar affects whales, algae blooms, deep ocean volcanoes, and sea squirts. Watch for future posts of related articles.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Shoot to Thrill

From the July issue of Texas Co-op Power Magazine
See photos at

When he arrived the first day of April 2008, Rolf Nussbaumer scattered the contents of a bag of dog food around the travel trailer that would serve as his temporary home on the Fennessey Ranch outside Refugio. One of 20 professional photographers competing in the Pro-Tour of Nature Photography, Nussbaumer counted on the chow to help attract subjects for his photos.

“Mammals are the toughest to photograph,” he says. “Most are nocturnal. Deer on this ranch are shy. Coyotes and bobcats take a lot of luck. I knew I’d be photographing raccoons, possums and skunks, things you attract with food.

“It isn’t enough to get a photograph,” he adds. “It has to be a good photograph.” Nussbaumer should know: The 2008 winner also took top honors in the first Pro-Tour, in 2006, in the Hill Country. Officials with Images for Conservation Fund (ICF) select 20 professional photographers and 20 landowners, randomly pair the two, and give them 30 days to shoot pictures. The idea is to promote wildlife photography and land conservation by offering the largest wildlife photography purse in the world—$160,000 in total. The 2008 photography competition focused on the Coastal Bend. The competition is held every other year.

The 3,500-acre Fennessey Ranch is blessed with lots of natural water, including nine miles of Mission River front, a 200-acre freshwater marsh and wetlands. With water so readily available, Nussbaumer knew resident wildlife would be unimpressed by the inviting ponds typically used to attract animals to photo blinds. At one blind on the ranch, though, he noticed squirrels. So he put out pecans and soon had four squirrels visiting regularly. Because squirrels aren’t really impressive mammals, photographically speaking, Nussbaumer wanted to photograph them doing something spectacular to impress the judges.

“I hooked a vine up to a tree over to a cup of pecans,” he says. “After the squirrels got used to using that, I separated the vine so they would jump. At first the squirrels just jumped to the ground, so I put some plastic lids on the ground to discourage that.” His efforts paid off in the form of an impressive shot of a squirrel in midair.

To photograph birds, Nussbaumer tried luring them with seed, but feral hogs wreaked havoc on the feeders, and grackles stole what the hogs missed. So he concentrated on the ranch’s marsh, building
a floating blind to get close to the avian action. On the last day of the competition, he shot photos of a grebe with a crayfish in its mouth and a Purple Gallinule. “The last day was my lucky day,” he says. “I took six of the 60 pictures I submitted on that day.”

The abundance of water at least made the amphibian category relatively easy, and insects are never a problem, he says: “Wherever you are, you’ll get those.”

Fennessey owner Brien O’Connor Dunn represents 176 years of family ownership of this land. The ranch still runs cattle and sells hunting leases, but in 1991 began offering birding and educational trips and leasing photography blinds.

Photographers, professional or otherwise, rent the blinds for $100 per day. The ranch also offers guided group tours and group bird-watching for spring and fall migration and hawk migrations. “We made more off photographers last year than cattle,” says Sally Crofutt, the ranch’s general manager. “Animals are worth more alive now. We don’t shoot coyotes, or birds of prey, and we don’t kill rattlesnakes.”

As Dunn puts it, “You can kill a turkey once, but you can take its picture a thousand times.”

That pretty well sums up the philosophy behind the Pro-Tour. “There’s not enough money to purchase adequate land to preserve habitat in Texas,” says ICF founder John Martin. “But nature photography is a $4 billion industry. The Pro-Tours are about making wildlife valuable to landowners.” Nussbaumer and Fennessey Ranch shared $51,000 for their first-place prize in the 2008 Pro-Tour.

Thanks to the growing popularity of nature photography and its economic impact, other landowners are changing their attitudes and land practices. But it can be a tough transition. “The photography market is a tough nut to crack,” Crofutt cautions. “You can’t just put a photographer in your deer blind. It takes a lot of work.”

The Pro-Tour multiplies that work. “If Rolf wanted a hole dug, we dug it,” she says. “He asked for a generator, and we had one for him the next day. People ask why we win, and one reason is we work hard.”

Success takes much more than simply snapping pictures, in other words. Nussbaumer rose most mornings before sunup, took pictures all morning, then had lunch and perhaps a nap. In the afternoon, he explored the ranch for photo opportunities, often making lists of requests for Crofutt. In the evenings, he began taking pictures again, frequently working until midnight.

“I enjoy the contests. You get lots of stock photos that would cost a lot to do on your own,” Nussbaumer says. Nature photographers often have to spend a lot of money to travel to and within a location in order to get marketable photographs, and it usually takes a long time to earn that money back. The Pro-Tour offers a chance to work for a month at little or no expense.

Thirty days, though, isn’t all that long to capture professional images. “You see National Geographic photos, and they (the photographers) were out there five or six months,” Nussbaumer says. “So you can’t waste time on things that might not work out. You concentrate on the things you can get.”

Nussbaumer, a former furniture maker from Switzerland, met his future wife, Karen, in 2000 when he was photographing Bald Eagles in Alaska. After visiting her in Texas, he read about and decided to enter the five-month Valley Land Fund’s Wildlife Photo Contest in the Rio Grande Valley in 2002. The prize money and exposure from winning that event launched his career as a professional photographer. “Going into the Valley competition, I had no clue about what to expect or what would work,” he says. “After a few competitions, you get a better idea. It really helps.”

The couple, now married, recently welcomed a baby, and Nussbaumer took a short break from photography. At their home outside New Braunfels, though, deer wander through the backyard and birds and squirrels crowd a half-dozen feeders scattered around the house. So when he’s ready to pick up the camera again, Nussbaumer won’t have to look far for subjects.


Twenty photographer/landowner teams compete in the one-month tournament. Each team submits images from each of five divisions: 1) birds; 2) mammals; 3) reptiles, amphibians and fish; 4) invertebrates (insects and arachnids); and 5) landscapes, plants and flowers. To qualify as a professional photographer, an individual must have made at least 80 percent of his or her earned income for the past three years from nature photography or have won a qualified competition. Landowners with 1,000 acres or more of diverse habitat may apply.

Laredo will host the 2010 Pro-Tour, which will take place along the South Texas border in eight counties. A grand prize of $40,000 will be shared by the landowner/photographer. Cash prizes are awarded through 10th place, and additional money—$500 per picture—is awarded for a selection of 100 individual photographs chosen by the judges. The entry fee is $1,200 for photographers and $2,200 for landowners. Prize money comes primarily from sponsors. Books from the 2008 competition are available for purchase and are scheduled to be delivered in October. They can be ordered from the ICF website, For more information, call the ICF at (956) 381-1264 or go to

Monday, July 13, 2009

Sea Turtles in Texas

Excerpts from article in the June 2009 issue of Texas Highways.

Long before human feet touched the sandy shores of the western Gulf of Mexico, tens of thousands of female sea turtles visited every summer to lay their eggs. Hatchlings emerged weeks later and scurried into the sea. After 10 or 15 years, many returned to make their own nests and repeat the cycle.

For millennia, this rhythm continued for green, hawksbill, loggerhead, leatherback, and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles. But as the coast developed in the 20th Century, life grew difficult for sea turtles. They drowned in fishing nets. People hunted and killed the turtles or ate their eggs. Development on beaches discouraged turtles from nesting. By the latter half of the 20th Century, all five of these species were listed as threatened or endangered, and by the 1970s, sightings of nests on Texas shores were few and far between. All along the coast, only the Kemp’s ridleys, once the most common Gulf species and now the most critically endangered, nested in any appreciable numbers. Nearly every one of those few hundred nests was dug on a remote beach in Tamaulipas, Mexico.

Then a dedicated international cadre of scientists, government officials, businesses, and citizens sprang into action. The Mexican beach—about 180 miles south of Brownsville—gained protection, and from 1978 to 1988, scientists took eggs from there, incubated them in sand from North Padre Island, and released the baby ridleys on the island in hope of reestablishing nesting in Texas.

In 1986, with the possibility that some of those turtles had reached maturity, Donna Shaver, Chief of the Division of Sea Turtle Science and Recovery at Padre Island National Seashore, began patrolling the beaches for signs that any had returned to nest. Shaver, along with staff and volunteers, continued to patrol for 10 years, occasionally finding a nesting turtle but none that bore a living tag—a small piece of undershell implanted in the upper shells of released turtles. Then, in 1996, Shaver responded to a report of a nesting ridley and found what she’d been looking for at last.

“I brushed the sand off her carapace and saw the living tag,” Shaver says. “I looked three times to be sure. I was ecstatic, after a decade of patrols not finding any, to finally see the first one. To know this was one I had hatched and she had come back! To me it symbolized real hope for the future, the real possibility that what we worked for all those years would come to fruition.” Until that day, scientists had only hoped that nesting could be reestablished in Texas; now they had confirmation. More turtles have returned each year since and, in 2008, 195 Kemp’s ridley nests were found on the Texas coast, 104 of them on North Padre Island.

In Mexico, several thousand Kemp’s ridleys now arrive annually between March and August.

Fortunately, you needn’t trek to the middle of nowhere for an encounter with sea turtles. They have become a major tourist draw on the Texas coast, and this tourism contributes in a big way to the sea turtle’s continuing recovery.

“Public participation is very important,” Shaver says. “The public finds up to half the nests documented on the Texas coast each year, and it’s critical that people know what to do when they see a turtle.” Tours and hatchling releases also provide important opportunities to educate people about threats to sea turtle survival and how simple changes in behavior can help protect them.

Saving Sea Turtles
Want to help endangered sea turtles? Go on vacation.
Okay, it’s not quite that simple. But almost, provided your activities include visiting a place that supports sea turtle conservation.

* Wherever you go, drive carefully on the beach.

* In Texas, report nesting turtles immediately to the statewide hotline (866/TURTLE-5), and don’t approach or disturb turtles.

* From March through August, keep lights low in your beach condo and anywhere around the beach; too much light can discourage nesting turtles, and confuse hatchlings.

* Never throw trash in the water or on the beach, especially anything plastic, which can kill turtles that try to eat it, says Donna Shaver. Pick up plastic bags, bottles, and other trash you see on the beach.

* Unintentional capture during recreational and commercial fishing remains the main cause of ridley mortality, says Shaver. Choose local seafood when possible, preferably caught using turtle-friendly gear (ask if the shrimp boat uses a turtle excluder device). When boating, watch for turtles, and if you see them, slow down. If you spot turtles while fishing, move elsewhere so you won’t accidentally catch or snag one.

A non-profit organization, SEE Turtles, offers trips to sea turtle destinations around the world.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Coast Guard

From the Summer 2009 issue of Wildflower Magazine

Leaving coastline in its natural state is key to protection

After Hurricane Katrina, Russ Marane, president of the St. Simons Land Trust in Georgia, viewed aerial photographs of a two-mile-wide barrier island off the Mississippi coast. On the island’s seaward side, the storm completely flattened trees for about a quarter-mile inland. Trees in the next quarter-mile lost their tops, but on the backside of the island trees remained fully intact. Behind that island, and in contrast to the rest of the coast, “Not a single structure was damaged,” Marane says. “It’s one of the best examples I’ve seen of why you don’t touch barrier islands.”

Coastal landscapes – barrier islands, dunes, wetlands, grassy marshes, woodlands and mangroves – provide protection from the winds, waves and storm surges. This protection is worth an estimated $23.2 billion per year, according to Robert Costanza, Ph.D., professor at The University of Vermont. “Coastal wetlands reduce the damaging effects of hurricanes by absorbing storm energy in ways that neither solid land nor open water can,” he says. “Coastal vegetation also decreases surges and waves and maintains shallow water depths, which has the same effect.”

Wetlands also serve as filters, cleaning rainwater before sending it out to the ocean or aquifer. By contrast, water quickly runs off pavement and other impervious surfaces, carrying with it fertilizers, pesticides, oil, heavy metals and other chemicals. This pollution is directly related to the amount of impervious cover and is the leading threat to water quality nationwide.

A natural coastline is also more durable than an altered one. Wetland systems and mangroves reduce shoreline erosion by retaining sediment, a function especially critical where dams and levees reduce the flow of sediment from rivers. Beach dunes serve as reservoirs of sand, slowing erosion and replenishing beaches. Artificial seawalls, ironically, contribute to further erosion. In response, communities often rebuild beaches with sand dredged from the ocean floor. This sand is different from what occurs on the beach naturally, thus disrupting vegetation and wildlife. This approach also damages the marine environment and is very expensive. “It would be more sensible and economical to leave dune systems intact,” says David Godfrey, executive director of the Caribbean Conservation Corporation, “and keep development far enough behind them to account for normal and storm-wrought changes on the beach.”

It is far too late, of course, to leave much of the U.S. coastline in its natural state. However, better development practices can preserve many benefits of those natural systems. Three key practices, according to Texas SeaGrant and the Gulf Coast Institute, are creating compact development, controlling stormwater run-off, and preserving as much open or natural space as possible.

“The one thing that does the most by far is compact development,” says John Jacob, associate professor, Texas A&M University, and director of the Texas Coastal Watershed Program. “Nothing else comes close.” Compact development may create more impervious cover on a few acres, but it results in less overall. For example, a typical suburban layout of four units per acre for 1,000 houses would cover 250 acres. At 10 units per acre, those same 1,000 homes occupy 100 acres. A 20-house-per-acre development, such as townhomes, occupies only 50 acres. “Fifty is a big difference from 250,” Jacob says. “And you get a more interesting neighborhood, with the benefits you get from bringing people together and the natural environment around you. It’s the best of both worlds.”

Palmetto Bluff in South Carolina is a development of Crescent Resources, and it clusters development in three villages on 20,000 acres. Patty Kennedy, executive director of the non-profit Palmetto Bluff Conservancy, says, “We are developing in areas where settlement had historically occurred.” Much of the rest of the land is left undisturbed.

Building more compact communities allows developers to protect dunes, wetlands and open space – and to enjoy their benefits – says John Kuriawa, a coastal management specialist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Ocean and Coastal Resource Management Office on the Chesapeake Bay. “Sprawl clearly results in degradation of water.”

Kuriawa explains that people can take action at every level. Individuals can leave trees and reduce the size of driveways. Subdivisions can put in narrower roads, permeable pavement and swales. The city or regional level offers the opportunity to protect large areas of natural landscape. “One of the best things is to convert existing impervious cover to accommodate growth, rather than allowing it to spread and cause death by a million cuts,” Kuriawa says. “An abandoned mall can be redeveloped into mixed use with open space.”

One of the most important tools, he adds, is for communities to protect and encourage the use of native plants and trees.

“Natural landscapes need little maintenance. You don’t have to mow, edge, fertilize or water once they are established,” says Meg Whitmer, landscape architect and director of the Land to Sea Initiative at the Ocean Research and Conservation Association. “The best thing is to gently place your home among what is there naturally.”

That was the approach the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas took in building Mustang Island Conference Center, a dining hall and two dorms connected by boardwalks. “We looked at the buildings more as a ship at sea, parting the waters and leaving no evidence behind,” says David Richter, FAIA, LEED AP, of Richter Architects in Corpus Christi. “One of the most beautiful plants that grows on the island is a vine. We designed the buildings the way that vine meanders across the ground.” In the space underneath the elevated buildings, where it is too shady for native plants to grow, he put permeable surface for parking with a moveable perimeter.

“Outside of that perimeter, we didn’t do anything. We didn’t bring in one plant or do any kind of landscaping,” Richter says. “In my opinion that is not done enough on barrier islands.”
Native plants help minimize runoff by mimicking natural hydrologic processes, says Darla Inglis, Ph.D., lead for the central coast office of The Low Impact Development Center, especially when combined with measures such as rain barrels, cisterns, rain gardens, green roofs and permeable pavement.

In the Florida panhandle, St. Joe Company uses native plants in developed areas and prohibits grass lawns for individual homes, according to wildlife biologist Jim Moyers, community development naturalist for WaterSound and WaterColor communities. This reduces run-off; what remains is collected in ponds. “All the run-off from WaterSound Beach goes to five large ponds, which takes energy out of the run-off, decreases erosion and settles out the crud from the streets,” Moyers says. “These are also landscaped with native wetland plants to mimic a natural wetland, so they also have wildlife enhancement value.”

Palmetto Bluffs requires residential rainwater harvesting. It also actively preserves natural space by requiring a 100-foot setback along the riverfront and by prohibiting clearing. In addition, on a 500-acre parcel approved for 100 homes, the company planned only 10 lots and placed about half of the acres under conservation easement.

St. Joe Company has set aside coastal dune areas, explains Moyers, in some cases to conserve federally listed endangered species. “But we treat this area as a community amenity. It has value as a visual amenity and in some cases protection for development behind it. We get a lot of benefits from keeping the dunes – the plant and animal species that inhabit those systems, a great vista from the developed area and that protection from Mother Nature.” Hurricanes Ivan in 2004 and Dennis in 2005 proved that the approach works. “All we lost was the front half of tall dunes, the natural landscape – which regenerates – and boardwalks over the dunes, which are easily replaced. We didn’t lose any real property – houses or hardened structures.”
At Asilomar Conference Center, on 107 acres of state park land near Pacific Grove, California, structures built in the 1920s were situated behind the dunes. Those dunes, however, suffered from decades of heavy use. Beginning in the 1990s, a restoration project removed non-native plants, planted natives and installed boardwalks.

“Asilomar is a classic example of coastal development with dune restoration, buildings set back from the ocean and a boardwalk through the dunes,” says Travis Longcore, science director of The Urban Wildlands Group. “Current developments could learn from this.”

One lesson – the importance of preserving or restoring native vegetation – applies even in urban areas. San Francisco Bay, the largest and most ecologically important estuary on the U.S. Pacific Coast, could hardly be called a natural system after more than a century of drainage, pollution and alteration. Fortunately, intense efforts by an alliance of public agencies, nonprofit organizations and citizen groups have restored hundreds of acres of native habitat, including native flowering eelgrass, Zostera marina. The grass provides nursery habitat for fin fish and crabs, as well as keystone habitat for bay scallops, and it contributes to improved water quality.

An even larger eelgrass restoration project in The Nature Conservancy’s 38,000-acre Virginia Coast Reserve began more than a decade ago. The effort is a joint partnership between The Nature Conservancy and the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences and relies heavily on volunteers to collect seeds in the spring for planting in the fall. The project has planted more than 200 acres, and the grass has spread on its own to cover roughly 1,450 acres, says Barry Truitt, chief scientist for the Virginia Coast Reserve.

The health of this underwater prairie, like that of all coastal systems, depends on water quality. Water quality is affected by everything that happens on the land, and that, of course, depends on us.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Wave Riders

As a teenager, I spent a good part of each summer strolling the sand at Galveston. On the radio, The Beach Boys sang about California girls, and Hollywood movies always featured perfect waves and Pacific Ocean sunsets, but that didn’t make surfers on Texas beaches any less cool. Despite surfing’s influence on the pop culture of my youth, though, I never got around to trying surfing myself.
As an adult, I love the beach as much as ever, and my kids fell under the ocean’s spell at an early age. And they wanted to surf. After trying boogie boards and body surfing, we discovered that Texas has surfing camps and lessons for all levels and ages. The instructors confidently vow that just about anyone can surf, and they deliver on that promise.
Surfing, you see, quickly becomes addictive. After catching one wave, surfers want to catch another—one that’s bigger, or that goes farther. Then one more, and still another, and just one last wave, until an entire afternoon is gone and no one has uttered the words ‘I’m bored’—though I may have whimpered ‘I’m tired’ a time or two.
Weeklong camp suits kids perfectly, allowing time for thorough instruction and plenty of practice. Camp also provides opportunities for activities like creating a giant surfboard raft, building sandcastles, and playing games on the beach.
For those without a week to spare, or families that want to learn together, individual or small-group lessons are an alternative.
In Texas these days, there are at least two reasons that more boards are hitting the water. First, surfers no longer scoff at Texas waves, in part thanks to Texas Surf Camp’s Morgan Faulkner himself. He holds two national surfing titles, 22 Texas titles, and other assorted accolades; is a former member of the U.S. Surfing Team; and is now a professional competitor in the World Qualifying Series. Faulkner credits much of his success to learning on the unpredictable waves off Port Aransas. “If you can surf in Texas, you can surf anywhere,” he says. While no one is likely to confuse Texas surf with that of Hawaii or California, there are plenty of waves to ride—and the water is warm enough that surfers rarely need a wetsuit.
Second, folks are realizing you don’t have to be young, buff, and a little rebellious to surf.
Surf shops do cultivate that image, and it probably attracts a fair number of teens to the sport. But there are plenty of, ahem, mature surfers out there, and there’s plenty of ocean for everyone.
Cool photo at
See the full article in June 2009 issue of Texas Highways, which also has my article on sea turtles.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Hotels that Help

From the summer issue of Virtuoso Life Magazine
by Melissa Gaskill
New York City resident Krista Krieger recently participated in rhino research while on safari at South Africa’s andBeyond Phinda Private Game Reserve, a collection of lodges discreetly placed among 56,800 acres of abundant wildlife and magnificent scenery. Rangers at the reserve notch each rhino’s ears for easy identification and insert a microchip in their horns to help track their whereabouts. Krieger’s group patrolled the bush by jeep, searching for an unmarked rhino, which the preserve veterinarian shot with a sedative dart. “Darting the rhino was very exciting,” she says. “I got to touch the rhino and inject it with antibiotics.” Krieger, veteran of a number of safaris, cites Phinda’s program as a good example of how effective management can bring back a devastated population of animals.

It’s also a good example of an emerging travel trend: volunteering on vacation. In 2007, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service, more than 3.7 million Americans volunteered away from home. Even more telling, in an MSNBC poll, 95 percent of those who volunteered on vacation said they’ll do it again.

“The opportunities for volunteering on vacation have probably increased a hundredfold in the past five years,” says David Clemmons, founder of

“Participating in a volunteer experience can make a trip personally enriching and much more meaningful,” says Sue Stephenson, vice president of Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company’s Community Footprints program, which offers volunteering through Give Back Getaways at many of its properties. “It deepens the experience of visiting a unique place. Our guests describe it as inspirational and educational, and say they never felt so appreciated.”

Here are a few of the growing number of hotels offering the opportunity to combine good times with good works.

Mandarin Oriental, Miami
Everglades Restoration

The Mandarin Oriental, Miami on Brickell Key works closely with Everglades National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site – and so can you. Hotel guests can grab a box lunch and hop in a hybrid vehicle to drive to the park, about an hour away, where they spend the morning helping park staff restore Everglades habitat, perhaps planting native South Florida trees in areas affected by invasive plants or removing those invasive species. After lunch, a ranger leads a tour of the park, pointing out alligators, herons, and other wildlife, and showing participants how to “slog,” or wade through shallow waters like the locals. Doubles from $245, including breakfast and a $100 spa credit (Everglades transfers and box lunches extra).

King Pacific Lodge, British Columbia
A Whale of a Time

A luxury eco-lodge floating off Princess Royal Island in British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest, this hotel offers educational programs about the area’s orca and humpback whales through a partnership with the North Coast Cetacean Society (NCCS). Now guests can serve as research assistants on NCCS outings, helping scientists photograph individual whales for identification and gathering data on whale location and movement. After their departure, participants receive regular reports detailing sightings and progress of the whales they studied during their visit. “The lodge has long supported our work on the complex social and physical relationships of humpback whales,” says NCCS’s Janie Wray. “This new program forges an enduring association between these animals and guests.” Doubles from $3,841 for three nights, including all meals and beverages and a welcome sake set.

The Fairmont Acapulco Princess
Sea Turtle Sanctuary

From August to January, several species of endangered sea turtles nest on beaches near this iconic 15-story pyramid rising from the lush tropical landscape. The hotel collects and protects turtle eggs, and to date has released more than 150,000 hatchlings into the Pacific Ocean, often with the help of guests. Ecologist Vincente Batalla explains the sea turtle’s life cycle and threats to its survival, then lets guests select a turtle from among 50 or so hatchlings, release it on the sand, and shepherd it safely into the water. Without assistance, Batalla says, many hatchlings would not make it past hazards that include tourists and lights, which can disorient the turtles. Guests name their hatchling and receive a certificate and a turtle cookie created by the hotel chef. Doubles from $193, including breakfast and a $100 spa credit.

Four Seasons Resort
Saving the Sonoran

From this complex of Southwestern-style casitas and serene pools high in the dramatic Sonoran Desert landscape, take a hike – a desert preservation hike, that is. The guided walk in adjacent Pinnacle Peak Park concludes with guests planting a buckhorn cholla cactus, Fairy Duster, or other native plant. On the hike John Loleit, coordinator for the city park, shares his wealth of knowledge about the area’s signature plants, animals, archaeology, and geology, pointing out, for example, edible plants and those used by Native Americans for medicinal purposes. “People see the desert in a different light after the hike,” he says. “And because most plants here are long-lived, people can come back in five or ten years and see the one they planted. It gives them a nice connection with this place, a feeling that they helped out.” Doubles from $195, including breakfast.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Trips To Bountiful

For the enlightened and adventurous traveler, serendipity transforms every trip: Hiking a new trail and rounding a bend to encounter an unexpected vista, journeying to a destination you’ve heard about—or visiting a familiar place with someone who’s never been—without an agenda. Or, in the case of pursuing Texas wildflowers, finding yourself surprised with the splashes and brushstrokes of red, blue, orange, and purple that appear in the landscape.
From year to year, nature’s wildflower displays vary dramatically. Rainfall (or lack there--of), the timing of the first freeze, the length of warm spells-—all these weather-related factors determine the palette in each spring’s bloom. And human actions, such as mowing, irrigation, and development, also play a role.
In any given year, wildflowers will bloom—some time, some place—in Texas. When, where, and in exactly what types and quantities—well, finding the answer to that question creates the thrill of the chase. We’ve selected four driving routes that, based on the predictions of experts at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, should offer some of this year’s best wildflower viewing (we selected for variety, too).

See the print edition for additional information on compelling roadside stops, places to stay, and other attractions, so you’ll have fun on your road trip no matter what.

Brenham/Chappell Hill
Set aside a few hours to enjoy this 90-mile drive that scrawls a rough figure-8 around the Brenham area in Washington County. Start from Brenham and
head northeast on Texas 105 through rolling hills, pastures, stands of oaks, and blooming flowers such as purple coneflower, verbena, beardtongue, coral bean, skullcaps, and prairie parsley. A few miles from the city limits, look off to the right for the Monastery Miniature Horse Farm, where the Franciscan Poor Clare nuns maintain a herd of cute, waist-high horses.
If you’re in no hurry, visit Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site, home of the Star of the Republic Museum and Barrington Living History Farm. However, be forewarned. You’d need an entire day to do it justice. Because wildflowers rule this excursion, hustle back to scenic, flower-lined FM 1155.
Drive slowly down the single street that passes through Chappell Hill’s quaint business district. Turn right at US 290 and take the Austin exit in Brenham to remain on 290 roughly 14 miles to the turn-off for Burton, FM 1697. Pay attention, because this stretch of highway often provides some of the lushest bluebonnet spreads in the entire state. Also look for Indian paintbrush, yellow wild indigo, thistles, blue-eyed grass, rattlesnake flower, blanket flower, and rosinweed.
In Independence, stop in Old Baylor Park on the side of the road. Site of the original Baylor University, the park now boasts excellent bluebonnet photo ops. Other usual suspects rounded up here include primroses, lyre leaf sage, prairie Brazos mint, and mayhaw trees. Turn right on FM 50, which takes you back to Texas 105 and Brenham.

Big Bend
This rough and winding route puts many miles on your vehicle, but the visual treats will prove more than enough reward. In the morning, take RM 170 west to the Barton Warnock Environmental Education Center, a source of information on points of interest along the scenic River Road, including Big Bend Ranch State Park. The Center’s herbarium houses 1,100 plant specimens discovered by noted Texas botanist Barton Warnock, plus exhibits on area geology, natural history, and a
2 ½-acre desert garden.
Armed with know-ledge, continue west toward Presidio. Look for blooming cacti, Big Bend bluebonnets, blind cactus, rainbow cactus, cat claw, strawberry pitaya, nama or fiddleleaf, bicolor fan mustard, ocotillo, cenizo, desert marigolds, and rock nettles. Stop to hike Closed Canyon, a narrow slot canyon, where you may spy hechtia, and the Rancherias Canyon Trail to observe unique riparian denizens, including marsh centaury.

In addition to wildflowers, look for herds of pronghorn antelope. The drive on US 90 east to Alpine is dominated by grasslands where yucca and sotol bloom in the spring. In Alpine, have lunch or dinner at La Trattoria, celebrated for authentic Italian fare. Then turn on Texas 118 South back toward Terlingua. Along this scenic road, look for Mexican buckeyes and more wildflowers in the mid-elevations, and flowering desert scrub in lower areas.

Northeast Texas, Caddo Lake State Park, Cass County
You’ll begin and end this wildflower drive in Marshall, which offers numerous accommodations on US 59, including a handful of B&Bs. Head north along Texas 43 from Marshall to Karnack, and you may see bull thistle, coreopsis, and, at the edge of the woods, beardtongue. In low-lying areas, keep your eyes peeled for common rose mallow and giant coneflower, the latter with yellow blooms that can soar six feet high. Take FM 2198 to Uncertain, where crimson clover and coreopsis often bloom, along with partridge pea, downy phlox, bluebonnets, Mexican hats, and wild indigo.
Heavily wooded Caddo Lake State Park curves around Saw Mill Pond and connects to Lake Caddo. On park trails, look for blooming Spanish moss; rent a canoe or kayak and paddle past floating bladderwort, blooming cabomba, fragrant water lily, and American lotus among the moss-shrouded bald cypress trees.

Make your way back to Texas 43 and continue north to Atlanta, then take US 59 to Linden. Along the way, look for coreopsis, crimson clover, spiderwort, phlox, and bachelor buttons gracing the landscape. Continue on Texas 155 to the tiny town of Avinger, then Texas 49 to Jefferson. A bustling port in the 1840s, Jefferson faded when the railroad arrived in Marshall, but you’ll find plenty of mansions turned B&Bs, as well as the historic Excelsior House and Jefferson Hotels, both famously haunted. Consider a bayou boat tour or a ride on a paddlewheel steamer on Caddo Lake, then treat yourself to French cuisine at the Stillwater Inn Restaurant. Or, to keep the pie theme going, visit House of Pies, then take US 59 back to Marshall. Other flowers likely to show themselves along this route include Indian paintbrush, larkspur, red buckeye, butterfly weed, and black-eyed Susans.

Franklin Mountains
This route follows Loop 375, or the Trans-Mountain Road, through Franklin Mountains State Park, at 37 square miles, the nation’s largest urban park—all of it within El Paso’s city limits.
West of El Paso on Interstate 10, take the Canutillo/Trans-Mountain Road (Loop 375) exit and drive 3.8 miles to the park entrance. The Northern Chihuahuan Desert vegetation here includes lechuguilla, sotol, ocotillo, several types of yucca, and many cactus species. Some plant species found here, such as the Southwest barrel cactus, grow nowhere else in Texas. The Trans-Mountain Road reaches 5,120 feet elevation and passes the Ron Coleman Trail, a hike that affords up-close looks at blooming cacti. Fields of bright yellow mountain poppies, one of the park’s most spectacular sights, can best be seen on the eastern slope of the Franklins at the El Paso Museum of Archeology—providing, of course, the weather co-operates. Hike the short Sneed’s Cory trail in the Tom Mays Unit to see pineapple cactus, Chihuahuan fishhook cactus, and agave. This area offers additional trails, picnic sites, and primitive camping; the park also has RV sites. And, remember to visit the store located at park headquarters in McKelligon Canyon on the east side of the park.
For more dramatic and sweeping vistas, consider a ride on the Wyler Aerial Tramway. Take in the view of El Paso from here at 4,692 feet, and check out the cactus garden. An observation platform at the top affords 360-degree views of the park you just traversed, plus glimpses of three states and two countries.
This is just the highlights. See the full article and beautiful photos in the April issue of Texas Highways magazine!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Friday, April 3, 2009

Tourist Towns That Treat You Right

When budgets get tight, luxury vacations to exotic destinations become harder to swing. But in a state as big and varied as Texas, finding a weekend getaway is as easy as opening the map. Small and big towns offer reasonable prices, friendly folks and many one-of-a-kind attractions. Just in time for warmer weather, here are five places that would love to have you for a visit.

Fun in the saddle and off the trail

Any town that bills itself as the Cowboy Capital of the World darn well better have cowboys and horses around, and Bandera doesn’t disappoint. Pickups and folks in jeans and muddy boots populate Main Street, local restaurants serve steak and barbecue, and shops stock cowboy duds and décor. Best of all, dude ranches crowd the south side of town like hungry livestock around a hay bale, and would-be cowpokes can choose from a variety of price ranges and amenities.

My family once took a foreign exchange student to Flying L Guest Ranch for a real taste of the West, in style. The villas, designed by an associate of Frank Lloyd Wright, feature separate living and sleeping quarters, fireplaces and Western décor. Ranch meals highlight Hill Country cuisine, and creek-side barbecue dinners come complete with sunsets and entertainment such as singing and roping demonstrations. Our horseback ride along a pretty creek ended with rodeo games that included retrieving ribbons from the horns of mighty quick little goats. A swimming pool and water park, petting zoo and 18-hole golf course helped keep everyone busy. The only amenities that aren’t included in lodging are horseback riding, golf and lunch.

The smaller, quieter Running-R Ranch abuts the Hill Country State Natural Area, 5,000 acres of rocky hills, grassland, creeks and oak groves. A former working ranch donated to the state on the condition that it be left as natural as possible, the park offers some of the best hikes in the state, in my humble opinion—from a steep climb to the top of Twin Peaks, 1,760 feet high with a panoramic 360-degree view, to a six-mile loop through varied landscapes and past a tranquil pond, and a short jaunt along scenic West Verde Creek to a genuine swimming hole.

Equestrians from across the state come for the trails, bunking in group camping areas equipped with stalls or the old ranch house and barn. The rest of us can stay at the Running-R, where horses are provided, along with wranglers to lead rides to the natural area. These fellers also joke, sing and answer questions about the ranch, the horses and the countryside. A night’s stay at one of 14 oak-shaded cabins includes a two-hour ride as well as swimming, campfires, hayrides, table tennis, horseshoes and mountain biking. We watched the sun set from our porch before hitting the hay in handmade cedar-post beds. Breakfast and lunch are also included with lodging. For dinner, guests can fire up one of the ranch grills, but we opted to chow down in town at the OST Restaurant and Busbee’s BBQ, with a little pre-prandial shopping to boot.

Bandera’s other signature feature is the cool, green Medina River. Cottages at the River Front Motel face the river and are a short walk from Main Street. An afternoon spent tubing the cypress-shaded Medina is just the ticket for soothing a saddle-sore body. Several operators rent tubes and kayaks and provide shuttle service for floats of various lengths (and even provide pickup and dropoff at some dude ranches). When water levels drop too low for tubing, a dammed area in Bandera’s City Park remains deep enough for floating, and pedal boats can be rented there. The park has picnic tables and grills as well.

Running-R Ranch: (830) 796-3984,

Flying L Guest Ranch: 1-800-292-5134,

River Front Motel: 1-800-870-5671,

Bandera Convention and Visitors Bureau: 1-800-364-3833,

Find more than sand at this beach city

For a beach destination, Corpus Christi provides excellent options as well as a convenient, mid-coast location.

Corpus Christi Beach, north of downtown and on the west side of the bay, feels like a small beach town and is great for a quick sandy fix loaded with extras. We opt for one of the beachside hotels; ground-floor rooms at the Quality Inn & Suites lead right onto the beach, and the pool at the Radisson overlooks the action on the sand and the USS Lexington Museum on the Bay, just a short stroll away. Five self-guided tour routes of this World War II-era aircraft carrier cover roughly 20 percent of her 16 decks and include shows at the MEGA large-
format theater. The ship offers a flight simulator, café and store, too.

Also within easy walking distance, the Texas State Aquarium showcases more than 300 species, mostly from the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Highlights include an offshore rig and Flower Gardens exhibits, jellyfish tanks, dolphin shows (with a viewing area for watching the action underwater), sea otters, rescued sea turtles and the Hawn Wild Flight Theater, where owls, hawks, falcons and other impressive birds strut their stuff. Between the aquarium and hotels lie several blocks of seafood restaurants and shops. After a hearty meal of Gulf shrimp followed by an ice cream cone, we fell asleep to the sound of waves and the glow of the Lexington’s neon lights.

For a bigger serving of sand and surf, head to Mustang Island State Park, south of Corpus Christi Bay across the Intracoastal Waterway. The park’s stretch of beach ends at a jetty popular for fishing. On a recent visit, we clambered over the giant granite blocks to the end, where small sea turtles and schools of fish swim in the green water, and watched a skilled angler land a string of nice trout. The sheltered area is nice for swimming, and showers at the park bathhouse meant we could clean up afterward and stop at our favorite seafood restaurant, Snoopy’s Pier. It sits right on the water under the causeway to the island, making for great boat, bird and dolphin watching.

Padre Island National Seashore is the Thanksgiving feast of beach fixes: It’s more than anyone could possibly consume, but it’s a heck of a lot of fun to try. Its 70 miles constitute the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world. The Malaquite Visitors Center includes exhibits and touch displays, a bathhouse, park store, water fountains and covered picnic tables. Follow the boardwalk to Mala- quite Beach; campsites here include 24-hour access to showers and toilets. Primitive camping is allowed anywhere along the rest of the island (permits required, available at the visitor center). The beach between mile posts 0 and 5 is maintained for driving, but after that, it’s strictly four-wheel-drive. My oldest daughter and I once borrowed an FJ Cruiser and went as far as mile 40. Except for the occasional hard-core angler and mile markers every five miles, we saw nothing but deep sand, seashells, tall dunes, deer tracks and, on our way back, a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle.

These sea turtles enjoy quite a bit of fame at the National Seashore, where researchers collect eggs from nests along 80 miles of beach, incubate them in a lab and release hatchlings. The public is invited to many of these summer releases, and one of my all-time favorite things remains the sight of dozens of palm-sized hatchlings scrambling over sand hills and seaweed mountains into the waiting surf. Call the hatchling hotline, (361) 949-7163, for release dates.

USS Lexington Museum on the Bay: (361) 888-4873,

Texas State Aquarium: (361) 881-1200,

Mustang Island State Park: (361) 749-5246,

Padre Island National Seashore: (361) 949-8068,

Corpus Christi Convention and Visitors Bureau: 1-800-766-2322,

Small town packs a big cultural punch

The tiny town of Round Top enjoys widespread renown for, of all things, performing arts. How did this happen? Distinguished pianist James Dick, dreaming of a summer place where young musicians could receive intensive training and put on performances, founded The International Festival Institute at Round Top in 1971. He acquired 6 acres occupied by an abandoned school building in 1973 and began to populate the land with historic buildings, one by one. Early orchestra performances were held on an outdoor stage. Construction of a spectacular, 1,100-seat concert hall proceeded on a pay-as-you-go basis, with concerts held inside the walls before the building had a roof, floor or seats. Now complete at last, the acoustically and aesthetically beautiful hall forms the centerpiece of the institute, grown to 210 acres with artists’ residences, practice rooms and dining facilities. Extensive landscaping, including herb and rose gardens, invites lingering, and beautiful stone walls, towers, walks and other surprises encourage wandering the grounds.

“It is all open to the public. You can come and take a tour or just walk around,” says Alain Declert, program director. Events happen year-round and include a Theatre Forum and Choral Festival in November, the Nutcracker Ballet in December, guitar festivals, poetry readings, symphony performances and forums, culminating in the Institute’s raison d’etre, a six-week-long summer music festival. The 39th season coming this summer promises works by Tchaikovsky, Strauss, Brahms, Beethoven and others, performed by an orchestra of 85 musicians chosen by auditions across the country back in January and February. Tickets can be purchased for the entire festival or individual performances, even by spur-of-the-moment visitors, says Declert: “We always have tickets at the door.”

Round Top’s population barely breaks 80, and its location on State Highway 237 miles from a major thoroughfare keeps traffic light. So most businesses in town open only on weekends and for the area’s spectacular twice-a-year antique events. Time it right, though, and enjoy shopping that runs the gamut from European linens to cigars, wine, art, soap and jewelry. Royer’s Round Top Café on the square is known for its pies, and Klump’s Restaurant, across from the tiny Chamber of Commerce office, bucks the weekend-only policy, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. Popular with locals, thanks to a folksy charm and hearty food, Klump’s dishes up barbecue at noon on Saturday, catfish on Friday night and specials every Sunday.

Across the square, Henkel Square Museum Village re-creates 19th-century Texas German pioneer life and architecture. Thursday through Sunday, enter through the apothecary building for self-guided tours of the eight restored homes, barn, schoolhouse and church, encircling a large open space where reenactments and other events often take place. The town’s name, incidentally, comes from an early stagecoach stop, a house with a round top.

A few miles down the road, structures from the 1800s constitute Winedale village, a division of the Center for American History at The University of Texas at Austin. A German community cultivated grapes here in the late 1800s. Houston philanthropist Ima Hogg purchased the land, part of Stephen F. Austin’s original colony, and donated it to the university in 1965. Each July and August, the site hosts Shakespeare at Winedale, plays presented by university students in a 19th-century barn converted to an Elizabethan theater. Other programs go on year-round, and the visitor center is open weekdays, with docent-led tours available by prior arrangement. Otherwise, visitors may stroll the grounds without entering the half-dozen historical structures and enjoy the small lake and picnic area.

If the small-town charm and highfalutin activities make it hard to leave, no problem. The rolling hills around Round Top harbor dozens of bed-and-breakfast establishments. Examples include Anderson’s Round Top Inn, with rooms in five different settings just off the square, and historic Knittel Homestead Inn in nearby Burton, which includes a parlor to relax in and hot breakfast each morning.

The International Festival Institute at Round Top: (979) 249-3086,

Henkel Square Museum Village: (979) 249-3308,

Winedale: (979) 278-3530,

Anderson’s Round Top Inn: 1-877-738-6746,

Knittel Homestead Inn: (979) 289-5102,

Round Top Chamber of Commerce: (979) 249-4042,

On the plains, art and history collide

“It just crept into my hands, honest,” reads a diamond-shaped sign in a yard on 10th Street. “The world is full of shipping clerks who have read the Harvard classics,” reads another, next to a barbershop just north of downtown. These and dozens more enigmatic postings, scattered randomly across Amarillo, sprang from the mind of artist and philanthropist Stanley Marsh 3. During a five- or 10-year period—he didn’t really keep track—Marsh provided the signs to anyone willing to have one. That included, apparently, residents of high- and low-brow neighborhoods alike, as well as a variety of businesses.

Marsh says his inspiration came from bits of country-western songs, poems, pithy quotes and other phrases, rearranged as he saw necessary to fit within the diamond and be readable from the road. Looking for the signs while navigating the town is something of a treasure hunt; Marsh won’t say how many there are, and listing locations would spoil the fun.

Easier to spot is the most famous Marsh installment, Cadillac Ranch, 10 of said cars buried nose down in a pasture on the eastbound side of Interstate 40. Bring your own spray paint or grab one of the cans usually lying around and add to the layers of graffiti covering each chassis, incontrovertible evidence of the deep human desire to leave a mark.

For much older evidence of that desire, head to Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument, part of the Lake Meredith National Recreation Area about a half hour north of Amarillo. On free tours of the quarries offered daily between Memorial and Labor days (by reservation only), explore the high-quality flint prized by ancient residents for toolmaking and trade and view some petroglyphs, a sophisticated sort of early graffiti. The Lake Meredith Aquatic and Wildlife Museum in Fritch includes displays on the flint and people who used it, along with two aquariums and dioramas of area wildlife, from bobcats to owls and eagles.

A new exhibit at the Don Harring- ton Discovery Center, Hunters of the Sky, focuses on some of the raptors seen wild in the area. The center also offers exhibits on bodies and space, a series of aquaria, a planetarium, temporary displays and a monument to helium, one of Amarillo’s significant natural resources. At the Botanical Gardens next door, visit a tropical conservatory and gardens.

More conventional than Marsh’s signs, but also fun to search for, more than 90 fiberglass, life-sized horses decorated by local artists grace locations around town. Called Hoofprints of the American Quarter Horse, the project was sponsored by Center City of Amarillo and the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame & Museum. That facility takes a comprehensive look at this most Texan of breeds through interactive exhibits and historic and educational displays.

Historic Route 66 staggers across Amarillo, most of it unrecognizable as a former major route across the continent’s western half. But a smattering of retro motels remains, and the city dubbed roughly 12 blocks on the west side of town as the Route 66 Historic District, something worth wandering. A handful of antique shops, quilt shops and art galleries alternate with cafés, lounges, bars and diners, some looking much as they did in the famous highway’s heyday. Nettez House of Dessertz serves breakfast along with quiche, sandwiches and the like, and, of course, homemade cakes and pies, with meringue that would make Grandma proud.

The Panhandle Plains Historical Museum, a half hour south on the campus of West Texas A&M Uni-
versity in Canyon, claims to be the largest history museum in Texas. It houses more than 3 million artifacts, from fossils to working windmills, cars, blankets, guns and paintings. The People of the Plains exhibit shows how humans have survived in this area for 14,000 years, and Pioneer Town re-creates turn-of-the century life and includes what may be the oldest building in Texas. Bet it never had a Stanley Marsh sign, though.

Lake Meredith National Recreation Area/Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument: (806) 857-3151,;

Lake Meredith Aquatic and Wildlife Museum: (806) 857-2458

Don Harrington Discovery Center: (806) 355-9547,

American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame & Museum: (806) 376-5181,

Panhandle Plains Historical Museum: (806) 651-2244,

Amarillo Convention and Visitors Council: 1-800-692-1338,

Release your inner beau and belle

If only the tourists would play along and dress in period styles … shorts and T-shirts scream “wrong century,” but fortunately, town boosters welcome visitors in almost any attire.

Jefferson’s heyday was the 1840s when Big Cypress Creek was cleared for navigation and it became the state’s leading inland port, with paddleboats plying cotton and other goods downstream and returning with supplies to build grand mansions. The coming of the railroad to nearby Marshall in the 1870s signaled the end of Jefferson’s grand era. But the mansions are still there. So are two hotels dating from the 1850s, the Excelsior House and the Historic Jefferson Hotel. Both are said to be haunted, as are many other bed-and-breakfasts in the area. On a recent trip we encountered a couple who had stayed at a bed-and-breakfast where doors mysteriously opened and closed and lights came on by themselves. On Saturday nights, a human-guided ghost tour leaves at 8 from outside the Jefferson Historical Society and Museum at 223 W. Austin St. Other tours can be arranged via reservation.

The candlelight Tour of Homes held several weekends in December is a wonderful time to see a handful of specially decorated historic homes. But any time of year, one can take a walking tour, driving tour or horse-drawn carriage tour of Jefferson’s almost overwhelming historic district. Some of the homes that are not bed-and-breakfasts provide tours. One of the best is the House of the Seasons with its four-color glass cupola.

A walk down West Austin Street takes you past not only the two hotels but also the delightfully jumbled Jefferson Texas General Store. It has an old-fashioned soda fountain, vintage toys and posters, candies, jams, gimmie caps, books, cards—you name it. Fred’s Books on the Bayou, also on West Austin Street, is the antithesis of the chain bookstore. Ninety-year-old proprietor Fred McKenzie is the town’s pre-eminent historian and author of Hickory Hill: Family Stories of Race, Religion and Romance in an East Texas Town and Avinger Texas, USA. One can take an hour’s trip on the bayou with Turning Basin Riverboat Tours. Or get a ride on an actual paddlewheel steamer, the Graceful Ghost, on nearby Caddo Lake. Call before making a visit, because neither boat runs all year.

Jefferson’s variety of restaurants is surprising for a town of 2,000. Try Lamache’s Italian Restaurant in the Historic Jefferson Hotel. People brag about the lasagna, but we preferred the Roma del Mar. The restaurant has a warm atmosphere and an impressive list of seafood and other specials. Chef-owned Stillwater Inn Restaurant serves sophisticated French/American cuisine with fresh herbs and homemade stocks. The best breakfast in town, complete with dainty Orange Blossom Muf- fins, comes with the bed-and-breakfast package at the Excelsior House. You may not be as well dressed as the fine table setting of linen and silver, but the proprietors are happy to see you, nonetheless.

For your basic good grub, Jefferson’s House of Pies on East Austin Street serves pies, of course, as well as cornbread sandwiches with a selection of meats, including fried baloney, should anybody want it (maybe 1840s residents considered it a delicacy). And then there’s the Hamburger Store on the corner of North Market and West Lafayette. The store offers virtually every variety of hamburger ever conceived in a unique décor—the walls are covered with dollar bills posted by customers, many with messages penned on them.

There are simply too many wonderful bed-and-breakfasts to highlight just a couple in Jefferson. Go to the website of one or both reservation services and click to your heart’s content: Jefferson Reservation Service,, or Classic Inn Reservations,

Candlelight Tour of Homes:

The House of the Seasons: (903) 665-8000,

Turning Basin Riverboat Tours: (903) 665-2222,

The Graceful Ghost: 1-888-325-5459

Stillwater Inn Restaurant (reservations required): (903) 665-8415,

Marion County Chamber of Commerce: (903) 665-2672,

From the April 2009 Texas Co-op Power Magazine.

Noise in Nature

Human-produced sounds can interfere with animals’ normal mating, feeding and hunting behavior.

By Melissa Gaskill

Bio-acoustician Bernie Krause has been recording sound in natural places around the world for 40 years. In nearly half of those locations, he says, human-generated noise has infiltrated the pristine acoustics of nature.

According to the National Park Service, 72 percent of visitors consider the opportunity to experience natural peace and the sounds of nature as one of the most important reasons to preserve our parks. But while unnatural noise may mar our enjoyment of the outdoors, it poses even bigger problems for wildlife.

“Noise interferes with all of the syntax a mammal, reptile, amphibian, bird or insect would articulate. Human noise crosses all the communication lines and covers all the frequencies,” Krause says. In 2001, a study measured stress enzymes in the feces of elk and wolves in Yellowstone National Park. “Whenever there were snowmobiles around,” Krause says, “elk and wolves showed incredible amounts of stress.”

Noise can mean life or death for some animals. Frogs, for example, sing in chorus to prevent predators from singling out any one individual. Airplane noise disrupts this synchronicity, allowing predators to easily pick off a frog or two. “Frogs are diminishing everywhere,” including in Texas, Krause says, “and one reason is human noise.”

Much animal vocalization is done either to defend territory or attract mates, and human noise can interfere with both. Studies show that in urban areas where traffic noise occupies low frequencies in the sound spectrum, birds are singing in increasingly higher frequencies, says Elizabeth Derryberry, a post-doctoral researcher at Louisiana State University’s Museum of Natural Science. Research also suggests that different birds use different acoustic space; singing in slightly different frequencies keeps them from drowning each other out. But city birds are essentially forced to compete for a smaller piece of the acoustic pie. In addition, birds in noisy environments are forced to sing louder, reports the National Park Service, which means that attracting a mate or warning of predators uses more of their precious energy. Urban birds also are likely to spend more time being disturbed by noises and, therefore, less time feeding, says Richard Heilbrun, Texas Parks and Wildlife urban wildlife biologist in San Antonio, making it more difficult for them to replace that energy.

In some settings, noise flushes nesting birds off incubating eggs. Military aircraft had affected nesting success of peregrines, says Raymond Skiles, acting chief of resource management at Big Bend National Park, until resource protection areas were designated on aeronautical charts. Boats can flush nesting shorebirds, leaving eggs and chicks vulnerable to predators. The National Parks Con-servation Association is working on a national boater education program in hopes of reducing this impact.

Because most cat species rely on hearing to hunt, Heilbrun adds, their hunting success decreases as noise increases. “Mountain lions and ocelots will specifically avoid roads, and noise is one of the factors,” he says. Certain wildlife simply won’t use noisy areas, says former park ranger Bryan Faehner, legislative representative for NPCA, so noise effectively limits the populations of these species.

It is worth noting that noise affects human health as well. Says Krause, “The physical effect of noise on us is incredible amounts of stress.” Fortunately, this is one problem easily solved. All we have to do is pipe down.

From Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine, February, 2009.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Melissa Gaskill's Profile | Create Your Badge
Melissa Gaskill's Facebook profile

Volunteer Outings

As appeared in February issue of Family Fun Magazine
by Melissa Gaskill
A veteran volunteer shares 4 ways families can make a difference on vacation

My family discovered the singular satisfaction of blending vacations and volunteering one summer afternoon on a remote Mexican beach.
For two hours, Holley, Collin, and Bridget (then ages 15,12, and 9), my husband, Corey, and I searched for endangered sea turtle nests, as waves whumped against the steep shore and a fresh, cool breeze carried a hint of salty sea.

Just as we were about to call it a day, we spotted the unmistakable V-shape of sea turtle tracks leading from the water to the dunes. A circle of disturbed sand at the end of the trail left no doubt the mother turtle had laid her clutch.

We marked the spot as the local conservation group had instructed us and hotfooted it back to report our find. We learned the next day that the nest contained 87 eggs, which were moved to a protected area until the hatchlings' release. The kids felt that they had personally saved those 87 baby turtles, and maybe they did.

Whether your family has an hour or a day, volunteering can be a simple and special way to enjoy your vacation together. Here are some suggestions to combine good works with good times.
What Needs To Be Done
Wildlife experts tally up animal populations to get a picture of which are healthy and which need help. Since the experts can't be everywhere at once, they need volunteers to watch for critters and add to the count.
How Families Can Help
The Grand Canyon Fall Raptor Migration Project counts traveling raptor species from August to November. Looking out from the Canyon's South Rim, volunteers scan the sky for southbound hawks, eagles, and falcons. Educators from sponsor HawkWatch International are on hand to help identify the raptors in flight. 800-726-4295, (click on "migration research sites" under "conservation science")
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums runs a frog-monitoring project in most states, with detailed online instructions, photographs, and recordings to help you get started. We had a blast listening to virtual frogs chirp, peep, and even bark. 301-562-0777,

Find A Program Near You
To find other raptor counting sites, visit the "On Location Hawk Watch" page at

What Needs To Be Done
Who has fun on vacation when the beach is covered with trash? No one -- so national organizations need volunteers all year-round to clean up our shores.

How Families Can Help
Ocean Conservancy sponsors the International Coastal Cleanup event on the third Saturday of September. In 2007, some 378,000 volunteers worldwide collected 6 million pounds of garbage.
California marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols took daughters, Grayce, age 7, and Julia, 4, to a cleanup event in Big Sur. "The girls are big on cleaning the beaches," Nichols said. "They'll tell you, 'The trash goes down to the ocean, the animals eat it and get sick.' " During the cleanup, the family also helped rescue a pelican with a hurt wing. 800-519-1541,
Families vacationing in Maui any time can grab a beach cleanup kit from Hawaii's Pacific Whale Foundation, complete with directions to a local beach, rubber gloves, trash bags, and instructions for disposing of the litter. 800-942-5311,

Find A Program Near You
When vacationing on the East or West Coast, check out the many beach cleanups sponsored by The Surfrider Foundation.
What Needs To Be Done
Healthy native plants and trees feed and shelter animals, prevent erosion, and make the outdoors beautiful. By collecting seeds, removing nonnative species, or planting native ones, families can protect favorite outdoor vacation spots for years to come.
How Families Can Help
The Nature Conservancy maintains preserves in all 50 states, many with volunteer opportunities. At the Ives Road Fen Preserve on the River Raisin in Michigan, families with kids ages 8 and up might pull up nonnative garlic mustard (pictured), thus making life easier for native wetlands species such as the pitcher plant, and enjoy fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies as a reward. 517-316-0300,
At Carpenter Ranch in Colorado, a working cattle ranch and another Nature Conservancy property, Spruce Up Days in August get families weeding to protect the very rare forest of cottonwood, elder, and dogwood trees. Families can work for a day or a shorter span of time during open hours from May to September. Rocky Mountain beauty and the ranch's relics of old cowboy culture add to the experience. 970-276-4626,
On National Public Lands Day, an annual event scheduled this year for September 26, volunteers who help clear brush and spread mulch, among other tasks, receive a "Fee Free" day pass to all participating public lands. Many projects include free lunch, photography contests, and nature hikes. 202-261-6478,

Find A Program Near You
The TogetherGreen initiative lists conservation efforts across the country.

What Needs To Be Done
Because national lands receive millions of visitors each year and often lack funds for adequate care, volunteering at a park your family loves is one of the best ways to help keep it in tip-top shape.

How Families Can Help
Volunteer programs differ from park to park. For example, you can collect seeds to help restore native grasslands at Point Reyes National Seashore in California, or tidy up campgrounds in Mount Rainier National Park. At Whitman Mission National Historic Site in Walla, Walla, Washington, volunteers can garden and help protect streams and trails.
"Our volunteer programs have benefits beyond physical work getting done," says Kevin Bacher, volunteer program manager at Mount Rainier. "They engage people in the parks. Families who come back in the future can say, 'That's my work. I did that.' "

Find A Program Near You
Search by park name or state to find contact information, and call ahead for volunteer opportunities whenever your family visits a site.