Master Naturalists Abroad

(Or at least outside Austin!)

On April 22 (Earth Day, a super-holiday for conservationists), I had the chance to travel east to the Caddo Lakes region of Texas – nearly Louisiana – and meet up with some of the Texas Master Naturalists in the Cypress Basin Chapter. Their event – the 5th Annual Flotilla held in Uncertain, TX – raises money for their conservation efforts within the lake region, and consists of charity food sales, a silent auction, a scavenger hunt, and a chance to explore their work in maintaining the paddling trails in the lake and bayous surrounding it. I got to paddle around some of the extensive trails through the magical forest, try some local mayhaw jelly, and brought home a gorgeous coneflower grown by a member and sold at the auction for $7 – a bargain for a healthy, 5-gallon plant grown with Master Naturalist love and care.

In talking to some of the chapter members there, it was apparent nearly all of their volunteer work centered around the lake. One of the lake’s bigger challenges is the encroachment of the introduced giant salvinia (Salvinia molesta) and finding ways to help in the mitigation of its effects on the waterways and species diversity. Giant salvinia can completely carpet a waterway, turning the surface of the water into what looks like a green field. According to TPWD, giant salvinia:

…damages aquatic ecosystems by outgrowing and replacing native plants that provide food and habitat for native animals and waterfowl. Additionally, it blocks out sunlight and decreases oxygen concentrations to the detriment of fish and other aquatic animals. When plant masses die, decomposition lowers dissolved oxygen still further. Giant salvinia infestations often expand very rapidly. It can double in about a week under the right circumstances.

One of the fish species that giant salvinia threatens is the paddlefish (Polyodon spathula). Not surprisingly, many members earn their hours by clearing giant salvinia and reintroducing paddlefish.

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But they also help maintain a system of paddling trails amongst the cypress forests. Much like regular hiking trails, these trails are marked with highly-visible posts and numbered to guide kayakers, canoeists and other boaters to various points of interest and back amongst the bayous, islands and forest stands. Without these markers, boaters would undoubtedly get lost amongst the dense, watery forest and its deeply-shaded canopy. The chapter maintains active maps of the trails, as well as assists in physical maintenance of the markers and waterways. During the Flotilla, the chapter raised over $2,400, mainly to be used for these conservation and maintenance activities.

Since I became a Texas Master Naturalist, I’ve become more aware of how often members of the public interact with the expansive network of TMN members around the state and their often quiet, unassuming work. I’ve stumbled into a TMN-assisted bird-banding event at Guadalupe River State Park, happened upon pollinator gardens built by TMNs in unexpected places, and participated in hikes led by them, too. While I specifically choose to attend the Flotilla in part because I knew it was a TMN chapter event and was mentioned on our state listserv, I enjoyed their efforts tremendously and could see how much the public benefitted from their work. As did a few hundred members of the public. When I chatted with her, chapter president Stella Barrow was pretty floored by how many registrations they had for the event… every one of them a chance to connect with someone and bring the challenges of conservation to their attention.

I now compulsively look for telltale signs of TMN work when I travel in Texas – a tiny chapter logo in the corner of an interpretive sign, an event helper with one of our beige badges – as a happy reminder that what I do and what my chapter does to fulfill our mission has broad impact, whether or not it is immediately felt or acknowledged.