Press Releases

Open House for  2009
Released October 2008 (This is a sound file)
This is a 2-minute audio file produced by KRXT FM in Rockdale about the open house held to promote the upcoming class.
Open House 2008 MP3 File

Horned Lizard Watch Training Upcoming
Released July 2008
On August 12 a unique coalition between the City of Rockdale, Texas Parks & Wildlife – Wildlife Diversity Branch, and the local Texas Master Naturalist chapter will host a Horned Lizard advanced training event.

Starting at 2 p.m. in Rockdale’s Patterson Civic Center (609 Mill Avenue, Rockdale TX 76567), Lee Ann Linam of Texas Horned Lizard Watch will give an overview of the species, followed by specifics of a genetics project. The goal of the project is to train Texas Master Naturalists in genetics sampling techniques in order to sample the genetic diversity. From this data it is hoped to better understand surviving pockets of horned lizards and devise way to ensure their survival.

Following the training, there will be a local field exercise looking at some Horned Lizard habitat.

Note that there is no fee for this advanced training event. However, if you are planning on attending this event, please let Vivian Dixon know in order for us to have the necessary materials available. Technical questions should be directed to Lee Ann Linam on 512-656-1222.

For individuals unable to come to the advanced training session, there will be a public general awareness forum at 7 p.m. (same location).

El Camino Real Chapter of the Texas Master Naturalist Graduation
Released May 13, 2008
By Nancy Soechting

May is the month for graduation and that includes twenty four Milam County residents!

Apache Pass was the site for the El Camino Real Master Naturalist graduation ceremony held May 13th. The graduation recognized that students had completed 56 hours in class or on field trips. The course was diverse and experts lectured about ecology, fish, amphibians, mammals, birds, habitats and more.

Field trips taken by the class included the Blackland Prairie Research Center in Temple, Texas Cooperative Wildlife Collection in College Station, River System Institute in San Marcos and Grasslands Management at Alcoa in Rockdale.
Mike Mitchell, Chapter Advisor and Game Warden, gave the welcoming remarks. Paul Unger, Chapter President introduced the many local officials on hand to celebrate this achievement. Mayor Billy Simank-Thorndale, T. Fleming-Rockdale City Manager and Sonny Arnold, Assistant Program Director of Texas Master Naturalist were present.

Speakers included Captain Robert Goodrich -Texas Parks & Wildlife, Michelle Haggerty-Program Director of Texas Master Naturalist, Dr. Dee Dee Green-Milam County Historical Commission and Kit Worley-Owner of Apache Pass presented the history and significance of Apache Pass.

The ceremony’s highlight was the presentation of awards being presented to the students based on level of training /volunteer completion. All twenty four students who began the class completed the training hours and received a certificate. For those who completed the required “advanced training” hours and forty “volunteer” hours were presented Master Naturalist pins and declared “certified” Master Naturalists. Mike Mitchell, Jon Gersbach, Capt. Robert Goodrich, Michelle Haggerty and Sonny Arnold were presenters.

Students graduating were: Anne Barr, Katherine Bedrich, Cindy Bolch, Ed Burleson, Kerri Cunningham, Vivian Dixon, Ed Dworaczyk, Sandra Dworaczyk, Paula Engelhardt, Lucile Estell, Bonnie George, Joy Graham, Debbi Harris, Lynda Lewis, Jim O’Donnell, Sandra O’Donnell, Connie Roddy, Phyllis Shuffield, Nancy Soechting, Don Travis, Jack Tumlinson, Tense Tumlinson, Paul Unger and Ed Voss.

The event concluded with a class photo and a catered lunch. Our thanks go to all the guests, speakers and Kit Worley who hosted the ceremony. Special thanks go out to Mike Mitchell, Texas Parks & Wildlife and Jon Gersbach, AgriLife Extension Agency who served as advisors for the chapter.

Sweet Briar Tastes Like What?
Released May 2008
By Luclle Estell and Sandra Dworaczyk, Master Naturalist Students in Training

Twenty-two student members of the El Camino Real Chapter of the Texas Master Naturalist program were greeted on April 29th at the Alcoa Training Center by Richard Burns and Aloma Walker of Alcoa Rockdale Operations.

Burns began with an overview of Alcoa’s Reclamation Program. Following the overview, Dr. Barron Rector, Associate Professor and Extension Specialist with the AgriLife Extension Service at Texas A& M University, presented a lecture on the Principles of Ecology with respect to range management.

In the education session, Rector focused upon seven principles and how they apply to ecology. He offered, “For every action on the land, there are multiple reactions which can occur.”

On a walking tour following the lecture, students observed this principle through many changes that continually occur. Rector emphasized the variety of Texas plants by having students examine the numerous plants found within small two foot by two foot areas.

Students found twenty-plus plants and grasses including little Blue Stem, Texas Side Oats (Texas native grass), Spear grass, Wine Cups, Bluebonnets, Vetch, and Indigo. Students were so excited they began to look for how different many plants and grasses they could locate.

Rector also pointed out that Sweet Briar, the sticky brush most people detest, was probably the first lettuce that early settlers had used in salad. New growth on sweet briar is brown and green; very tender and tasty. Most students tasted a samples and the Naturalists were heard claiming it tasted like asparagus.

Continuing along the walk, the team analyzed area trees. Rector challenged the students to identify native tress and trees from two to three hundred years ago. Students were amazed to learn because the area was a savannah; and that there are more trees in our area today.

Rector pointed out that Alcoa’s commitment to land reclamation encourages having the land in better condition than before. Alcoa has received several awards for its reclamation in our area.

Finally, students enjoyed locating a Chittum tree and tying a knot in the end of the branches. The branches do not break and continue to grow with the knot tied in them.

The walking tour completed the fifteenth of sixteen classes for the students of the newly-forming El Camino Real Chapter of the Texas Master Naturalist program. The program’s goal is to create a core group of volunteers who are interested in learning about and volunteering back to the community an awareness of natural resources.

Class Tours Aquarena Spring
Released March 2008
By Cindy Bolch, Master Naturalist Student

The El Camino Real Master Naturalist students in training participated in another field trip. The group traveled from Rockdale to the Aquarena Center in San Marcos on a bus provided by Alcoa.

The Aquarena Center was previously known as the Aquarena Springs resort and amusement park. In 1994 the Texas State University purchased the park. Two years later the amusement park was closed and reopened as an environmental research and learning center under the direction of the River Systems Institute of the Texas State University.

In 1849 General Edward G. Burleson built a dam just below the springs creating Spring Lake. Ed Burleson, who is a member of the Naturalist group and was along on the field trip, is a distant relative of the general. The springs that bubble up from the Edwards Aquifer to form Spring Lake are the headwaters of the San Marcos River as well as one of the largest springs found in the United States.

“The artisan springs have never stopped flowing and are one of the oldest continuously occupied sites in the United States dating back at least 12,000 years,” said Dr. Andrew Sansom, the executive director of the River Systems Institute. Spring Lake has been the site of numerous archeological digs. Among pottery chards, arrowheads, and cowboy spurs probably the most surprising find was the jawbone of a Mastodon.

Doyle Mosier, the director of the River Studies Program at the Institute, led the group on a tour of the Aquariums at the center. There are eight known endangered species that live in the Spring Lake area. Three of the endangered species, the Texas blind salamander, the Fountain darter, and the San Marcos salamander, are displayed in the aquarium area. Unfortunately, they could only display a relative of the endangered San Marcos gambusia. The San Marcos gambusia has not been seen in the wild for over 25 years and may soon be declared extinct. The gambusias’ habitat was destroyed when elephant ears were planted along the riverbanks.

Currently housed at the Aquarena Center is the Texas Stream Team. The Stream Team is part of the River Systems Institute and works in a cooperative partnership with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency to monitor Texas water resources.

Jason Pinchback, a 1998 Master Naturalist graduate, is the senior monitoring coordinator for the Texas Steam Team. Pinchback drives the rivers and streams volunteer monitoring program. This program supplements government efforts to collect and make available to the public data on the condition of rivers and streams around the state.

The field trip culminated in a glass bottom boat tour. The boats provide a clear view of the aquatic animals and plants living in the lake. As the boat moved over the springs one of the group remarked, “The springs remind me of the bubbling mud at Yellowstone National Park.” Many of the 1,000 or more springs were easily observed.

Upon completion of 48 hours of training, eight of which are advanced training, and 40 hours of volunteer activity, the participants in the El Camino Real Master Naturalist training program will become certified Master Naturalists focusing on ecology, wildlife, and habitats.

Game Warden Mike Mitchell and Ag Agent Jon Gersbach lead the class, a cooperative effort of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Texas AgriLife Extension.

Visit to Wildlife Collection
Released February 2008
By Anne Barr, Master Naturalist Student in Training “How could I have known this?” a local resident queried. Last week, a group of local Master Naturalists had their first field trip. The group is a first-ever county-based group of adults participating in the Texas Master Naturalist program.

As such, they visited the Texas Cooperative Wildlife Collection (TCWC), located in College Station. was a very interesting place for the charter class of the El Camino Real Master Naturalists to spend a rainy morning. Its The collection, which was established by the late Dr. William B. Davis in 1938, contains about 1 million specimens used for the study of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and marine invertebrate.

Heather Prestridge, Assistant Curator of the Vertebrate Collection, hosted the group took us on an interesting journey among all of the specimens giving insight into the extremely large number of species that exist in the world as well as the widespread distribution of the creatures.

The collection is available for faculty, staff and students of Texas A&M as well as worldwide scientist and the general public. Specimens are donated by scientists or individuals.

TCWC has also been given many smaller “orphan” collections from individuals as well as other educational institutions. These have been incorporated into the larger collection. The animals may have been killed or died from natural causes.

“Many people have contributed taxidermy specimens to the TCWC but they are not as useful as the complete specimens because they do not have the skeletal elements”, said Pestrigde. The TCWC scientists work with other national groups such as the Smithsonian, and the TCWC collection include some specimens that once belonged to the Smithsonian.

The mammal collection is approximately 56,000 specimens primarily from the southwestern US, Mexico and Central America. These specimens are generally stored with the pelts separate from the skulls. This is done because the skulls provide additional data for the scientists. The largest collections are rodents and bats. This collection contains many endangered and threatened species.

When exploring the bird collection, Prestidge pulled out a specimen and asked if it we could be identified. She explained identified it as a bald eagle and on checking the tag discovered that it had been collected in Milam County in 1978.

The birds are generally maintained as stuffed bodies with their heads attached to the bodies. Prestridge Heather said, “This was done because the beak is attached to the skull and the beaks are critical features in identification”. There are also nest and egg sets of over 300 species of birds from all over the world.

The groups also explored the row after row of fish, snakes and reptile specimens from all over the world. The fish collection includes a new family that was identified during the last year and a Hag Fish that was collected in the 1850’s. The team even checked out the rattle snakes and copperheads along with the exotic snakes.

There is also a teaching lab where students are given specimens and taught to identify each one.

The S.M. Tracy Herbarium, which is located in the TCWC, is a collection of preserved plant specimens that was started in the early 1930’s based on early collections of several individuals. Specimens currently exceed 200,000.

In Texas it is exceeded only by the Herbaria of the University of Texas at Austin and Botanical Research Institute of Texas in Fort Worth.

The herbarium has an exceptionally large collection of grasses which in 1974 earned it the designation of National Resource Collection. Dale A. Kruse, Curator, described plant identification using the specimens as examples of each characteristic discussed.

Upon completion of 40 hours of training, the El Camino Real Master Naturalist class will be a group of trained volunteers similar to the Master Gardener Association but focusing on ecology, fish, and habitats. Members are also required to take part in 40 hours of volunteer activities.

Initial Class Starting
Released September 2007
American Naturalist John Burroughs once wrote, “The best place to study nature is at one’s own home – on the farm, in the mountains, by the sea – wherever that may be.”

It is in this vein that several Milam County leaders are considering offering a Texas Master Naturalist course. It is a training and volunteer program, similar yet different from the very successful Master Gardener course, now in its third year.

“Instead of learning about turf, plants, and gardening, you would learn about ecology, fish, and habitats,” explains Milam County Game Warden Mike Mitchell. The program is a combination of instruction and volunteerism. After completing the 15-week curriculum, which brings in experts on nature topics, volunteers would then serve as outreach educators.

“You would provide the community with volunteer service in the form of educational activities, projects, or demonstrations,” summarized Milam County Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension agent Jon Gersbach.

The volunteer program, now in its planning stages, starts Tuesday, January 15th, 2008. It would involve weekday morning classes for 16 weeks, meeting at the Cameron Chamber of Commerce. There are five field trips. Upon completion of the course, volunteers would be expected to provide 40 hours of annual volunteer service.

“What better a way to learn about nature, especially with superb-quality instruction, and then return that knowledge to the community,” remarked Assistant State Coordinator Sonny Arnold. There are presently 2,750 volunteers serving in 37 chapters around Texas.

The nonprofit program costs $150, primarily directed towards curriculum.

Since its establishment in 1998 Texas Master Naturalist volunteer efforts have provided over 450,000 hours of service valued at more than $8 Million. This service has resulted in enhancing 75,000 acres of wildlife and native plant habitats; reaching more than 1.2 million youth, adults and private landowners. One member discovered a new plant species.

The program has gained international state and local recognition with the Wildlife Management Institute’s Presidents’ 2000 Award, the National Audubon Society’s 2001 Habitat Hero’s Award, the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission’s 2001 Environmental Excellence Award and Texas A&M University’s 2001 Vice Chancellor’s Award of Excellence in Partnership and in 2005 the U. S. Department of Interior’s “Take Pride in America” award. Funding for the Texas Master Naturalist program is provided by Texas Parks & Wildlife Department and Texas Cooperative Extension.

More information may be obtained by visiting the web site at Those interested in attending the planned 2008 inaugural course here are asked to attend either of two showcases planned. The Cameron event will be at noon on Wednesday, October 10th in the Chamber of Commerce meeting room. The Rockdale event will be at 6:30 pm at a location to be announced.

Those with further questions may contact the Texas AgriLife Extension Office in Cameron at 254-697-7045. The class size is limited to the first 25 paid completed applications; a criminal background check is required for volunteers.

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