Former first lady Laura Bush will never forget growing up in Midland stargazing, gardening and hiking with her mother.
It’s no wonder she wants to conserve the nature she grew up surrounded by.
“For almost as far back as I can remember on warm summer nights, mother and I would go outside and lie down on a blanket and gaze up at the stars,” Bush said, tearing up while looking at her mother, Jenna Welch, during a playa conservation symposium Friday at the Petroleum Club of Midland.
About 100 farmers and ranchers attended the playa conservation symposium put on by the I-20 Wildlife Preserve and Jenna Welch Nature Study Center, a preserve located in Midland and named after Welch, who frequented the area.
The goal of the symposium was to educate and inspire local landowners to make conservation efforts by maintaining and restoring natural habitats, Elaine Magruder, Board President of the I-20 Wildlife Preserve said, noting that 94 percent of the land in Texas is privately owned.
A playa is a natural aquifer, similar to a lake but with water level changes, that serves as a habitat for wildlife, I-20 Wildlife Executive Director Nathan Knowles said.
“When you go out there you wouldn’t expect to see this in Midland,” Knowles said. “To see water and to see those trees and habitat is fantastic.”
The Jenna Welch Nature Study Center is the third and final phase of the I-20 Wildlife Preserve, 2201 S. Midland Drive, an 87-acre preserve containing a 30-acre urban playa.
The preserve opened Jan. 18 and the study center is expected to be completed within the next three years, Knowles said.
It will house an auditorium, visitors center and an education learning center for children, Elaine Magruder, Board President of the I-20 Wildlife Preserve, said.
In 2006, Magruder was inspired to turn the playa and surrounding land into a wildlife preserve by Welch, a family friend.
“It brings in different plants when it’s dry and when it’s wet,” Magruder said. “By having that wet and dry you have a much larger diversity in not only plant life, but a greater diversity of migratory birds.”
The land was originally donated to the city for a park in the 1960s but the funding never came through, Magruder said.
Magruder funded the master plan for the preserve with Paul Davis Jr.
The total cost for the preserve was about $2.35 million, about half from private donations and the other half from Texas Parks and Wildlife, Magruder said.
The city also gave $250,000 toward the entrance pavilion, she said.
“It’s important that if you have a playa property that you try to do what you can to protect it,” Bush said in a press conference before the symposium.
The Jenna Welch Nature Study Center will also serve as a research facility for university students, Knowles said.
“We want it to be scientific,” Bush said at the press conference. “We don’t want to go and ask people to do something that really would not be successful in the end.”
These playas are important to West Texas because they are often the only water sources for wildlife in the area, Laura Bush said.
“We can see how playa restoration enriches wildlife and biological diversity,” she said at the symposium. “This one will provide the community with the opportunity to learn about and appreciate these important ecosystems.”
Conservation is nothing new for Bush.
“When it rained out here, (my mother) used to put a giant garbage can on the back patio to collect the rain water so she would have it to water her plants,” she said.
And when she was 10 years old her mother volunteered to lead her Girl Scouts troop where one of the requirements was to get a bird-watching badge.
“We got the bird badge but my mother got a lifelong interest in bird watching,” she said. “As a sleepy teenager, I grew irritated with her cries of delight at spotting a hawk, but her passion far outlasted my adolescence, and today I eagerly scan the live oak in our Dallas yard for signs of the screech owl that nests in our owl box and I’m forever gazing at the surrounding trees and shrubs, looking for birds.”
It was that passion for bird watching that led Welch to join the Midland Naturalists, an organization dedicated to the study and preservation of the environment and wildlife that frequented the playa to bird watch.
Her love of nature also inspired Laura Bush to co-found Taking Care of Texas, a two-year-old non-profit and partner of the I-20 Wildlife Preserve to conserve Texas land, water and wildlife.
“Taking Care of Texas works with public and private groups as well as with private landowners to support innovative new ways to protect our state’s land, water and wildlife,” Bush said. “Our mission is to spur conservation efforts that benefit communities that build on the success of others and inspire all Texans to join.”
While she grew up playing outside, today it’s an increasing problem that children are spending less time outdoors, she said.
“The Texas outdoors is being lost to our children and the future generations,” she said. “An elementary student now spends less time outdoors than any other generation in human history, 50 percent less time than kids did just 20 years ago. Already there are efforts underway all around Texas to get our children back outdoors for learning and for play and some are being assisted by Taking Care of Texas.”
And she is determined to instill that same love and respect for nature she has in future generations.
“As a soon-to-be grandmother I know how important the Texas outdoors is both for our present and for our future,” Laura Bush said. “I’d like to imagine lying on a blanket with my grandchild to look at the stars and that’s my hope for every Texan. That he or she comes to know the joy of the natural world and the simple pleasures of being outdoors.”
– Michelle Brownstone