Law Man Walking: Nature Treks With Bill Holston

Another dispatch from the field in an occasional series from our friend Bill Holston.

Walking and Volunteerism, or Why Privet is the Devil

The book that has most influenced me in the area of learning about nature is Roy Bedichek’s Adventures of a Texas Naturalist. One of my favorite pieces of public art is the statue of Roy Bedichek, Walter Prescott Webb, and Frank Dobie at Barton Springs. Since reading that book several years ago, I’ve been inspired to learn more detail about this Texas environment I live in. In addition, I turn 55 this year, and I’m determined to be someone who is a life-long learner. I finally did something about that. Last week, I started the process to become a certified Master Naturalist. The Texas Master Naturalist volunteer program is coordinated by the Texas AgriLife Extension Service and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The Mission is:

“[T]o develop a corps of well-informed volunteers to provide education, outreach and service dedicated to the beneficial management of natural resources and natural areas within their communities.” Or, as the Texas statewide organization puts it, a master naturalist is “someone who’s NOT afraid of digging in the dirt and slogging through the mud while giving back to the community.”

In order to become certified as a Master Naturalist, you must complete a 40-hour training program, a minimum of eight hours of approved advanced training, and complete a minimum of 40 hours of chapter-approved volunteer service. The lecture topics include: Ecological Concepts, Ecosystem Management, Ecological Regions of Texas, Geology and Soils, Wetland Ecology and Management,, Forest Ecology and Management, Ornithology (birds), Herpetology (reptiles), Entomology (insects), Urban Systems, Weather and Climate, Ichthyology, Mammology, Botany, and Hydrology.

Our very first lecture concerned the ecological regions of Texas. Dallas County lies in the blackland prairie, but my adventure this week will be in a bottomland forest. My walking adventure this week includes my first set of Master Naturalist volunteer hours of removing privet (an invasive plant) at the Texas Buckeye Trail.

The Texas Buckeye Trail is part of the trail system in the Great Trinity Forest. This is the nation’s largest urban forest, at approximately 6,000 acres, and continues to be an underutilized natural resource. This trail is a great introduction. The trailhead is located at the end of Bexar Street, at the foot of the Trinity levies. This Rochester Park neighborhood is the typical blighted neighborhood that seems to exist close to the Trinity River and is one of the major impediments to Dallas’ enthusiastic embrace of this forest as a natural resource. The drive to the trailhead goes past old run-down houses and convenience stores and is pretty bleak.

I was happy to see as I drove up that I had, in fact, driven my Chevy to the Levee, and the Levee was dry. This bottomland forest is in a floodplain, and all of the trails flood after heavy rains. The trails were mud free on this hike, as they were a couple years ago, when I hiked it for the first time. There’s a small parking area and a picnic pavilion. The trail begins by following a dirt trail over the top of the Trinity levee. Once over the levee, you enter a different world, as you immediately enter a lovely forest of tall pecans, elms, cottonwoods, oaks, hackberrys, ash, and cedar elm. It’s a beautiful shaded area, mostly free of trash. The trail begins as an ADA compliant paved trail that leads over to an overlook on the Trinity River. After a few hundred yards, a dirt trail veers to the left. This trail has a couple loops and is about 2 or 3 miles long. The Trail is well marked and was constructed by volunteers from various groups, including Groundwork Dallas. There are a number of trail markers and signs with maps. The trail is flat and creates a loop to several groves of native Texas buckeye. (Aesculus glabra var. arguta Hippocastanaceae) The Texas buckeye is related to the Ohio buckeye tree and is an extraordinarily pretty tree, with intricate blooms in the spring. These groves of buckeyes are sadly infiltrated with the invasive Chinese privet. These thickets actually take over a habitat and bury the buckeyes in a morass of non-native shrubs. Chinese privet was introduced into the United States in the early 1852 as an ornamental. Our mission was to remove some of the invasives, and as one of my fellow volunteers put it, become a tree rescuer.

There were about 10 of us, led by Jim Flood, a Master Naturalist and one of the keepers of this beautiful wood. Jim is extremely knowledgeable about this bottomland forest and was a great leader for our project. He pointed out trees, plants and other natural features on our walk. I arrived early and had planned to do some walking before the work commenced. At the trailhead, I met a fellow volunteer, Jim, a retired engineer from TI. We walked in the one mile trail to the first grove of buckeyes. It’s a lovely area. We started working under a canopy of tall trees. Because it’s winter, all of the trees were bare, except for the ubiquitous Chinese privet. These trees created a thicket and all were fully leafed. The process of removal involves cutting the trunks close to the ground and then spraying the stump with herbicide. City of Dallas policy requires that the herbicide be administered by someone with a non-commercial license, and thankfully there were two people with licenses there.

This was hard, tedious work. I kept thinking of the irony of the fact that in this wood, we have beautiful flowering native trees that we can’t even see because some are being obliterated by an exotic that was introduced for landscaping. I’ve been exclusively planting native species in my lawn for years. They are colorful, require much less care and very little water. For about three hours, we cut privet and hauled it to create huge piles of brush off of the trail, and away from the buckeyes. All of the volunteers were hard workers, and there wasn’t a complainer in the group. Our one adventure was the copperhead snake that was stretched out in the sun. Everyone gathered and gawked at our snake. Copperheads are venomous and are masters of camouflage. I had to really concentrate to detect it. I took a photo of the snake with my phone and I couldn’t detect it at all in the picture. These and other venomous snakes are one of the reasons that these work days diminish in warmer weather. The snake didn’t bother us, and I was sure to tell him to spread the word. We meant him and his brothers and sisters no harm.

We finished working about noon. All of us sat around, taking drinks of water, cooling off from the warm weather and getting to know each other. We talked about what led us to an interest in outdoors and nature. In my case it was Boy Scouts. I am an Eagle Scout and spent many of my months as a boy along the tea-colored creeks of Southern Alabama. Those hours in the woods gave me a life-long appreciation for nature. In our crew, there were several retired people. There were arborists, former and current Master Naturalists, gardeners, and even an amateur archeologist. I have to say this was a really fun and interesting group of people to spend a Saturday morning with. As government budgets continue to shrink, it seems to me that we citizen volunteers are going to be increasingly called on to work on these projects. The fact is, it was very rewarding and served to meet some fellow citizens I wouldn’t have met otherwise. In addition, our little grove of buckeyes will be much easier spot for future hikers. There will be another work day next weekend, weather permitting.

As we walked out, we passed a grassy area that was filled with a native rye grass, which served as pasture for an early dairy in Dallas. We paused below a huge pecan and noticed that the ground was covered with large hawk feathers. Jim Flood told us that it appeared that a bobcat had ambushed a hawk, from its post in the tree. It was a great reminder that we were walking through a wild area.

If you want to see the buckeyes, there are several guided hikes planned. The annual 2011 Spring Buckeye Walks are Friday March 18, 9 am; Saturday March 19, 9 am and 12 noon; and Sunday March 20, 9am and 12 noon. All of the hikes are led by Texas Master Naturalists, and the walks are always fun, well attended, and informative. If you haven’t done this before, you will be pleasantly surprised with just how pretty these trees are.

I left feeling really good about this great forest right in our backyard. I hope you check out the buckeyes when they bloom in a few weeks. I can’t wait to tell you about my next Master Naturalist adventure. Next week, trout lilies … –Bill Holston

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