Former first lady Laura Bush on Friday encouraged ranchers and farmers to find their own playas and keep them as a natural habitat for wildlife in the area.
Bush was the luncheon speaker at the first Jenna Welch Nature Study Center playa symposium. The symposium at the Petroleum Club included a panel of a variety of experts in the field of playas and conservation and served as an educational seminar for the newly opened I-20 Wildlife Preserve.
With more than 300 playa lakes in Midland County, Bush said the one restored under Interstate 20 at the preserve is the 12th largest in the area.
Without any rivers, lakes or other sources of water, she said that it’s important for landowners to keep with the native grasses and other vegetation around them.
“They serve as flyways. The birds will go on down to the little isthmus of Panama on a flyway in Midland County,” she said. “If you have a playa, do what you can so that the birds can stop here.”
The area playas provide wildlife with places to drink, so ranchers should try to protect these lakes to ensure there’s water after it rains, she said.
Bush said she was happy to be in Midland on Friday and to speak at the symposium. The planned nature center will bear the name of her mother, Jenna Welch, who she said got her interested in the outdoors.
Her mother was her Girl Scouts leader when she earned her bird badge, and Welch went on to continue bird watching as a hobby and can name the native wildflowers.
During a press conference at the symposium, Bush said she and former President George W. Bush have 100 acres of native prairie. They bought their ranch 12 or 13 years ago but had to plow for four or five years to rid the land of the non-native grass, she said.
After plowing, they began to plant native grass seeds. During the fourth year, she said, they experienced a drought and then during the fifth year an overabundance — 56 inches — of rain. With the help of a full-time employee, they’re now able to have 100 acres full of central Texas native prairie.
“Since we’ve done that, we’ve heard bobwhite quail again nest on the ground,” she said.
Because Texas is, Bush said having the native grasses and prairies is what will help the plants and wildlife to maintain in the environment. She’s also encouraging seed growers to grow native seeds.
“It’s about people learning to do on their own property what’s best for their property. They’re protecting what’s already native there and working with each other to find out what that is,” she said.
Bush recently co-founded the nonprofit organization Taking Care of Texas along with her friend, Katharine Armstrong. Armstrong was appointed to the Texas Parks and Wildlife commission in 1998 by then-Gov. Bush.
Armstrong and TCT have been working with landowners around Fort Hood since 2000 to create habitats, which is a perfect example of the government, military and private land owners working together, Bush said.
Because TCT is a 501c3, Bush said it can’t lobby in the Legislature, but the organization wants people to know what it can do.
She said it’s not just for farmers and ranchers. Homeowners also can plant flowers in their backyards to attract butterflies and birds.
She challenged Midlanders to remember they live in a very arid part of the state.
“Do what you can to conserve water … (even if that) just means turning water off while you brush your teeth,” she said. “Water is a very crucial issue here and across the state.”
She encouraged residents to participate in Keep Midland Beautiful’s cleanup event on April 6 and to get involved in tackling the community’s litter problem. She also asked operators to make sure there are covered trash recepticals at well sites so that the litter doesn’t blow away.
“I see a lot of litter in Midland, and I know why. I know we have these very high winds that blow everything,” she said.
Darryl Birkenfeld, who also spoke at the symposium, discussed what makes playas, why they are important and which birds and amphibians use them.
Birkenfeld, who lives between Amarillo and Lubbock, is familiar with West Texas. He said about 70 of the area’s playas have been altered by roads going through them, which keeps the water sources from serving the needed ecological functions.
If playas were to disappear, the area would see much fewer wildlife habitats, he said. It would affect the central fly way, which is continental and stretches from the Arctic circle in Alaska to the south and to Mexico.
“It’s a massive highway that goes through our part of the world,” he said. “Playas are like 7-Elevens. Birds that use them don’t stay forever. They may stay a day or two, but (the playas are) vital because they’re a resting place and places to get food.”
The effect on people and society would be in the recreational opportunities because many are used as parks and for bird watching.
It would also remove one of our only sources of surface water, Birkenfeld said.
While most of the research into playas has been done in the past 20 years, he believes the I-20 preserve is a good step for the Midland community and that it’s something he’d love to see in other cities.
He recommended that in order to preserve playas and wildlife, businesses should not place transmission towers in playa lakes and that they should space wind turbines far enough apart do they don’t interrupt the migration of species such as the Sandhill cranes and bats that are a source of pollination for the area.
– Audrie Palmer