At the UH Coastal Center, our outreach mission is definitely a two-way street. Not only does UHCC value the contributions of volunteers in expanding its educational and restoration progress, UHCC works to be a valuable resource to the community.
Part of UHCC’s outreach is to establish cooperative relationships with local, state, and national organizations and agencies that are active in prairie habitat management and restoration. UHCC has established a Technical Advisory Committee with members representing several of these groups, including the Texas Nature Conservancy, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Ducks Unlimited, Wildlife Habitat Federation, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The advisory committee members provide a direct link to coastal prairie management expertise.
We also collaborate with the Armand Bayou Nature Center, Memorial Park Conservancy, Katy Prairie Conservancy, Coastal Prairie Initiative, Houston Audubon Society, and with our closest prairie neighbor, the Texas City Preserve (a part of the Texas Nature Conservancy).
Volunteers are a key element of our restoration progress at UHCC. Although UHCC utilizes contractor machinery and ground crews for large-scale restoration projects, the boots-on-the-ground volunteers provide valuable people resources for our prescribed burns, educational outreach, and invasive species control. They wield loppers, saws, and sprayers against tallow, yaupon, and other invasive species to help maintain restored prairie and to remove isolated stands of unwanted plant species. This allows us remove undesirable seed sources, which improves the efficiency of our management program.
Our hands-on volunteers have come from the Texas Master Naturalists, Texas Society of Ecological Restoration, UH College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics Alumni Association, and UH students.
UHCC prairie restoration efforts have advanced enormously from our relationship with the City of La Marque Fire Department. Prescribed fire is a vital part of managing a healthy coastal prairie by removing thatch, recycling nutrients, and fostering a highly biodiverse plant community.
Since UHCC re-activated its prescribed burn program in 2020, approximately 165 acres have benefitted from this tool. Not only does the coastal prairie benefit from a prescribed burn, but the burn activity provides a training opportunity in wildfire control for the La Marque Fire Department and the neighboring fire departments that participate in the operation.
Because UHCC has such a high-quality biodiverse coastal prairie, it serves as a seed source for other local and regional prairie restorations. In the past, UHCC seed has been used in coastal prairie restorations at the San Jacinto Battleground and at Lake Sheldon Reservoir State Park. Recently, UHCC hosted seed collectors from the Memorial Park Conservancy, Armand Bayou Nature Center, and the Texas Mater Naturalists.
Beginning in May 2021, UHCC became the fourteenth site for monthly bird surveys by the Houston Audubon Society. As of February 2022, 106 different bird species have been observed at UHCC (see record of bird sightings). The Houston Audubon Society’s volunteers are helping to develop a more complete picture UHCC’s role in providing habitat to support wildlife.
Educational outreach at UHCC is not limited to formal UH coursework. We hosted a visit by North American Prairie Conference participants in 2019 to introduce them to a landscape-scale coastal prairie and organized a conference workshop. We also serve as a training ground for the next generation of coastal prairie restorationists; the Texas Conservation Corps has used the UHCC to train its personnel in ground crew conservation procedures.
Most recently, UHCC expanded its educational outreach statewide by co-hosting a 2022 forum with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department for coastal prairie restoration practitioners. The forum brings restoration decision-makers together for discussion focusing on the nuts and bolts of prairie restoration.
UHCC introduced middle school students to coastal prairie ecology through a virtual summer camp in 2021. The original intent of a grant from the Jacob and Terese Hershey Foundation was to support an in-person, field-oriented summer camp at UHCC. However, the persistent COVID pandemic initially necessitated a delay and eventually a change in venue and format. Instead of students meeting at the coastal prairie, they participated in a virtual camp. Short videos of guest speakers replaced live presentations. UHCC staff offered an “Introduction to the Coastal Prairie” and a UHCC Technical Advisory Committee member from Texas Parks and Wildlife Department presented “Invasive Species of the Coastal Prairie.” In the future, UHCC hopes to host a summer camp in the field.
UHCC’s overall outreach goals are to expand its network of volunteers and further extend its service to the community.