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Texas Wildlife Refuge Provides Habitat for Endangered Species, and Habitat for Humanity
Southwest Region, June 6, 2001
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On the northwest outskirts of Austin, Texas, a 16,000-acre network of spring-fed canyons, limestone hills, and shrub-specked meadows known as Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge spreads across the heart of the Texas Hill Country. Here, the sky is a crisp blue, the stars shine bright, and the breeze carries the sweet-smokey aroma of cedar and burnt oak. In Spring, mixed stands of red oak, live oak, and ashe juniper purposefully offer their contorted limbs to nesting golden-cheeked warblers and blacked-capped vireos ? two endangered migratory songbirds for which the refuge was established to protect in 1992. Recently, circumstances here revealed what was destined to become another kind of essential habitat ? for humans in need.

As the refuge boundary extended further across the landscape with the 1999 purchase of a new tract of land, Refuge Manager Deborah Holle prepared herself for the work ahead. Managing a refuge is as large a task as the land itself. Wildlife surveys would need to be arranged. The feasability of allowing hunting or birdwatching would need to be assessed. Likely too, refuge staff would need to heal the ecology by conducting controlled burns, for example, to eliminate exotic vegetation and stimulate the growth of native habitat where cattle and goat grazing had taken its toll. But these were the expected routines of managing a wildlife refuge in the Hill Country. What confounded Holle was a situation that would-be homeowners only dream of: several houses were scattered across the new land. One was a hunting cabin. Another was a ranch-style house that appeared to be at least a hundred years old. A few more were modern homes that had been occupied by residents just prior to the land transfer. But all, without exception, would be unable to serve refuge purposes: they could not be salvaged as on-site residences simply because there was no such need; likewise, they could not be used for storage; they would pose potential fire and vandal risks; and most importantly, they would likely curtail the appeal of wildlife to the area. The reason the land was bought in the first place was to convert it to productive wildlife habitat, and possibly endangered species habitat. So Holle eventually reckoned the buildings just meant more expense, time and labor to eliminate, like so many acres of invasive vegetation. That's when Assistant Refuge Manager Larry Narcisse was charged with the task ? to find out if Habitat for Humanity, which builds homes for the needy, would take these houses away and find residents for them. Narcisse had been steeped in the idealogy of a regional agency initiative known as the Ambassador Program that aims to convert wildlife refuge staff into local refuge system ?ambassadors? through community involvement. He was already planning to organize refuge workers to help donate their labor to the charity organization. But when Narcisse contacted a representative of Austin Habitat for Humanity, he was told they would be unable to take the structures away whole. Perhaps, though, the buildings could be taken apart and their parts sold in the Austin-based Habitat for Humanity RE-store, which sells a variety of recycled building materials at discounted rates meanwhile earning proceeds that go back to building new houses for those in need. The materials are usually garnered from individuals remodeling their homes or from overstocked businesses who would otherwise discard them in the landfill or the dump. The Habitat for Humanity RE-store in east Austin became the first of its kind in 1992; now, there are more than 150 across the nation.

Initial conversations with Habitat for Humanity representatives led Narcisse to Bill Bowman, Project Manager of a newly-developed Deconstruction Program for the RE-store. ?Deconstruction is a new term used to describe an old process,? said Bowman. ?It is the disassembly of structures for the purpose of re-using the components and building materials. Between 70 and 90 percent of a structure can be salvaged through the process.? So not long after Bowman came to see exactly what the refuge had to offer, crews of volunteers were dismantling the structures and hauling entire walls, doors, and frames off to the RE-store.

?Recycling these materials also diverts them from going to the landfill,? said Bowman, ?and, instead, provides for the people of the low-income neighborhood where the RE-store is located. Because Habitat for Humanity can only offer to build a certain number of homes per year for candidates who meet the requirements, the RE-store allows us to help meet the needs of thousands of people in Greater Austin who just miss these requirements but are still in need. An estimated 70% of the people who buy from our RE-store are from the neighborhood, and they can get new commodes, cabinets, air conditioning units ... all for discounted rates. So, as we build houses for some, we provide their future neighbors with affordable building resources as well, all the while earning the capital required to keep offering and possibly extending our services. The RE-store really closes the circle for us.? The refuge joined the circle in June 2000 when the first house on the new property was completely dismantled. ?This is the quintessential win-win situation,? said Holle. ?The refuge benefits from the removal of the structures which will enhance wildlife habitat, and the funding received through the sale of the recycled materials will enable Habitat for Humanity to build more homes for people who really need them.?

Bowman agrees: ?We are very happy the refuge thought of Habitat for Humanity, and that Larry Narcisse made his pitch to us. We have a very good working relationship, and Habitat for Humanity is getting quality materials to stock the Re-store.? Bowman estimated the last deconstructed home would yield the charity approximately $6,000 in proceeds.

By the end of May 2001, five homes in less than a year had been removed, and additional vacant homes on other tracts are being considered for dismantling. Just as these structures are vacant, so too will become many of the bird nests on the refuge. When the afternoon shadows begin tilting more quickly with the shortening days and the summer draws to a close, the golden-cheeked warblers and the black-capped vireos will prepare for the journey south. But they will return to this landscape ? with each passing season, the place becomes a little more inviting to them. This Hill Country haven will always offer conditions and materials necessary for these endangered birds to build their nests ? and thanks to the recent synergy between refuge and charity, others in need will have a few more materials to build their own nests.

[Article by Ben Ikenson appeared in Environmental News Network (enn.com)]

Contact Info: Martin Valdez, 505-248-6599, martin_valdez@fws.gov



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