Liberty High School Students INTERACT with Nature at Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge

LIBERTY, October 31, 2014 – One of the best aspects of working at Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge is having Liberty, such a great community, as our neighbor. Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge is located all over Liberty County along the river bottom, but 1,000 of the 25,000 acres that comprise the Refuge sit within the city limits of Liberty, TX. These 1,000 acres are the gateway to nature through outdoor learning and field classroom, and the best part is they are Liberty’s backyard.

The From Crosswalks to Boardwalks Project was developed in 2010. It features an extensive network of hiking trails that connect the City of Liberty to Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge. It began on-the-ground development in 2012. Now in 2014, it is a living learning classroom. Class was in session October 29th and 19 members of the Liberty High School Interact Club, sponsored by educator Mrs. Kimberly Jones, attended a field trip like no other. The Interact Club Members, a volunteer service organization for high school-aged youth, knew they were attending a trail clean-up, but it was not what they had in mind.

Lunch started at the Gazebo at the City Park. Refuge biologist Laurie Gonzales and Refuge Volunteers Sandy Fletcher, Frances Oster, and Kaitlyn Waid greeted the students. The students looked a little puzzled when they saw the tools and rubber boots. Even though student Freddy Mancilla was on the opposite side of the gazebo, you could hear him call out, “Dottie!” as he saw the educational ambassadors, Dottie and Coco the rats, Sandy the rabbit, and a wild Texas rat snake being placed on a picnic table. Freddy was one of Dottie’s handlers at the recent National Night Out event. The students rushed to the animals and took turns holding them. The star of the show was the Texas rat snake who was passed around while the Biologist gave a lesson on snake safety on hiking trails.

The students then traded in their tennis shoes for rubber boots, gloves, and handtools (handsaws or lopping shears) and followed the adult Refuge Volunteers down to the Knobby Knees Trailhead. The students were given an introduction to the 2 miles of Refuge trails they were going to be clearing and a crash course in trail maintenance. The students spent the next 2 hours removing sticks, branches, vines, and tree trunks that had fallen across the Knobby Knees Trail.

Students from Liberty High School lifting and removing a log from Knobby Knees Trail

The Refuge staff was amazed by the work the Interact students accomplished. It was quite a sight to see Mrs. Jones as she and her team of students to lift a fallen tree as a group and pushed it out of the way. By far, the dirtiest job was reconstructing the log jam across Palmer Bayou. Six students mucked around the water moving large logs into a parallel formation. Camilla Brady called it, “A real bonding experience because they had to work together as a team to get everything in proper formation.” By the time they were done, the other teams arrived and were able to cross Palmer Bayou without having to step in the water. The students who built the log jam spent the moment bragging about their efforts to the students traversing the logs. Once everyone crossed Palmer Bayou, the students took on the Leapin’ Lizard Loop Trail. They cleared the entire trail and headed back to the bus. Some students looked a little whipped by the trail maintenance work, covered in mud and grit, but all donned smiles too; proof of a job well done.

Students celebrating their construction of a temporary log bridge crossing Palmer Bayou.

What stuck out most to the Refuge staff were students’ attitudes. The students were fascinated by the large spiders and beetles they encountered on the trails. They would gather around and look at all of the many colors and shapes of the many spiders they found on webs. They commented on the smells of the mud of Palmer Bayou. It was heard several times, “Wow, I would love to bring my friends out here”, and “I had no idea there were even hiking trails here. Can I bring my family?” The Biologist explained to the students that these trails were open to anyone from sunrise to sunset every day of the year. When asked about what was expected in this “trail clean-up” field trip, a several students replied, “I thought we were going to be given a trash bag and instructed to pick up trash at the City Park. I had no idea we were going to do this!”

Kaitlyn Waid, an adult volunteer mentioned it was comments and experiences such as these that drive her to become an environmental educator for her career. She is currently volunteering with the Refuge to learn more about outdoor education, her passion.

The From Crosswalks to Boardwalks project was designed to connect people with nature, serve as an outdoor field classroom, promote recreation, and bring awareness to Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge. Judging by the smiles and comments from the students, the project did just that!

To learn more about Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge, please call 936-336-9786 or visit the Refuge office at 601 FM 1011, Liberty, TX, directly across from the Sam Houston Regional Library.

By Laurie Gonzales, Trinity River Refuge Wildlife Biologist

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