I-20 Wildlife Preserve Conservation Job Corps welcomes 2024 class

The playa is an integral part of the I-20 Wildlife Preserve. (Courtesy Photo)

The I-20 Wildlife Preserve will enlarge its outdoor classroom this summer when it welcomes eight Midland high school students into the 2024 Conservation Job Corps program.

Accepted into the class were Young Women’s Leadership Academy students Marina Garcia, Allison Grant, Casey Hoang and Naylenie Gutierrez Parra; Legacy High School student Raheem Mohamed; and Midland High School students Eliana Aguila, Camille Neff and Kevin Vergara.

The program allows high school students with an interest in medicine, biology and life sciences an opportunity to obtain hands-on experience in conservation, restoration, education and research before entering college.

“It is our hope that the program will encourage them to learn in nature and become lifelong advocates for the lands that surround them,” Wes Faris, executive director of the Preserve, said in a news release.

The program runs the entire month of June. It blends life skills lessons, such as learning to use tools, with classroom instruction and hands-on exploration and observation. Students will work on the Preserve and take a series of field trips across the state.

The I-20 Wildlife Preserve is a learning environment like no other. It is a 100-acre riparian forest campus in Midland. It serves the people of 19 counties, including Midland, Ector, Pecos, Howard, Crane, Brewster, Presidio, Jeff Davis, Andrews, Ward and Reeves.

The Preserve is a wild space — not a park. The 86-acre urban playa lake is the highlight of the wetlands, floodplain thickets and prairie grasslands found there. The urban playa lake is an ephemeral wetland, and the shallow, clay-lined basins are a primary source of recharge for the Ogallala Aquifer. Its mission is to ensure conservation, restoration, education, research and outdoor enjoyment of Midland’s urban playa for present and future generations.

While the Ogallala is vast, it is a rapidly depleting source of groundwater that is vital to all life in the Permian Basin and across much of the country’s High Plains. There has never been a more important time to learn about the protection and management of groundwater.

“These scientist-students will find incredible teachers and mentors in Jaxon McAndrew, the Preserve’s Conservation Land Manager, and Evelyn Guerrero, Education Intern Coordinator. Our students will spend the next month working and learning on the Preserve and traversing several other Texas ecosystems,” Faris said in the release.

At the Preserve, students will work on a conservation project to install native trees and shrubs.

“It’s an important project because it increases the biodiversity of plants here, which benefits the wildlife,” McAndrew said. This vegetation will increase shade for animals as well berries for birds, browse for mammals, nectar for insects, and even host caterpillars that turn into butterflies.

They will take a field trip to the Trans-Pecos, where they will learn about wildlife management and native prairie restoration from Sul Ross Borderland Research Institute graduate students. Students will visit the Nature Conservancy’s Marathon Grasslands Preserve. There, sweeping grasslands extend up to the Glass Mountains, sheltering wildlife that includes migratory raptors and grassland birds, far-ranging pronghorn antelope, kit foxes, burrowing owls and golden eagles. The preserve also provides habitat for the federally endangered Northern Aplomado Falcon.

Students will also explore forest ecosystems and see seedlings being nurtured at the West Texas Nursery in Idalou.

“Texas A&M University and the Texas Forest Service use the seedlings in their reforestation projects, and the trees grown there are also used in all kinds of urban restoration projects, attracting more wildlife and creating natural windbreaks on properties,” Faris said.

Students will then head to the Gulf Coast. In Corpus Christi, they will learn about marine biology at the Harte Research Institute. Then they’ll head to the San Antonio Zoo. There, they’ll meet up with zoo veterinarians, touring their hospital and conservation center.

No citizen scientist trip to central Texas would be complete without a tour of the University of Texas at Austin Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Students will get an in-depth look into the center’s butterfly garden. Butterflies contribute to regional ecosystems by pollinating the flowering plants. As more wilderness is developed for the growing Texas population, pollinators’ resources are displaced. Butterfly gardens are an aesthetic methodology for re-establishing the butterfly’s habitat and ensuring that plant pollination will continue.

The group will then head to north Texas to learn about the work at Trinity River Crew, a joint Conservation Corps program of Greenspace Dallas and Trinity Park Conservancy.

“This is an exciting opportunity to tour the John Bunker Sands Wetland Center, a 2,000-acre wetland that supplies drinking water,” Faris said. “Their mission is educating the public about water, wetlands and wildlife and the need to conserve these essential resources.”

Since opening in 2013, the I-20 Wildlife Preserve has served thousands of West Texans through programs in education, wellness, citizen science and land management. The Conservation Job Corps program is an expansion of its vision of being a “living laboratory.”

Faris said he is excited to see the second year of the growing program.

“We have been able to add another student and new destinations this year. I would like to thank our sponsors at ExxonMobil, FMH Foundation and Scharbauer Foundation. Their support of science education for students will help preserve the ecosystems in the Permian Basin and Texas for generations to come.”