The Season Begins at Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge

The Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge is a beautiful expanse of land in Central Texas, home to several species of endangered birds. It features rolling hills of Ashe-juniper and oaks with shallow water lolling in rocky river beds that cut through the landscape. Our newly formed crew of seven was anxious to find out what our first project would be out in this densely forested wilderness. Upon meeting our project partner, Eric, however, we were to discover that our new project would not actually be on the National Wildlife Refuge, but rather on adjacent private land. Eric, an imposingly built “C” sawyer with a demeanor akin to Owen Wilson, explained that our first project would be “fire-wising” a new property. Outside of the refuge, the rolling hills continued with the addition of a speckling of spacious mansions popping up right out of the cedar. On one of these hills, right up the road from the housing complex graciously bestowed with the name “The Bluffs at the Hollows”, we pulled up in our duct-tape decorated van and trailer to begin our first project.

Fire-wising a property or tract of land is performed in order to prevent future fires from becoming the kind of raging hell beasts that burn hot and fast and scorch both homes and the environment. It often utilizes controlled burning to mimic the kind of fires that might naturally occur and prevent extreme damages from future fires started of natural causes or otherwise. Our task didn’t involve flame-throwers, but rather chainsaws as we set out to clear the undergrowth and limbs of Ashe-juniper and oak that fell below the six-foot mark. This was to prevent the fire from having a sort of ladder by which to engulf the entire tree and spread to other trees nearby. While at first it felt strange to many of us to be working for an individual person, the benefit of fire-wising this one property would not solely fall to this one man, but rather the entire community and surrounding lands. It would serve as an example to the neighborhood of a way to prevent all-encompassing wild fires from occurring, presented in a bird-friendly and aesthetically appealing package.

Our second day once again took us to a dense patch of trees, this time almost exclusively shin oak, and into the hands of a wildlife biologist and his black-capped vireo. The black-capped vireo, currently living it up in Mexico, is quite the prima donna for such a small, endangered bird. The shin oak in which it nests must be thick, but not too thick. It must include plenty of open areas within the woods, called open-oak shinneries. The shin oak woodlands must additionally be of a certain height and age. Our job that day, trading in one particular boss for another, would be to prepare señor black-cap’s house for his return from Mexico. More exactly, on that overcast Tuesday, we would be creating these open-oak shinneries that the black-capped vireo loves so much. These would-be quiet, peaceful havens for the little bird were anything but quiet in their creation. Our chainsaws thrummed steadily as we cut our way through shin-oak growing so thickly together that it was nearly impossible to clear out what was already cut. Instead, we tromped across the fallen timber in our pursuit to hack and slash down yet more in a circle that was to measure approximately 22 meters in diameter. The thought does cross the mind as one hacks through endlessly dense gnarled shin-oak that maybe a little more flexibility on the vireo’s part might have kept him off of the endangered species list in the first place. After an area had been chain-sawed into submission, we came in with a blue-tinted “poison” to cover the open wounds of our target trees before they had a chance to heal.

In a week that was anything but straightforward, we discovered that conservation work isn’t the pretty tree-hugging picture many might imagine it to be, rather it sometimes more accurately resembles an episode of Dexter. On this, our first hitch, we learned a lot about the idiosyncrasies of our chainsaws, about the natural world, and about each other.  I, for one, am excited to see what other challenges to previously formed thoughts the rest of the year will bring.

Laurie Cale, ERT Crew Member

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