Conservation Wrangler is an accelerator program that catalyzes the very best Texan-led conservation projects in the state. Selected projects are research-based and demonstrate a positive return on conservation for people, prosperity, and natural resources.
Return on Conservation: The return realized by investing in conservation encompassing positive financial, people, and natural resource impact.
Each year, organizations with ongoing conservation projects have the opportunity to submit Conservation Wrangler applications that are scored against a wide range of criteria with an emphasis on proven environmental, economic, and human impacts. Texan by Nature looks for applications that benefit Texans’ quality of life, economic growth, and natural resources in equal measures. Projects can focus on many natural resources such as wildlife, land, and water and be based in any Texas geography from urban to rural.
During each program cycle, Texan by Nature selects up to six Conservation Wrangler projects to support with 18 months of program management, strategic planning, marketing messaging, metrics capture and analysis, professional content production, partnership development, and more. Each project has specific support needs and Texan by Nature develops a custom program plan with actionable goals to meet those needs and accelerate the project.
Additionally, ALL Conservation Wrangler programs receive:
12-18 months of tailored support
Recognition and certificate
Promotion via social media, newsletters, blogs, websites, etc.
Professional content production in the form of videos, collateral, and messaging
Program management and impact reporting
Monthly media roundup
Inclusion in partner program
Connections to technical, expert, and industry support
For conservation nonprofits, it is imperative to have a strong mission, vision, and strategy for conducting business. A strategic plan lays the foundation for broad organizational structure, allows a leadership team to set and keep track of measurable goals, and provides direction and guidance during the decision-making process. Additionally, a strategic plan is a great asset to share with staff and board members to ensure organization-wide alignment and prepare for growth. Refining goals, setting priorities, and creating a future plan are all ways that Texan by Nature helps our Conservation Wranglers think strategically about their project.
In 2022, Texan by Nature developed a comprehensive Strategic Planning framework that allows organizations to understand all of the components that make up their strategy, empowering staff to create a plan without the need to hire an outside consulting firm. TxN is currently working with our 2022 Conservation Wranglers to develop useful strategic planning documents that aid in advancing their mission.
MARKETING AND MESSAGING
Once a project or organization develops a clear vision and goals, our focus shifts to spreading that message across the state. Texan by Nature helps Conservation Wrangler projects build out an effective marketing strategy – from determining the right way to message your intentions, to curating a list of outreach targets and developing unique deliverables. We also provide social media strategy support, Some examples of the work we have done in collaboration with our CW projects on marketing and messaging include:
Conservation Wrangler Videos tell the story of a project, highlight the positive impacts, and explain existing ways to support it. We provide each CW with a five-minute full-length video, as well as a 30s and 60s cut. These assets are debuted at the Conservation Summit and are then made available to the project to share on social media, send to potential donors, and post anywhere else they see fit.
Texan by Nature also provides each Conservation Wrangler project with a comprehensive one-pager to provide background on the project, highlight the positive impacts on people, prosperity, and natural resources, and outline existing ways to support it. This document is printed for the Conservation Summit and also provided to each project for distribution to whomever they choose.
CW projects may require additional support in developing materials that tell the story of their work. Texan by Nature is skilled in GIS content production and able to produce high-quality project area maps, as well as detailed Story Maps that guide the audience through a series of curated maps, quotations, and photos.
Conservation nonprofits rely heavily on fundraising efforts and sponsorship opportunities to fund their work. It takes time and relationship-building to curate a diverse network of donors and partners. Texan by Nature aids our Conservation Wranglers by advising them on how to build this network for themselves based on their unique location and mission.
Fundraising support conducted through the Conservation Wrangler program consists of assistance in the curation of outreach materials, lists and targets, professional content creation, strategic support and planning, and more. The Conservation Wrangler program does not provide funding to projects.
Texan by Nature’s mission is to advance conservation. We help our Conservation Wranglers by capturing and analyzing metrics, creating case studies and model expansion statements, as well as producing deliverables that align project directives with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs). Examples of impact measurement include:
UN SDG Mapping: By aligning year-to-date and future project impacts to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, Conservation Wranglers can make the business case for boots-on-the-ground conservation efforts as a vital strategy for achieving Corporate ESG goals. Additionally, the UN SDGs span across all sects of sustainability, allowing co-benefits of each unique Conservation Wrangler project to be deeply and clearly articulated. Texan by Nature uses the following resources to track the Conservation Wrangler project alignment with the UN SDG reporting framework:
Many of our Conservation Wranglers focus on a specific species, ecoregion, or ecosystem. To achieve its goals, a project’s target audience must first have an understanding of the topic, which then creates an interest in support. Texan by Nature helps Conservation Wranglers develop educational materials that encourage greater community engagement and provide more transparency and credibility to the project. Some examples include:
Since the inception of the Conservation Wrangler program in 2017, Texan by Nature has supported 23 unique projects across the state, elevating their conservation work. Through this program, TxN has accelerated efforts impacting 7+ million people, 20 million acres, and all of Texas’ 254 counties.
Visit our website to read more about the specific impacts of each Conservation Wrangler project.
Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to support a Conservation Wrangler project, provide resources or connections, are interested in applying to the Conservation Wrangler program, or would like to learn more.
The Paso del Norte Trail (PDN), a trail network spanning across El Paso County promoting an active lifestyle and natural resource conservation, was selected as a Texan by Nature Conservation Wrangler in 2020. During each Conservation Wrangler program cycle, Texan by Nature provides up to 6 Texan projects that benefit people prosperity, and natural resources with 12-18 months of tailored support in the form of program management, strategic planning, marketing messaging, metrics capture and analysis, professional content production, and partnership development – whatever is needed to accelerate the project. The following blog showcases highlights from the Paso del Norte Trail Case Study, complied by Texan by Nature as part of he Conservation Wrangler program to demonstrate the benefits of the PDN trail as well as outline opportunities for expansion.
Serving a population of 2.7 million in the region between El Paso and their sister city Juarez, Mexico, the Paso del Norte Trail has the vision to improve environmental, economic, and public health conditions for Texans and our neighbors across the border in Mexico.
This project is a community-driven, collaborative effort to develop a county-wide trail in El Paso County. The roughly 68–mile span of the PDN Trail is divided into ﬁve distinct districts, each deﬁned by their unique geographical, historical, and cultural contexts. The PDN Trail provides essential transportation routes for community members to businesses, parks, and downtown areas, including the University of Texas at El Paso, Ascarate Park, the University Medical Center, and the El Paso Zoo. Connector trails and loops provide additional access to natural areas and outdoor spaces, such as the Franklin Mountains State Park and the Rio Grande River. The PDN trail network includes designated hiking, biking, and equestrian trails, as well as ADA accessible paved trails in high-traffic and rural areas.
In addition to the economic and social benefits provided by the PDN trail, the trail network benefits wildlife in the area by preserving and restoring habitat, including bat houses that can provide shelter for up to 1,200 bats, and habitats designed for nesting Burrowing Owl mothers and their owlets. In the water-stressed Chihuahuan Desert, the PDN uses water-harvesting practices like bioswales and curb breaks to efficiently use water on-site. Irrigation canals along the PDN, which convey water from the Rio Grande to farmers, and bioswales, which recharge underground water reservoirs, are particularly important as 50% of El Paso’s drinking water comes from the Rio Grande itself, with the other 50% sourced from the Hueco-Mesilla Bolson Aquifer. As populations on both sides of the border grow along with demand on water resources, protection and conservation of water resources are top priorities for the PDN Trail.
“The Paso del Norte Trail is the next step in the evolution of our great city. It will bring connectivity to our entire city, it will foster economic growth, and be an amenity to everyone that comes here, visits here, and lives here.” – Marybeth Stevens, President, Better Business Bureau, El Paso
Project Impact Results
Serves a population of 2.7 million in the region between El Paso and their sister city Juarez, Mexico
Provides the community with connections to businesses, attractions, parks, downtown areas, recreational activities, outdoor spaces, and historic landmarks.
Includes environmentally-friendly amenities such as pollinator-friendly and native plant species, green infrastructure, stormwater drainage systems, and solar-powered energy.
Economically benefits the community through increased profits at local businesses, decreased public health costs, improved transportation options, the interconnectedness between the city and nature, and elevated property values.
Provides access to landmarks such as the Franklin Mountains and the Rio Grande River from the PDN Trail for all ages and abilities.
Installations at the Playa Drain Trailhead and Vocation Pond Park provide habitat for 1,200 bats and burrowing owl habitats for nesting mothers and their owlets.
Accomplishments and Innovations:
Over 20 miles of the planned 60+ miles are complete and open to the public as of 2021
As of 2021, the PdN Trail saw 141 volunteers donate 300 hours of time at over 20 events, including planting 115 trees.
TxDOT and the PdN trail collaborated to install trail counters in 2021, helping gain insight on actual trail usage along the Playa Drain Trail, strengthening the case for the trail to funders and the public.
The PDN trail is a prime example of a communal recreational space that positively contributes to the well-being of the environment, community, and natural resources. Whether the intent is to build a small nature trail around a neighborhood or to construct a binational trail spanning for miles, a strategic, exhaustive, and collaborative plan must be created.
Texas Brigades is a non-profit organization that is recognized for its summer camps that provide hands-on education and leadership experiences to the next generation of conservation stewards. Brigade camps span various topics such as white-tail deer, to waterfowl, to the Texas coast, to highlight the diversity of natural resources in Texas. Brigade camps connect participants to conservation and stewardship by capturing the variable interests among its young participants. Texas Brigades was a 2020 Texan by Nature Conservation Wrangler where the TxN team worked directly with Brigades to push various initiatives forward. We were able to work together to begin short and long-term impact measurement, increase media awareness, and reach new communities of campers during our partnership.
At a Texas Brigades camp, there are various levels of participants, from campers (or cadets) to leadership positions such as assistant leaders. Assistant leaders are previous-year cadets who have been selected to lead a team of peers/cadets at the next battalion of camp (the following summer). Assistant leaders offer advice, motivate, and help their team of cadets during and after camp. To become an assistant leader, cadet graduates are encouraged to use the skills and knowledge they gained at camp to spread the word about conservation. A Book of Accomplishments, or BOA, is a record of all the post-camp events and activities a Texas Brigades cadet has completed in the name of conservation advocacy. There are many categories and activities graduates can complete, showcasing the different avenues one can take to share conservation knowledge and values with others. One opportunity outlined for aspiring assistant leaders is an interview with like-minded organizations. We had the pleasure of chatting with Brynna Malley, a cadet from the Waterfowl Brigade, about her driving passion for land stewardship and wetland conservation in Texas.
Q: Tell me about yourself.
A: My name is Brynna Malley and I’m seventeen years old. My brother and I have been homeschooled by my mom since kindergarten. I recently started taking my dual credit classes through our local community college this year.
I live on a 13-acre ranch in Boerne with my mom and brother. We have two horses at home with our dogs and chickens. I’ve been riding horses for over twelve years, and I’m training with my horse right now to hopefully go to the Junior Olympics next fall, which is big and really exciting.
It was my first time at summer camp this year at Texas Brigades Waterfowl camp. I hadn’t heard about them until November of last year, so I’m really excited to be working with them. It’s opened a lot of opportunities for jobs in the future in conservation, which is really great.
Q: How has Texas Brigades impacted you not only as a leader, but also as a conservation steward?
A: It’s really shown me that if there’s no risk, there’s no reward. Before I went to Brigade camp, I knew that I wanted a job in conservation. I’m thinking about becoming a Texas Game Warden, so I decided to go back next year and fulfill my BOA. I learned that putting myself out there not only helps me, but also helps bring awareness of conservation to all people. I’ve seen a lot of kids come to see me speak about Texas Brigades and they get that same spark in their eyes as I do when they get talking about conservation.
It has taught me that leadership is not just about you, it’s a partnership. A lot of cadets, who are also friends and assistant leaders of mine from camp, still help me today with everything. Texas Brigades has taught me that it takes a village to build a really great community amongst people.
Q: How do you feel that you are able to impact people due to your experiences at Texas Brigades?
A: The impact is most clear to me when I am talking about camp to other kids about how I have put myself out there. It’s really helped me with not only my leadership skills, but also my knowledge in conservation. I know my projects have brought forward a lot of people who have been interested in them and like to tell their stories, which is so awesome. It’s helped me learn a lot about conservation, preservation of land, and all sorts of other resources. Conservation is not just about saving the land for the people, but it’s about saving the planet and animals and all the resources we have.
Q: Texans have a historical connection to the land. How has this camp deepened your connection to the land?
A: Prior to going to camp, I had a passion for law enforcement. One of my backup plans was to even to be a SWAT officer. But when I went to camp, all the instructors were passionately teaching campers about the land, how it provides for us, and how it gives back when we treat it right. You don’t realize how much work goes into the fields you drive by every day. You don’t realize how hard we must work to help our land give to us. It really helped my connection with the land on a personal level because I realized just how much our land means to us, and how much we can effect it.
For example, a lot of people see a grassy field and take it for granted. Now when I look out on a grassy field, I see the hours and hours of hard work producers put into managing that land and managing the soil and water. It really gives you a whole new perspective of the nature you see when you go out every day.
Q: What was the most impactful moment from camp?
A: The most impactful moments from camp came from talking to the instructors. They all took the time and dedication to answer all of my questions and give me a lot of advice. It’s kind of scary when going to college and you don’t know what field you want to study. A lot of the instructors were helpful in telling me how important it is to find my passion in life and ways to help me find those passions. Going to camp, I realized that my passion is conservation of the land and teaching people how to connect to it and the animals. The people at camp made me realize who I wanted to be.
Q: What initially interested you in wetland conservation?
A: I’m a duck hunter. Before I went to camp, I took the beauty and complexity of the sport for granted. It was a misconception to see ducks and assume that they’re always around. At camp, we learned about wetlands and why 50 percent of them are degraded, why we need to help these environments, and why so much of the wetland environment needs human support. It is rare to find a wetland environment that can sustain itself. That made a really big impact on me. I not only want this habitat to stay on earth, but I want it to be there for the next generation of hunters and children who are interested in conservation.
Q: What types of animals and plants rely on these wetlands?
A: Hydrophytic plants, meaning that some vegetation is completely submerged in water, some is rooted in the water but rises above the water, and some live right along the banks of the water, are the main types of vegetation. Those types of vegetation are important as they aerate the water, keep the water healthy, and give the water the necessary level of oxygen for invertebrates to use. There are microorganisms that live in the water, and alligators, snakes, and fish. There are so many species of bugs, especially mosquitos. And of course, waterfowl. Additionally, deer rely on wetland habitats a lot. There are so many other animals that rely on wetland habitats, such as owls and coyotes. The list just goes on and on for the homes it creates for animals.
Q: What makes these wetlands important to Texas?
A: Wetlands serve as hurricane buffers. Winnie, Texas is home to a lot of large coastal wetlands. When the hurricane happened earlier this year it helped the community that the water was close to the ocean. Within about two days, the water had drained out because the wetland took the water away from Winnie and dumped it back into the ocean.
The freshwater and deep-water wetlands that exist further inland provide a water source for plants and animals, not just humans. Sometimes we don’t take into consideration that there are other animals that need a water source. It also serves as a habitat for fish to procreate and to help our population levels. Also, they encourage so much biodiversity. They’re a good thing to have. It’s a benefit to our environment and to our communities.
Q: Waterfowls are hunted in these wetlands. Why is hunting important for us to continue to do in Texas?
A: Waterfowl hunting helps with population and disease control. Also, we’re able to provide food on the table. For some, it’s historical for them to go hunting as it has been around for so many years.
Also, hunting is a great community to bring people together. As a child who grew up hunting, I’m so grateful for what it gave me. Some of my fondest memories are from hunting when I was a little kid. A lot of these wetlands provide the waterfowl we’re looking to hunt. When you’re out in a wetland hunting, you’re given the opportunity to observe the ecosystem and what’s happening. You’re also able to see the habits of the waterfowl, and it’s a helpful way to see what has changed and is currently changing. Many hunters contribute a lot to surveys from Texas Parks and Wildlife to keep track of these birds, maintain large datasets for the state to work from.
Q: What are some best practices that a private landowner could adopt if they had wetlands to preserve or even enhance them?
A: A lot of people don’t realize that wetland management and wetland conservation are a bit easier than it seems. You can hire organizations that will survey your property and help you develop a management plan, such as Ducks Unlimited. If you want to do it yourself, the biggest thing is a water management and enhancement plan. If you don’t have water, you don’t have a wetland. For example, a watershed enhancement plan involves collecting runoff and rerouting the water back to the wetland. It helps raise some landowners’ water levels from six inches to over a foot. Then, you’re not having to pay to bring water into the wetland. Habitat management, which includes soil and water management, is one of the most popular strategies as it combines both habitat and water management and saves time and money. A habitat management plan ensures that water levels and soil quality are healthy to provide for the plants and animals in the wetland. It all depends on the landowners’ preference and land.
Q: Besides landowners, what can the public do to protect the land?
A: Don’t pollute! If you’re outside, pick up your trash. When you have plastic and other trash in a wetland, the materials break down and release toxic chemicals into the soil, killing plants and animals. Also, you can always volunteer if that is something you’re interested in. If you know someone who lives near a wetland, you can help with water conservation by building rainwater runoff barrels for watershed enhancement plans. There are many ways to get involved. You need to be mindful about your environment and what you’re taking out and putting into the environment.
Texas Brigades provides educational programming and leadership development for adolescents through three conservation-driven, statewide programs: Summer Camps, Experiences, and Wildlife Intensive Leadership Development (W.I.L.D). Through these programs, Texas Brigades molds over 300 youth leaders each year, with participants coming from over 1,000 communities across Texas. Participants leave with a connection to the land, informed and ready to make conservation a life-long passion. Learn more at texasbrigades.org and follow them on social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter)
Exploration Green Conservancy was selected as a Texan by Nature Conservation Wrangler in 2020. During each Conservation Wrangler program cycle, Texan by Nature provides up to 6 projects with 12-18 months of tailored support in the form of program management, strategic planning, marketing messaging, metrics capture and analysis, professional content production, and partnership development – whatever is needed to accelerate the project. The following blog showcases highlights from the Exploration Green Case Study: Integrated, Solution-Oriented Urban Green Space that is a result and deliverable of Exploration Green Conservancy’s involvement in Texan by Nature’s Conservation Wrangler program.
In highly industrialized areas across Texas and the United States, mass development has rendered once beneficial urban infrastructure obsolete. Many opportunities for creating urban green space exist through repurposing underutilized urban infrastructure. For example, dedicated groups in Houston, Texas, are transforming a defunct golf course into an integrated stormwater detention center, recreation space, and conservation area. This project, Exploration Green, provides critical ecosystem services tailored to this region’s needs, receiving an outpouring of community support.
Underutilized urban infrastructure, such as neglected neighborhood parks or former golf courses, presents an opportunity for reclamation into urban green space for conservation, native habitat, and community resilience. Ecosystem services provided by urban green space strengthen both ecological and human community resilience. These ecosystem services can include carbon sequestration, pollution reduction, cooler temperatures, stormwater mitigation, water purification, groundwater replenishment, and restoration of native habitat. Green space also helps its nearby residents by encouraging physical activity, supporting psychological well-being, and increasing property values.
Exploration Green presents a model example of a collaboratively-designed and community-executed urban green space, solving a myriad of local issues, ranging from environmental to economic.
In Southeast Houston, dedicated groups are transforming a defunct golf course into an innovative stormwater detention center. Exploration Green provides an integrated, natural solution for catastrophic seasonal flooding, holding up to 500-million gallons of stormwater while also serving as a nature preserve and recreation area. Located near the NASA Johnson Space Center, this 200-acre urban green space provides the community with countless opportunities to explore, offering 40 acres of both wetlands and permanent lakes providing a home to over 1,000 native species.
Exploration Green is a joint project of The Exploration Green Conservancy (EGC) and Clear Lake City Water Authority. EGC is a volunteer-driven nonprofit dedicated to the protection and enhancement of Exploration Green – a permanently-protected, 200-acre green space for conservation, recreation, and flood mitigation in Southeast Houston.
Urban green space takes many forms, such as community gardens, community forests, green roofs, wetlands, and green schoolyards
Ecosystem services provided by urban green space include carbon sequestration, pollution reduction, cooler temperatures, stormwater mitigation, water purification, groundwater replenishment, and restoration of native habitat
Beyond environmental benefits, green space encourages physical activity, supports psychological well-being, and increases property values for nearby
Nature-based solutions provided by urban green space help to build environmental resilience and integrity
Exploration Green has provided critical ecosystem services tailored to regional needs, including flood mitigation and native wildlife habitat restoration
Exploration Green presents a model example of a collaboratively-designed and community-executed urban green space, solving a myriad of local issues, ranging from environmental to economic
The partially completed project protected at least 150 homes during Hurricane Harvey and completely mitigated flooding during Imelda. When complete, the project will protect over 200 area homes and businesses during a 15+ inch rain event
Project Impact Numbers
500-million-gallons of stormwater detention
1,000 community volunteers donating 20,000+ hours (current total as of August 2021)
Recreation and education for more than 500,000 individuals in Southeast Houston
6 miles of paved trails
2 athletic practice fields
$300 million saved from flood damages caused by all 8+ inches of rainfall in a 15-year period
$120 million increase in property values for the community
200-acres of urban greenspace
150,000 wetland plants providing stormwater filtration and carbon sequestration
40-acres of both wetlands and permanent lakes
5,000 native trees
1,000+ native insects, plants, and wildlife species
Exploration Green formed from the vision of community members and continues to flourish due to their ongoing support. Exploration Green has over 1,000 recurring volunteers that have donated over 20,000+ hours of their time (current total as of August 2021). Volunteers of all ages and backgrounds help control costs and maintain community support for the project. The Conservancy works to engage volunteers for both planting and land upkeep, but also operational tasks via committees, such as fundraising, outreach, amenities, finance, and events.
Exploration Green Conservancy has extensive experience, expertise, and great enthusiasm for groups that may aspire to create an urban green space in their community. This project is worthy of replication, and EGC looks forward to sharing knowledge, best practices, and lessons learned with others aiming to execute a similar project, whether it be for a nature-based flood mitigation space, an urban wildlife habitat, or anything in between. Check out the full case study to learn more about Exploration Green’s process on pages 10-22.
The Texas Longleaf Team was selected as a Texan by Nature 2021 Conservation Wrangler based on the project’s positive impact to people, prosperity, and natural resources. Through this partnership, TLT hopes to bring a broader awareness to the need for collaboration between industry and conservation organizations to fuel sustainable efforts across the state.
Through the program, Texan by Nature and TLT are working together to diversify funding and cost-sharing opportunities to fuel increased longleaf pine restoration on public and private land, expand TLT’s network of partners in longleaf pine significant restoration areas, quantify the social, economic, and environmental benefits of longleaf pine restoration, and enhance media visibility and brand continuity to improve the effectiveness of digital communications for a broader audience. TxN and TLT are excited to work together while fueling each other’s missions of expanding the awareness of conservation efforts across the state.
What is Longleaf Pine?
Longleaf pine is an evergreen conifer that was named for having the longest leaves of the eastern pine species. The needlelike leaves, which come in bundles of three, can grow up to 18 inches long. Longleaf pine seeds develop in cones and are dispersed by wind. When they fall to the ground, they must come in contact with soil to germinate. Historically, leaf litter and debris were cleared away by forest fires that were sparked during lightning storms. When the leaf litter is cleared this way, it opens up greater opportunities for longleaf pine seedlings to grow without competition from other species. When fire is suppressed, ground cover buildup prevents seeds from reaching the soil, and they cannot germinate. The seeds that are able to take root undergo an interesting life cycle that differs from most other conifers. Rather than spending its first few years growing in height, the longleaf pine goes through a grass stage.
From the surface, the grass-stage plant appears to be a large clump of needles that grows very slowly and only in small amounts. All the while, the plant is hard at work below the surface. During the grass stage, the longleaf pine starts to develop its central root, called a taproot, which will be up to 12 feet long at maturity. For the tree to grow beyond this grass stage, it needs fire. Once heat is applied, the tree sprouts quickly to five or six feet, its sapling phase. After the grass stage, longleaf pines begin to grow in height. Drawing from soil made nutrient rich from ash, the tree will flourish. Both mature trees and grass-stage seedlings are not only fire-resistant, but dependent on fire to stimulate growth and control competing woody and herbaceous vegetation. The lifespan of a longleaf pine spans several centuries. These slow-growing trees can live for over 300 years and may take up to half that time to reach full size.
With the rise of westward expansion and technological improvements in transportation and manufacturing in the late-1800s came the loss of millions of acres of the natural wooded grassland ecosystems that dominated the landscape from Texas to Virginia. These wooded grasslands, specifically the longleaf pine ecosystem, are globally important for migratory birds, resident wildlife, a host of rare or declining plants and animals, carbon storage, water filtration, and hold a great amount of cultural significance in East Texas. Less than 2 percent of the original East Texas landscape of longleaf pine remains. The Texas Longleaf Team is a group of individuals, organizations and agencies that share a passion for this iconic species.
The History of Longleaf Pine in Texas
Early Southeast Texans found sustenance in these forests in the form of plentiful game, such as deer, turkey, raccoon, and squirrel, and later built their local economies from valuable forest products like lumber and naval stores derived from the sap of pines. Abundance of both game and economic opportunity were unrivaled in the prevalent longleaf pine forests of the area. By the end of the 20th century, these forests were characterized by enormous trees set in a prairie-like understory of diverse native plants.
Longleaf was once so abundant that it seemed like an inexhaustible resource to early settlers and figured significantly in the industrial forestry of the period, owing to its high quality fiber, huge diameter, and tall, straight bole. Most of the longleaf pine, transported across the country for building materials, was gone by the 1920s. Rather than replanting the longleaf, foresters replaced it with faster-growing pines that would produce greater short-term economic yield.
The historic longleaf pine ecosystem benefitted from natural fire events, many times as a result of lightning strikes and subsequent wildfires. These frequent fires would burn under the trees, cleaning up litter and woody vegetation, and promoting the growth of a highly diverse and beneficial grass and forb plant community. Today, managers utilize prescribed fire to mimic the natural fire cycles that maintained these systems.
Proper management of the longleaf system can prove beneficial to the ecosystem and economy. The 2013 Forest Ecosystem Services Report generated by Texas A&M Forest Service reports that woodland pine ecosystems in Texas, approximately 9.98 million acres in East Texas, can generate $2,739 per acre per year in ecosystem service benefits, totaling $18.62 billion per year across the ecosystem. Estimated acreage values for water, carbon, biodiversity, and culture within the woodland pine ecosystems are $671.01, $90, $155, and $1,823 per year, respectively. In addition to timber income, private longleaf pine landowners can diversify their profits through utilization of carbon and water offset sales, recreational leases, and other ecosystem service benefit offsets provided at the state or federal level.
Further research suggests that investing in the maintenance of longleaf pine more effectively sequesters and stores carbon and can protect water resources more effectively than other southern pine species. Scott Phillips, a State Forester of the South Carolina Forestry Commission, writes that working forests, or timberlands, that yield forest products have demonstrated greater carbon sequestration potential over non-working forests. Trees naturally sequester carbon by absorbing it into their mass and roots during photosynthesis, preventing the greenhouse gas from entering and warming the atmosphere. Younger trees are especially efficient at sequestering carbon from the air because they are actively growing and processing CO2 at faster rates than trees that are at maturity. While larger, older trees may have more carbon stored, young trees sequester more additional carbon, both aspects being very important in addressing climate change.
Additionally, the frequent fire in a longleaf forest, stimulates the active growth of native grasses and other herbaceous vegetation in the understory, creating another layer of sequestration that a non-working forest does not produce. Because the South has a larger contingent of private working forest owners than anywhere in the country, Texas and other states are uniquely positioned to lead the way toward net-zero emissions. When a forest is not properly managed, there are associated risks and costs. To the right is a photo of mature longleaf that is in desperate need of fire. In fact, it has been without fire for so long that the landowner is going to need to implement much more expensive practices (herbicide and/or mechanical treatment) in order for it to be conducive to fire.
Proper management of longleaf pine forests can also keep drinking water safe, reliable, and affordable. America’s Longleaf Restoration Initiative reports that healthy, managed forests provide natural filtration of precipitation and stormwater runoff resulting in cleaner water reaching drinking water consumers. This natural filtration lowers treatment costs and enables utilities to avoid building or upgrading expensive treatment infrastructure, keeping water affordable for customers. Compared with other forest types in the South, longleaf pine forest management has distinct benefits for water quality and water yield. Longleaf pine management practices such as prescribed fire and thinning can reduce water demand, increase water yield, and improve water quality over time by retaining nutrients and preventing soil loss. Forest stewardship and protection are important tools to help ensure water quantity and quality. Longleaf pine forests can be part of the solution because they contribute to healthy watersheds and safe and reliable drinking water. These forests also provide many other benefits including forest resiliency, erosion control, flood mitigation, recreation, fish and wildlife habitat, carbon sequestration, strong economies and forest markets.
History of Fire on the Landscape
Nature and humans have a long history of shaping the longleaf ecosystem and its ecological processes through fire. Natural fires were historically ignited by lightning, beginning in late spring. These fires were typically of low intensity and high frequency, occurring every 2 -5 years on average, depending on available fuels. Native Americans began applying fire over 10,000 years ago to manage the landscape for food and game, medicinal purposes, and many other reasons. For millennia, fires burned across the southeastern landscape until they reached wetlands or until they were extinguished by rain. Today, longleaf forests in the Southeast are fragmented, and various land use changes have altered existing fire patterns. In addition to these physical changes, rhetoric and narrative surrounding the frequent natural fires led the public to believe all forest fires are bad. Due to these changes, prescribed fire is an even more important tool for managing the forest.
The Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas recently reinstated the use of prescribed fire to promote the growth and health of their longleaf pine forests. Pauly Denetclaw of the Texas Observer writes about the importance of longleaf pine to the tribe and how fire has been a part of the historical landscape. Currently, the tribe is working to preserve the forest and grow additional trees on 400 acres of tribal land. In an ecosystem that needs fire much like the Amazon rainforest needs rain, the actions of the tribe could decide the future of the longleaf pine. Longleaf pine doesn’t like competition, so the tree rains pine needles down onto competing shrubs in the hopes of a spark that will turn to flames and take out competitors. The thick bark of the tree is usually unfazed by flame, and the burn patterns of needles on the forest floor—how fire jumps from one pile of needles to the next—shows researchers just how the tree manages competition. The Alabama-Coushatta tribe will continue to do prescribed burns to further their efforts of longleaf restoration and preserve the cultural importance of trees.
How Does a Burn Work?
Fires are critical to longleaf pine because it controls competition by removing other woody vegetation that smothers young longleaf pine seedlings and helps control disease that stunts seedling growth. Prescribed fire allows the longleaf pine seedlings to bolt from the grass-stage sooner than they would without fire and overtop the competing vegetation. Landowners with remnant stands as well as brand new plantings of longleaf are implementing prescribed fire throughout East Texas. They know that longleaf pine, fire, and a healthy ecosystem go hand in hand.
“I like longleaf because I like fire. My main focus on my land is walking through the woods; I love prescribed fire because it makes for beautiful woods to walk through.”
-Rufus Duncan, Newton County Longleaf Landowner.
Because restoring fire to a landscape has so many benefits, the hard work by landowners and natural resources managers of East Texas longleaf pine stands has had a significant impact on the region. Fire was commonplace in longleaf pine savannas historically and it is no different in today’s management of new longleaf pine stands.
“When you account for the 4 National Forests in East Texas, multiple state, federal and tribal partners, private forestry contractors, and individual forest landowners there is an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 acres of prescribed fire occurring annually in this region”
“Smoke on the horizon has become a welcome sight in many of these piney woods communities. The public now understands the importance of periodic fire to protect them from future wildfires and the restoration of longleaf pine has been a huge asset as we worked to build this fire culture back into our communities.”
-Andy McCrady, Texas A&M Forest Service- Program Coordinator.
Fire was commonplace in longleaf pine savannas historically and it is no different in today’s management of new longleaf pine stands. Most new plantings start with a site preparation burn in late summer or fall in conjunction with other activities like herbicide and mechanical vegetation or soil disturbance. Once the trees are in the ground, fire is commonly used the next winter after planting and sometimes for multiple years to control competition and promote stimulation of the vertical growth stage. Once young longleaf begin vertical growth, fire is often carefully applied on a 2 to 3 year rotation that balances control of competition while avoiding damage to vigorously growing terminal buds in mid-spring. Once trees begin to reach larger diameter and undergo regular mechanical thinnings, prescribed fire is utilized in a wider range of seasons and time intervals based on the objectives of the landowner and individual site conditions. A general guideline many land managers use to mimic a natural fire cycle is 18 to 24 month between burns, with a focus on burning between January 1st and June 30th.
The Texas A&M Forest Service provides informational guides to educate the public and inform landowners on the process of prescribed burns. See the outlined steps here and visit the attached links for detailed information about safely conducting a prescribed burn. It is important to note that in Texas, landowners that utilize the services of a Texas Department of Agriculture- Certified and Insured Prescribed Burn Manager are protected under state law from liability for a prescribed burn on their property.
Texas Longleaf Team shares their passion for restoration of the longleaf ecosystem in Texas through landowner and industry outreach and education, technical support, and cost-share programs that assist landowners in implementation of prescribed fire, planting and other beneficial management practices. The mission of TLT is to promote the maintenance and restoration of the longleaf pine ecosystem on private and public forestlands, including its cultural and economic values, through a collaborative network of diverse stakeholders and working groups.
Texan by Nature (TxN) selected the Audubon Texas Rookery Island Conservation project as a 2021 Conservation Wrangler for its positive impacts on people, prosperity, and natural resources. Audubon Texas’ coastal conservation initiatives strive to maintain and restore existing ecosystems while also looking ahead to create new critical breeding habitat for birds in Matagorda Bay.
Through the Conservation Wrangler program, TxN is working with Audubon Texas to create more rookery islands in Matagorda Bay by beneficially using dredged sediment and measuring the environmental impacts and return on conservation from this type of restorative habitat creation. Texan by Nature is helping Audubon Texas to amplify messaging surrounding this project, educate Texans about the use of natural infrastructure along the coast, and get the Matagorda Bay community involved in ecotourism through birding.
Driven by a culture of coastal conservation
Audubon Texas, the state field office of the National Audubon Society, has been active on the Texas coast protecting wildlife, conserving habitat, and inspiring environmental stewardship through outreach and education since 1923. Today, Audubon Texas works with strategic partners to manage 177 islands along the Texas coast, including 12 islands within the Matagorda and San Antonio Bay systems. These islands provide nesting habitat to 27 species of waterbirds. Audubon’s coastal management program has even been recognized through the Governors’ Blue Ribbon Committee on Environmental Excellence.
The Texas Coast is lined by bar-built estuaries and barrier islands formed over thousands of years as sand and sediment moved between marine environments and land.During the creation of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW) the Army Corps of Engineers created additional islands with the dredged channel material. More than 200 islands dot the Texas Coast in estuaries stretching from Galveston Bay on the Upper Texas Coast to the Laguna Madre on the Lower Texas Coast. They range in size from small areas of sand and mud flats to larger islands that support diverse vegetation and submerged and emergent habitats, including seagrasses, wetlands, oyster reefs, upland grasses and forbs, and shrubs and small trees. Over time, these dredge material islands have become the primary habitat for nesting waterbirds along the Texas coast. Their sandy edges provide habitat for beach nesting birds, and shrubs and trees provide habitat for tree nesting birds.
The state leases coastal islands to Audubon Texas to conserve their value as bird sanctuaries. The coastal rookery islands managed by Audubon are not for human recreation; they are areas protected for coastal waterbirds to nest and roost and in some cases to provide habitat for threatened and endangered species. Reducing disturbance from terrestrial predators and human activity is one of the most effective ways to give the birds the space they need to successfully lay and hatch their eggs. Some of the islands, like Sundown Island (also called Chester Island), have continued to receive dredge material which has supported growing bird populations. Other islands have been lost or are eroding, and this has caused an overall loss of available nesting habitat. In order to rebuild the habitat that birds have come to depend on, Audubon has identified the need to build new dredge material islands in the mid-Texas coast.
Meet the focal species that Audubon Texas is working to protect on the coast:
Island stewardship is a major factor in conservation success
The Brown Pelican is one species that has made a tremendous comeback along the Texas coast. From its initial listing on the endangered species list in the early 1970s- when it had been hunted and poisoned to near extinction- the population has rebounded to more than 650,000 Pelicans along the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts. The first step in the Pelican’s comeback was the 1972 ban on DDT, the widely used pesticide that thinned the birds’ eggshells, causing them to shatter during incubation. Even after DDT had dissipated in the food chain, though, Pelicans needed safe shoreline nesting ground. That’s where Audubon coastal wardens like Chester Smith stepped in to help.
Smith carefully managed the island and its avian inhabitants, working to plant native trees and shrubs, control fire ant populations, and even patrolled the island to ensure that no one scared away the nesting birds. In November of 2009, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) officially removed the Brown Pelican from the endangered species list, thanks to the diligent work of Audubon coastal warden Chester Smith and many others like him.
Audubon’s stewardship work continues today. Current coastal conservation efforts strive to maintain and restore existing bird habitats while also looking ahead to create new critical breeding habitat for birds in Matagorda Bay. Audubon Texas’s habitat stewardship includes monitoring nesting islands during the breeding season by performing formal breeding bird counts, conducting nest and hatchling counts, and reporting on nesting bird behavior. This long-term monitoring data supports the planning and implementation of meaningful habitat management through reducing disturbance, planting native plants, and reducing habitat erosion. Additionally, Audubon Texas is working to create new habitat by identifying suitable sites, designing lasting rookery islands, and advocating for new rookery islands in the bay. Our priorities to create new habitat and steward existing habitats work in tandem to achieve our goal of expanding high quality habitat within Matagorda Bay to provide wide-ranging benefits for coastal bird populations.
What is Coastal Dredging?
Dredging is the removal of sediments and debris, including sand, silt, and gravel from the bottom of lakes, rivers, estuaries, shipping channels, and other waterways. It is a routine maintenance activity often used to keep waterways and ports navigable for boats and ships because sedimentation (the natural process of sand and silt deposition) gradually fills channels and harbors. Many of the coastal islands in Texas were created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with the dredging of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.
Several hundred million cubic meters of sediment are dredged each year from U.S. ports, harbors and waterways and can be used to support ecosystem projects, such as rebuilding eroding beaches and the restoration of wildlife habitats. Seeing this need in Matagorda Bay, Audubon Texas and partners at state and federal agencies, Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries, The Nature Conservancy and Texas A&M developed a plan to beneficially use dredge material to create new rookery habitat.
Recently the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expanded Chester Island by several acres using dredged sediments in 2019 and 2020. Audubon Texas also completed a feasibility study in 2020. Informed by expert input, modeling and site conditions, Audubon identified and designed islands at five sites in Matagorda Bay appropriate for new rookery islands. Audubon Texas aims to build off these early island designs to develop innovative approaches to coastal conservation and track the benefits of island creation.
Why should we prioritize coastal conservation in Texas?
In addition to the benefits coastal islands provide to the waterbirds that nest on them, island habitats provide a suite of additional ecosystem services. Coastal islands provide stopover habitat to migratory songbirds and shorebirds. Many of the islands have wetlands on them that store carbon, filter nutrients, and provide habitat for a variety of animals. Due to their proximity to shore, coastal bird islands have the potential to mitigate storm surge impacts to coastal habitats and communities. When we prioritize conservation of bird habitats we are also prioritizing broader benefits and overall ecosystem resilience.
Audubon’s creation of rookery islands along the Gulf coast benefits the environment, wildlife, and Texans. The increase in available nesting habitat brings a greater abundance and diversity of coastal waterbird species to the Matagorda bay area. This spike in wildlife provides more ecotourism opportunities, leading to the creation of more jobs, better community involvement, and more accessible outdoor education.
Texan by Nature (TxN) selected the Center for Conservation and Research (CCR) at San Antonio Zoo Texas Horned Lizard Reintroduction project as a 2021 Conservation Wrangler for its positive impacts on people, prosperity, and natural resources. The Center for Conservation and Research (CCR) at San Antonio Zoo Texas Horned Lizard Reintroduction Project seeks to restore the Texas horned lizard population by working with private landowners to introduce zoo hatched lizards in areas where it has disappeared in recent decades. CCR assesses candidate release sites based on several criteria using remote habitat ranking and boots-on-the-ground surveys. In addition, CCR provides management guidance and assistance to landowners who wish to manage their property for native biodiversity, including horned lizards.
Through the Conservation Wrangler program, TxN is helping San Antonio Zoo to connect with individual partners and conservation organizations that are working towards the conservation of Texas horned lizards across the state. Texan by Nature aims to help CCR replicate the Texas Horned Lizard Reintroduction project model through sharing best practices, case studies, and habitat management guides to encourage statewide science-based horned lizard conservation efforts among landowners, businesses, and environmental groups.
What is the Texas horned lizard?
The Texas horned lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum) is one of fourteen species of horned lizards distributed from Southern Canada to Southern Mexico. Common names include “horned frog” or “horny toad”, but they are actually reptiles, not amphibians. The scientific name Phrynosoma means “toad-body” and cornutum means “horned.” This beloved reptile species has been recognized as the state reptile of Texas since 1993, and is listed as threatened at the state level.
The Texas horned lizard measures three to five inches long, and is characterized by five long sharp horns that crown its head, and two rows of enlarged pointed scales that line its short, plump body. Horned lizards are dietary specialists, feeding predominantly on red harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex), found throughout the majority of their habitat range. These reptiles have adapted a sticky tongue that is specialized to catch ants quickly and effectively, and have even developed a resilience to most ant bite toxins.
The Texas horned lizard has additional unique adaptations that allow it to survive in harsh arid desert environments. Due to living in grasslands and deserts with little water, the lizards exhibit specialized skin adaptations that allow them to access water from sources such as moist sand and dew. The rough scales of the horned lizard are capable of collecting water and transporting it directionally through a capillary system between the scales. This fluid transport is passive, requiring no external energy, and directs the collected water towards the lizard’s mouth. This specialized water acquisition strategy allows the horned lizard to save energy that would be spent on finding water, and utilize it for things like mating, foraging, and predator defense.
The predator defense mechanisms of the Texas horned lizard are quite extraordinary. Initially, the animal exhibits cryptic coloration, or camouflage, to deter predators from noticing them. The morphology of the Texas horned lizard is flat, but when there is a perceived threat, the animal can “puff up” its body, causing its spines to protrude. This makes it more difficult for a predator to eat the lizard. When threatened, the animals also have the ability to shoot blood out of tissues in the eye socket, which causes the predator to retreat. Although Texas horned lizards are prey to many species such as snakes and birds, blood-squirting is the most effective chemical defense in predator-prey encounters with wild canids, such as coyotes.
The Texas horned lizard once ranged from the south-central United States, down to northern Mexico, and throughout much of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and New Mexico. These reptiles could once be found in such high abundance, that it wasn’t until the 1970’s that people began to notice their populations were in a steady decline. This map shows the extant region (depicted by red dots) where the Texas horned lizard was once present, across a wide part of central North America.
The historic distribution of the Texas horned lizard has shrunk significantly in the past 20 years. The state reptile could once be easily found throughout most of Texas, and is now nearly extirpated from the Eastern third of the state. In Texas, the horned lizard has disappeared from at least 30 percent of its historic range (depicted by green/yellow in the image above), mostly in the central and eastern portions of the state. In this map, you can see that the Texas horned lizard is now observed much less in the Eastern side of the state than in the Western side.
Why did the population decline?
There are many factors threatening the distribution of Texas Horned Lizards- invasive species, habitat loss, and pet trade being some of the most impactful. The biggest horned lizard population crash we’ve seen in Texas happened between the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, when the reptiles were met with the impacts of a new invasive species.
The most problematic invasive species to the Texas Horned Lizard population is the red imported fire ant (Solenopsis invicta). These South American ants were accidentally introduced to the U.S. in the 1930’s via cargo ships entering Mobile, Alabama. Since then, these voracious insects have now spread to more than 320 million acres across fifteen states. The invasive ants overtake the population of native Harvester ants, reducing the amount of food available for horned lizards to eat. This is because red imported fire ants often become the dominant ant species in areas outside of their native range due to their aggressive foraging behavior, high reproductive capability and lack of predators and/or other strong competitors. Texas horned lizards are unable to consume the red fire ants, and have been known to attack vulnerable horned lizard hatchlings. Because of this, horned lizards will flee an area where the invasive species is present.
Habitat fragmentation and loss:
The urbanization of rural areas in Texas lowers the amount of grassland and desert habitat available for the reptiles to survive. For example, horned lizards don’t do very well in long grass, like the St. Augustine species which many people use to sod their lawns. Urbanization also contributes to habitat fragmentation, creating smaller isolated populations of Texas Horned Lizards that are more susceptible to population pressures. Although it’s tough to point to a single cause of the disappearance of the Texas horned lizard, it’s clear that the more modified their native habitats become, the less they are able to survive and reproduce. Much like most other wildlife species, they also don’t have very good luck with paved roads. Horned lizards often fall victim to moving vehicles, and the number of highway miles in Texas has increased exponentially from 35,000 miles to over 79,000 miles since 1935.
The illegal pet trade puts major stress on the already-struggling population of Texas horned lizards. Although they are listed as protected in the state of Texas, the species can still be found in pet stores as far away as New Jersey. It is challenging to provide these reptiles with appropriate care as pets, as they are so uniquely specialized for their desert environment. Because of this, many Texas horned lizards that are kept as pets do not survive for very long outside of their natural habitat.
What is the Center for Conservation and Research at San Antonio Zoo doing to help the Texas horned lizard?
The Center for Conservation and Research (CCR) at San Antonio Zoo Texas Horned Lizard Reintroduction Project seeks to restore the Texas horned lizard population by working with private landowners to introduce zoo hatched lizards in areas where it has disappeared in recent decades. CCR assesses candidate release sites based on several criteria using remote habitat ranking and boots-on-the-ground surveys. In addition, CCR provides management guidance and assistance to landowners who wish to manage their property for native biodiversity, including horned lizards.
Establishment of viable horned lizard populations requires the production of large numbers of lizard hatchlings from CCR’s “Lizard Lab.” The lab is a 450-square foot room, and former receiving bay of the zoo’s warehouse that has been modified to include two sets of timer-controlled power outlets (one for UV lights and one for basking lights) and heavily-insulated exterior walls. This lab houses all breeder adults, and seasonally serves as the “Lizard Nursery” for hatchling lizards.
The young lizards hatched in the “Lizard Lab” are introduced to the release site in early fall, and the property is monitored for horned lizard activity at regular intervals. CCR has partnered with Paul Bunker, owner of Chiron K9, to develop the Horned Lizard Detection Canine Network, a group of volunteer handlers and their canines who are trained to seek out horned lizards. Dogs are scent trained with live horned lizards, scat, eggs, and shed skin so that they may detect any traces of Texas horned lizards in the field. This partnership with Chiron K9 provides CCR with an efficient long term method for monitoring lizards post-release, and helps to ensure the overall success of the project.
By re-establishing horned lizard populations and encouraging voluntary management that benefits native biodiversity, CCR hopes to not only improve native biodiversity across Texas, but also promote awareness and appreciation of this species for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations. CCR’s long-term project goal is to develop replicable methodologies to share with other conservation entities, to ultimately ensure the return of this beloved species to places where its absence is so deeply felt.
What can I do to help the Texas Horned Lizard?
Become a citizen scientist iNaturalist is an online community of naturalists, citizen scientists, and biologists built on the concept of mapping and sharing observations of biodiversity across the globe. With over one million registered users, this platform serves as a comprehensive database that tracks global plant and wildlife biodiversity and abundance. You can help the conservation of threatened and endangered species like the Texas horned lizard by creating an iNaturalist account to record your observations. If you come across Texas horned lizard scat, shed skin, or even tracks in the wild, take a photo and upload your findings to the online platform. By keeping a public record of sightings, wildlife biologists are able to better determine the most accurate and up-to-date population distribution of the species.
Let wildlife stay wild
Because the Texas horned lizard is listed as a threatened species, it is illegal to pick up, touch, or possess them in Texas. Handling horned lizards is illegal, and even if your intentions are good, you are in violation of the law and could be ticketed for your actions. Scientists are required to obtain scientific research permits from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department prior to conducting research on horned lizards (TPWD: Wildlife Diversity Permits: Scientific Permits for Research).
Spread the word
Through educating the American population on the plight of the Texas horned lizard, we can provide these reptiles with safe and supportive habitats to sustain healthy populations. Education is crucial to get Texans excited about their state reptile, and spreading the word of horned lizard conservation across the state! At San Antonio Zoo, the general public has the opportunity to see these animals during hands-on Ed-ZOO-cation events, and learn more about their history in and around Texas. By learning about the Texas horned lizard and sharing your knowledge with the world, you are acting as an advocate for the species, perpetuating a lasting spirit of conservation for future generations.
Manage your backyard
By taking simple steps to take care of your backyard in a sustainable way- like reducing pesticide use, planting native landscaping, and removing invasive species- you can make your land more friendly for horned lizards and other native species. These steps do not necessarily guarantee that horned lizards will return to your property, but sustainable land management practices help a variety of different native species, such as birds and pollinators. Additionally, applying conservation practices in your backyard can save you money through water conservation.
Treat fire ant mounds without the use of pesticides. Fire ants are a common resident in suburban neighborhoods, and management without the use of pesticides is imperative in maintaining a healthy ecosystem. Individually treat each mound, drowning the area with a bucket of very hot water and a bit of dish soap, digging the water in with a shovel.
Spay and neuter your pets, and supervise them outdoors. Another group of invasive animals that can negatively impact the population of horned lizards are feral domesticated dogs and cats. When left outside without supervision, these pets prey upon the docile reptiles in residential and urban areas, reducing the amount of safe habitat available to the lizards. Contact your local Humane Society for assistance in removing these feral domesticated predators.
Landscape your yard using native plants instead of nonnative plants. Native plants improve soil health, attract native pollinators, and even conserve water- saving you money!
Additional Landowner Resources
If you are a landowner, and would like to learn more about management strategies for Texas horned lizards, please refer to the following resources:
The Texan by Nature Landowner Guide is a comprehensive list of state, federal, and NGO programs for conservation restoration, as well as resources for project planning and recognition for your efforts.
The Caesar KIeberg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M Kingsville Management of Texas Horned Lizards bulletin outlines the ecology and habitat requirements of the Texas Horned Lizard, and management practices are suggested that should benefit the species.
If you are interested in supporting Texas horned lizard reintroduction as a landowner, please fill out this brief survey so that CCR can determine if your land meets the Texas horned lizard reintroduction habitat requirements.
The Trinity River Crew provides meaningful, paid conservation work experience, education, leadership skills, and professional development training to high-potential youth from historically marginalized areas along the Trinity River. The primary purpose of this program is to encourage and empower local youth through cultivating their leadership skills and providing educational and professional development opportunities as they complete meaningful conservation projects. This program is a collaborative youth employment framework that can act as a model throughout the entire Trinity River Corridor and in other geographies. This crew creates a pipeline of conservation leaders that will continue to advocate for the Trinity River within their communities.
In its first year, the Trinity River Crew had 13 crew members join for the seven week summer program, follow-along their journey in this week by week recap:
Crew members received on-boarding training and an overview of Trinity River, including information on the watershed, river geomorphology, pollution/pollutants, and more. The Crew also learned how to conduct macroinvertebrate assessments at Frasier Dam, learned how to conduct water quality with Dallas City Hall, and learned about best practices for managing money from Bank of America.
Learn more about the Trinity River in this educational guide that was developed through the Conservation Wrangler program.
Crew members learned about soils, conducted macroinvertebrate assessments, took a nature walk with Urban Biologist Sam Keischnick from Texas Parks and Wildlife, and listened to a presentation about water conservation from the City of Dallas and Dallas County Texas A&M AgriLife Extension.
Crew members constructed monofilament (fishing line) recycling bins, learned about the Blackland Prairie Ecoregion, removed invasive plants at, and transplanted native plants from Twelve Hills Nature Preserve, learned how to conduct vegetation and bird surveys, and had discussions about sustainability and consumption.
Crew members visited the John Bunker Sands Wetland Center where they removed invasive species, conducted water quality and macroinvertebrate assessments, as well as bird and plant surveys. The Crew also visited the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Farm in Garland and learned about the sustainable farming practices and constructed bee hotels.
Crew members visited the John Bunker Sands Wetland Center again to collect aquatic vegetation for the Trinity River Audubon Center, installed bee hotels at Hines Park, conducted water quality testing, macroinvertebrate surveys, plant surveys, bird surveys, and invasive species removal at the Trinity River Audubon Center, virtually connected with the Dallas Sierra Club, and finalized their ideas for a concept garden.
In Texas: The group of students that stayed in Texas this week stayed busy by continuing to visit other nature centers in North Texas such as Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area (LLELA), and a Blackland Prairie Reserve in Ferris, Texas. These locations provided new insight in conservation work, such as meeting a University of North Texas research team and learning about the painted bunting study they were conducting during the summer. The students also learned about the positive effects controlled burns have on an ecosystem’s biodiversity at these sites. The end of the week was spent learning how to interpret all of the data that had been collected throughout the program.
In Montana: The students spent the week at Glacier National Park and had a chance to explore the trails and lakes in the area. During their time there they worked with other Groundwork USA members and helped reconstruct roofs of buildings used by the national park.
The final week of the program was spent indoors finalizing presentations, and learning professional skills such as resume building and interview advice with Bank of Texas.
“This program taught me so much about nature. I had little to no previous knowledge about any of the things I learned this summer. I would go home and talk about everything I learned to my friends because I thought it was so interesting.” – Denise
“Being a part of the Trinity River Crew has increased my knowledge of environmental science and conservation. It has also helped me consider environmental science and conservation as a career path. It has also helped me build friendships and connections with a variety of people.” – Samantha P.
“Throughout these past 7 weeks I’ve had the opportunity to meet so many amazing people all while having fun doing it. The experience alone has helped me in so many ways in regards to my future after high school. Before I was very lost in how I wanted to go about higher education and a career as a whole, but thanks to River Crew, I have a much clearer vision in mind.” – Adrian
Learn more about the Trinity River Crew here and follow along on Trinity Park Conservancy’s and Greenspace Dallas’s social media channels for on-going updates.
Texan by Nature (TxN) Conservation Wrangler is an accelerator program for the best Texan-led conservation projects occurring in the state. We select up to six projects each year that are science-based and demonstrate a positive Return on Conservation for people, prosperity, and natural resources. As part of the program, TxN produces a professional video for each project. We recently wrapped up the production of our 2020 videos and are excited to share all of them below.
Texas Brigades educates and empowers youth with leadership skills and knowledge in wildlife, fisheries, and land stewardship to become conservation ambassadors for a sustained natural resource legacy. With a vision of creating “conservation leaders in every community,” Texas Brigades provides educational programming and leadership development for adolescents through three conservation-driven, statewide programs. Learn more…
Trinity River Crew
In 2018, Groundwork Dallas (GWD) launched the Groundwork Dallas Conservation Corps, a summer youth employment program. This annual seven-week job training opportunity provides teens with environmental career experience. Using this successful program as a model, GWD and Trinity Park Conservancy (TPC) have created a formal partnership to develop the Trinity River Crew. The Trinity River Crew educates and inspires the next generation of environmental leaders while enhancing conservation efforts throughout 10,000 acres of the Trinity River Corridor. Learn more…
Texas Children in Nature
Texas Children in Nature (TCiN) is a collaborative network of over 500 partners dedicated to connecting children and families with nature in Texas. TCiN’s mission is to ensure equitable access and connection to nature for children in Texas. To achieve this mission, TCiN’s drives collaboration within its statewide network to provide better access to resources, best practices, and nature-based programming. Learn more…
Exploration Green Conservancy
Exploration Green Conservancy is a volunteer-driven nonprofit in Southeast Houston, dedicated to maintaining and enhancing Exploration Green, an innovative flood mitigation solution and recreation area that was formerly a 200-acre defunct golf course. Exploration Green provides stormwater detention for 500 million gallons of water, protecting over 2,000 nearby homes and businesses from seasonal flooding. This area also serves as a nature preserve and recreation area with six miles of trails and two athletic fields for community use. Learn more…
Respect Big Bend
Respect Big Bend (RBB) is a collaborative coalition, conceived and launched by the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation. RBB brings together and empowers government, philanthropy, communities, academia, landowners, and industry leaders as part of a regional stakeholder process focused on responsible energy development in the Greater Big Bend Region. RBB’s goals are to educate, inform, and provide resources to all stakeholders with the goal of avoiding, reducing, and mitigating impacts on communities, land, and water. The result of RBB’s work is a comprehensive conservation and responsible energy development report for 31,748 square miles, that will provide data-based resources for over 80,000 Texans to make informed energy development decisions. Learn more…
Paso del Norte Trail
The Paso del Norte Trail, once completed, will be a regionally signiﬁcant landmark that promotes active transportation, preserves the history and culture of the region, highlights the Rio Grande river, supports economic development and ecotourism, provides educational and volunteer opportunities, and makes healthy living the easy choice for the unique, binational community of El Paso. Once completed, this 60+ mile trail will span El Paso County. Learn more…
To view all Conservation Wranglers and learn more about the program, click here.
By Jenny Burden, Program Manager at Texan by Nature
My day job is Program Director at Texan by Nature, but most weekends you will find me riding my mountain bike all over the state. Riding a bike in Texas means you have thousands of miles of geographically, ecologically, and topographically diverse trails and roads ready to explore. From the dense Piney Woods to the rolling Hill Country, to vast beautiful deserts, Texas truly has it all for riders seeking adventure: year-round good weather, and amazing food choices for post-ride recovery.
As a cyclist who calls this amazing state home, I am here to tell you that if El Paso is not on your bucket list, you are missing out. Located at the very western tip of Texas, bordering Mexico and New Mexico, El Paso is probably not what you think it is. There is the desert and the occasional tumbleweed, but there are also beautiful mountains, a mighty river, miles of uncongested gravel and paved roads, and some seriously premium mountain biking trails. There are also friendly locals, affordable places to stay, and some of the best Mexican food in Texas.
Texan by Nature partners with conservation projects and programs across the state to offer consultative services, free of charge, helping them increase their impact via marketing, coalition building, increased investment from partners, and more. In 2020, we chose El Paso’s Paso del Norte Trail for one of our programs. After about 10 months of working to help them expand their audience, highlighting the incredible potential impact a 68-mile trail network could have on the region, it was time for a COVID-safe site visit to film a video highlighting the project, meet the incredible leaders making it happen, and, of course, a bike ride!
What started as a quick conversation with a corporate partner based in the region that I knew shared my passion for bikes, turned into the brilliant and fun idea to put together a group for the first-ever end-to-end ride of the proposed route. Soon after, I found myself on a plane with my bike packed away in my Airport Ninja bag, headed to El Paso to explore the trail myself.
Background: The Paso del Norte Trail
Serving a population of 2.7 million in the region between El Paso and their sister city of Juarez, Mexico, the Paso del Norte (PDN) Trail has a vision to improve environmental, economic, and public health conditions for Texans, and their neighbors, from all walks of life. This project is a community-driven, collaborative effort to develop a county-wide trail system in El Paso County.
The roughly 68–mile span of the PDN Trail is divided into ﬁve distinct districts, each broadly deﬁned by their unique geographical, historical, and cultural context, as well as various amenities and attractions. The PDN Trail provides essential connections for community members to businesses, attractions, parks, and downtown areas, including the University of Texas at El Paso, Ascarate Park, the University Medical Center, and the El Paso Zoo. Connector trails and loops provide additional access to natural areas and outdoor spaces such as Franklin Mountains State Park and the Rio Grande River. The PDN Trail provides breathtaking views of the Franklin Mountains and showcases a variety of natural landscapes and terrain, including floodplains, deserts, rivers, mountains, and wetlands. To enhance the native landscape surrounding the trail and create oasis for urban wildlife species, project leaders have also installed habitat enhancements such as Burrowing Owl tunnels, bat boxes, bioswales for stormwater management, edible plants, and more.
Paso del Norte Trail Bike Route Map
The goal of Paso del Norte Trail is to create a regionally signiﬁcant landmark that promotes active transportation, preserves the history and culture of the region, highlights the Rio Grande river, supports economic development and ecotourism, provides educational and volunteer opportunities, and makes healthy living the easy choice for this unique, binational community.
If you live in a community that contains extensive trail networks, make sure to thank the leaders who made it happen. Trail construction is complex, requiring cooperation and funding from many stakeholders, enthusiasm from the community, and buy-in from decision-makers. The process is long, but the investment is always worth it for the added quality of life value brought by trails.
The Inaugural PDN Ride
When you go from Central to Mountain time, it makes a 4:45am wake-up easier, but only slightly so. Our plucky band of riders met at a University of Texas El Paso parking lot to load our bikes and bodies into a van (thank you, Sun Cycles EP for transporting the bikes safely!) to make the trek to the eastern border of the county in Tornillo. Although many of us already had our vaccines, we still were sure to wear masks and stay distant when possible. Of course, I was sporting a Texan by Nature mask with my Texan by Nature kit! As the sun rose on the horizon, I could only think to myself that it was dumb to assume it’d be moderately warm in the high desert in March. The 41 degree temperature meant my fingers were already frozen at mile 0.
Before the start of our ride, I shared my love of Tailwind Nutrition with the group, handing out sick packs of Green Tea and Lemon Endurance Fuel. Prizes of water bottles and buffs went to those who were willing to answer my Texas trivia questions. (Do YOU know what year Spindletop blew? The state flying Mammal? How many ecoregions exist across the state? Some people probably did, but not before sunrise!) When everyone grew tired of my nature-nerd inquiries at the early hour, I just passed them out to the rest of the group.
Since the trail is not complete, our routeencompassed both paved trail where it exists and roads or levees where it has yet to be constructed. Tornillo is a quiet agricultural area that made for a nice calm start to our journey, and the flat landscape provided plenty of time to warm up. Well, warm up the legs, because my fingers froze in my Handup gloves until the sun finally thawed me out around mile 10.
As we pedaled closer to El Paso, traffic picked up and we began reflecting on just how life-changing trails for that side of the county could be. Current walkability is disjointed and road-dominant, making it difficult to connect neighborhoods and business districts safely. While many of us were experienced riders comfortable with the road, when we reached the first portion of the completed trail, with its wide paved surface, signage, and amenities, the stark contrast and lack of traffic noise created a peaceful silence that was almost deafening.
The safest, most enjoyable parts of the day were without a doubt the ones spent on the trail. We refilled bottles, chatted with new friends, spotted wildlife, and enjoyed the fresh air and sunshine as we progressed, mile after mile, ever westward. We made stops at the Playa Drain Trail, Ascarate Park for an interview discussing the trail with the local news station, and the Texas Tech Health Sciences Center to grab a bit of drone footage and a nice rest stop, courtesy of the Health Sciences School President and Medical School Dean who joined us for the ride.
This trail is not epic in the traditional cycling sense, with massive climbs or technical features. It is easy and accessible by design, ensuring all skill levels and abilities can enjoy recreation and transportation along the route. What it lacks in challenge it makes up for in scenery. The Franklin Mountains that dominate the city landscape (a mountain range INSIDE city limits!) draw you in and watch over you on every mile. The Rio Grande river dances around riders, first one side, then the other, blurring the lines between Texas, New Mexico, and blending into Mexico, which glides by in brilliant color as you leave town and follow the segment of Texas Department of Transportation paved path along the highway, linking with the levee system on the state line. When we ran out of pavement, we took our bikes along these levees that still irrigate agricultural lands throughout the county when the river flows from Elephant Butte, putting a little gravel in our travel.
After the levees, we hopped on the final segment of the trail, 12 miles of paved path winding along arroyos and through parkland, wrapping up what ended up being a 7 hour day of cycling. While certainly not fast, it was absolutely fun. By the end of the ride, we were toasting with cervezas and planning the next adventure, hoping to bring even more people along to explore the route with us next time. Although the ride was an absolute blast, I was definitely stoked to see our Podium FInish sag truck waiting at the trail end for a final check-in as we waited for the van to pick us up and take us back to our vehicles. The post-ride ceviche and tacos hit the spot. A day well spent, indeed.
The Importance of Trails
Trails improve the quality of life for the communities they connect. Of the myriad of benefits, PDN’s planned route highlights the ability of trails to:
Connect people to nature: Accessible trails connect people to nature, which positively affects their health and promotes a conservation mindset. The collaborative team working on the trail strives to ensure the PDN Trail is a trail for everyone, meaning it is safe and accessible to community members of all ages and abilities. Upon completion, the trail will provide greater opportunities for walking, hiking, and biking for users of all abilities to connect in the ecologically and culturally diverse border region of Texas.
The landscaping along the trail will employ only native, desert-adaptive plants with the effect of conserving natural resources, like water, and will support the biodiversity and wildlife populations in the region.
A safe, secure, and scenic trail will provide scenic views of the wetlands and connect trail users to multiple species of cranes, ducks, and other birds that pass through the region during migrations.
Transportation Alternatives: Upon completion, the PDN Trail will provide safe alternative transportation opportunities and recreational access to open space, rivers, mountains, and parks to over 2.1 million people in El Paso County and Ciudad Juarez. Trail users and community members will have safe connections to schools, parks, businesses, and downtown.
Economic Value: Trail systems also bring economic value to their communities through increased property value, economic opportunities for local businesses engaging with the trail, improved public health, and overall greater “livability” for residents.
The PDN Trail provides indirect economic value through educational and recreational activities, such as the regular weekly rides hosted byPodium Finish, a local bike shop and café.
The trail provides direct economic value through increased property values and increased property tax revenue for municipalities. Trail development directly creates jobs associated with the planning, engineering, construction, and maintenance of the trail.
Eco-tourism and bicycle tourism has the potential to generate hundreds of thousands of dollars per year via spending at hotels, restaurants, retail, and cultural attractions.
Additional economic value includes increased marketing opportunities and business for local businesses.
Trail users and community members, in general, see indirect economic value through improved public health benefits associated with active lifestyles and reduced automotive dependency.
Over time, municipal entities will realize reduced street maintenance costs due to reduced automotive travel and effective, on-site handling of stormwater through expanded green infrastructure.
Put simply, an investment in trails is an investment in the community as a whole. Trails create equitable access to nature, increase the quality of life for residents, elevate the attractiveness of an area for corporations and businesses, and improve public health outcomes. They are literal and figurative lifelines with excellent ROI. We at Texan by Nature will be following the progress of this project, and encourage municipalities across the state and country to replicate this idea in their own communities!
The ride, and of course the trail itself, would not have been possible without the help of local community advocates, who proudly advocate for this trail each and every day. A huge thank you to the following for hosting, navigating, planning, and of course, fueling a wonderful adventure: