Conservation in the City

This article was originally published by the Fish & Wildlife Service. Find it here.

downtown Houston

Buffalo Bayou snakes through downtown Houston. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-led Houston Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnership is helping to make a difference on the city’s industrial East End. (Photo: Nancy Brown/USFWS)

Juan “Tony” Elizondo, a teacher in Houston, and Corrin Omowunmi, a program manager in Philadelphia, share a passion for environmental awareness, land conservation and connecting young people with nature.

In Houston, Elizondo is working with students in the Woodsy Owl Conservation Corps Green Ambassador program and the Green Amigos Latino Legacy at Furr High School. The school is piloting a program that focuses on habitat that allows humans and nature to flourish together in the city’s industrial East End.

Under the guidance of Elizondo and fellow teacher David Salazar, the Green Ambassadors are raising community awareness and improving the landscape by planting gardens and orchards, helping to monitor air and water quality, and encouraging outdoor fitness. Their effort is part of the Houston Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnership. The fact that Latino students are spreading the conservation message in a mostly Latino neighborhood matters a lot to Elizondo. “If we don’t outreach to our communities that aren’t English-language speakers,” he says, “how do we expect to conserve Texas or the rest of the nation?”

In Philadelphia, Omowunmi, who is African American, has introduced hundreds of Student Conservation Association interns to nature and helped instill in them a sense of environmental responsibility. Based at John Heinz at National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum since 2009, Omowunmi coordinates SCA interns as they restore trails, clean up marshes, remove invasive plants and build garden community beds at the refuge, in the surrounding Eastwick neighborhood and in the city. Their work is part of the Philadelphia Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnership.

“It opens up a whole new world for them that they didn’t even necessarily know existed,” Omowunmi says. “People say, ‘I never even knew this [refuge] was here.’ They’ve lived in Philadelphia their entire life – been back and forth to the airport, rode past [the refuge] on the highway – and they just don’t even know it’s here. But when they get here, they see how beautiful it is.”


The skyline of Philadelphia and the occasional bald eagle
The skyline of Philadelphia and the occasional bald eagle both can be seen at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum. The refuge is home base for the Philadelphia Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnership. (Photos: USFWS)

The Houston and Philadelphia partnerships are two of 21 urban wildlife refuge partnerships led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The partnerships are collaborations among community organizations, conservation nonprofits and governmental agencies. They are part of the Urban Wildlife Conservation Program, which is designed to help residents find, appreciate and care for nature in their cities and beyond.

Let’s meet some of the young people Elizondo and Omowunmi are working with in Houston and Philadelphia.

Jainny Leos
Jainny Leos is a senior at Furr High School in Houston. She has been a Green Ambassador for three years. (Photo: USFWS)

Jainny Leos and other Green Ambassadors are helping Texas A&M University urban design professionals collect data regarding air and water quality in neighborhoods near oil refineries along the Houston Ship Channel. Leos is also helping to plant fruit trees and pollinator gardens. “It’s been a really good experience,” she says, “because people from the neighborhood come and say, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ and we explain.”

Leos and other ambassadors are learning about wildlife conservation work at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge south of Houston and Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge west of Houston. At the latter, “I couldn’t stop looking at the Attwater’s chickens doing their [courtship] dance because it kind of reminded me of us [humans]. They were kind of doing their dance and competing against each other,” she says. “I think it’s amazing how [males] do it to impress [females], and [males] are really the colorful ones.”

Cinthia Cantu
Cinthia Cantu is a senior at Furr High School. She is a founding member of the Green Ambassador program in Houston’s East End. (Photo: USFWS)

Cinthia Cantu, who is considering a career in biology or nutrition, appreciates the health-related aspects of Green Ambassador work. She points out that the East End is a food desert and that its residents often do not eat well. She has enthusiastically helped plant five fruit orchards near neighborhood schools. The orchards are designed to provide food alternatives to a community lacking healthy eating options.

Cantu is a fan of the Green Ambassador health initiative, “Guardians of Conservation,” which includes a Zumba Fitness dance exercise done outdoors with wildlife mascots to help attract a lot of people. See if you can find Puddles the Blue Goose – the mascot of the National Wildlife Refuge System – in this Zumba Fitness video. Why exercise outdoors? “Because we have found out – it’s been proven – that taking the students outdoors increases their learning abilities and education abilities,” Cantu says.

Kevin Tran
Kevin Tran is a freshman at Temple University. He has been a Student Conservation Association intern since 2014. (Photo: USFWS)

Kevin Tran, a southwest Philadelphia resident, was a Career Discovery Internship Program intern last summer at John Heinz Refuge. As an intern, he helped educate visitors and nearby residents about the value of conservation.

Tran sees the refuge’s marsh and woodland habitat as an urban oasis of sorts. “I can get here [from home] in less than 30 minutes and experience a whole different atmosphere,” he says. “Thirty minutes away, I don’t see red foxes. I don’t see river otters or bald eagles. It’s such a nice place to be.” Catch Tran talking about John Heinz Refuge in this quick video.

Michael Johnson
Michael Johnson is a sophomore at Penn State University. He has been a Student Conservation Association intern since 2012. (Photo: USFWS)

Michael Johnson, a resident of northwest Philadelphia, is studying to be a toxicologist. He says working with the Student Conservation Association at the refuge “pushes that natural curiosity and can lead you to many different opportunities that you didn’t even know are possible.”

He has done all sorts of tasks that make the refuge a better place, including restoring trails, building bridges, monitoring statistics, removing graffiti and more.

Johnson finds it “interesting how all the species blend together” at the refuge. “When you hike back into the trails and you go deeper into the marsh, it’s huge and you can just see a lot of things that you haven’t seen before.”

Lucia Portillo

Lucia Portillo is a sophomore at Millersville University. She has been a Student Conservation Association intern since 2014. (Photo: USFWS)

Lucia Portillo, a northeast Philadelphia resident, has done a lot of work maintaining and expanding trails at John Heinz Refuge as a Student Conservation Association intern. What she especially enjoys is the solitude of the refuge, listening to the wind blow through the trees or birds sing. “Since I live in the city, in a busy part of the city, I don’t get to hear that as much,” she says. “So when I come here it’s just the best because it’s nice, and I don’t hear that all the time.”

Portillo is majoring in biology with a concentration in animal behavior. A while back, when she was part of a Philadelphia zoo program, she visited John Heinz Refuge at night to listen for frogs with zoo colleagues and a refuge staff biologist. “The frogs were just so loud, like, it was really different,” she says. “We were able to identify which [species of] frog it was based on different sounds.”

The five students above and their generation are vital to the future of wildlife conservation in America. Tony Elizondo and Corrin Omowunmi are working hard to connect them with nature, to enrich their lives and to enhance the city they live in. In Philadelphia, the emphasis is on familiarizing young people with the beauty of the refuge and parks across the city – and putting them to work improving those places and the neighborhoods that surround them. In Houston, the Furr High School-based emphasis is on bringing environmental consciousness, a greener landscape, permaculture design principles and a healthy lifestyle to a neighborhood that sits in the shadows of oil refineries and chemical plants.

“I’m thankful for partners like the Fish and Wildlife Service and Forest Service because a lot of positive things have come out of it,” Elizondo says. “Like our students now; they probably would have dropped out of school. I’ve seen them change, and it makes me so happy.”

Juan Elizondo

Juan “Tony” Elizondo, 28, is from Houston’s East End. He went away to college, started a career as a videographer/documentarian and then returned to the East End five years ago to teach high school. In that capacity and in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Houston Wildlife Refuge Partnership, he is encouraging a sense of conservation in his mostly Latino students and the local community. (Photo: USFWS)


Compiled by Bill_O’, October 19, 2016


Latinos back national monument status for areas near Grand Canyon

By Adam DeRose | Cronkite News

Friday, Sept. 23, 2016

This article was originally published in Cronkite News

WASHINGTON – Anakarina Rodriguez traveled from southern Arizona to Washington with a message for President Barack Obama: designate 1.7 million acres around the Grand Canyon as a national monument.

“I remember being a little girl and traveling to the Grand Canyon for the first time ever,” Rodriguez said. “I remember seeing vividly this amazing wonder of the world, which I had just learned about in Miss Brown’s fifth-grade class.”

Rodriguez was in Washington Thursday to share her experiences and add her voice to other Latino groups who want the president to use his authority under the Antiquities Act to declare the area a national monument, protecting the land for generations to come.

“We know the magnificence of the canyon isn’t just what you see in the photo,” said Latino Outdoors founder Jose Gonzalez. “You need the ecosystem around it. You need the added protections to be able to say that the park can further exist in perpetuity.”

The groups were in Washington the same day that the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee was considering a number of bills aimed at limiting the president’s authority to declare monuments on such a scale.

Supporters of those bills, all of which were introduced by Republicans, contend that the Antiques Act, the law that allows a president to designate national monuments, was not meant for the president to unilaterally restrict land use for swaths of millions of acres.

But a majority of Americans support the designation for the area around the Grand Canyon, according to a survey released this week by the Grand Canyon Trust.

More than 80 percent of those surveyed believe the president should establish the Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument. Even after pollsters identified potential negative impacts cited by the Republican opposition, more than two thirds continued to support the designation of the monument.

Back in Arizona, Rodriguez said the move is also supported by elected officials in Tucson and Pima County, a number of whom signed a letter to Obama that the Latino groups delivered Thursday.

“There is a very wide range of support of elected officials who are supporting the Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument,” she said.

The letter was also signed by Democratic Reps. Raul Grijalva of Tucson and Ruben Gallego of Phoenix, who have been at the forefront of the push for a monument designation.

Gonzalez said the groups took the opportunity of Hispanic Heritage Month to add their voices to other advocates who have backed the monument. He said Latinos have a historic – but often overlooked – support of environmental issues.

He said the Latino voice “is really important in how it compliments the work of other conservation leaders doing this.”

Rodriguez said that, even as a city dweller, she felt a strong connection to Arizona’s national parks and the Grand Canyon at a young age.

“My father used to tell me stories of his childhood, growing up on a ranch,” Rodriguez said. “When I am outdoors, I am able to hold those wonderful memories, and I imagine I am reliving his past.”

Rodriguez, who founded Latinos for Parks earlier this year, took the fledgling group to the canyon for a camping and hiking trip, and to learn about the environmental and cultural importance of the area.

“Our roots are embedded in our culture and traditions and connects us to those cultures and traditions of the Native Americans who once lived there and continue to live among the Grand Canyon,” Rodriguez said.

“We must protect these sacred lands so we can continue to share and celebrate our culture and traditions … for generations to come,” she said.

Murie Center honors spirit of conservation

By Kylie Mohr

This article originally appeared in Jackson Hole News & Guide

A soft evening breeze rustled through the grasses, and the smoky sky bathed the Murie Ranch in an orange glow. Live music mixed with the sounds of chatter and the clinking of glasses as guests gathered Aug. 24 to celebrate the past, and the future, of the conservation movement. Behind the tent with twinkling lights and a podium stood Mardy and Olaus Murie’s original log cabin.

From the porch of the cabin, visitors can catch glimpses of the Grand Teton peeking out above the trees. The Wilderness Act of 1964, describing wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain,” was inspired by the view and conceived on that porch.

How fitting a place to honor present and upcoming leaders in the conservation movement following the Teton Science Schools and Murie Center merger announced during last year’s award dinner.

Actor Harrison Ford received the 2016 Murie Spirit of Conservation Award, adding a wow factor to the event. But organizers downplayed the celebrity aspect.

“This is not about Harrison Ford as a celebrity,” said Patrick Daley, vice president of advancement at Teton Science Schools. “This is about Harrison Ford as a leader in conservation.”

That didn’t keep eager guests from rushing, albeit cordially, to take photos with Ford once the speeches had concluded.

Chris Agnew, executive director of Teton Science Schools, said Ford was being recognized for his remarkable body of work on behalf of conservation globally and in the valley and that he respected Ford’s “authenticity.”

In 1985 Ford signed the first of what would become nine conservation easements to protect his 800-acre ranch southwest of Jackson while creating open space and providing a safe habitat in an ecologically rich area.

He has also been involved with the board of Conservation International for almost 25 years and currently serves as vice chair.

“His work comes from conviction,” Agnew said, before playing a Ford-narrated clip in “Nature is Speaking,” Conservation International’s award-winning film.

The overarching theme? Nature doesn’t need people, but people need nature.

Ford’s acceptance speech began humbly, as he thanked all the staff at Conservation International and said he didn’t want to be a “poster child.” He then told the crowd how he came to Jackson Hole by accident but, like many, fell in love with this “vision of paradise” and was anxious to find a way of giving back.

Also honored was Jose Gonzales, a first-generation Mexican immigrant who founded Latino Outdoors in his quest to bring diversity to the conservation movement. Agnew described his work as “providing access and encouraging stewardship in all of our special places.”

When presenting the award to Gonzales, Ford called exposing every culture to preservation “critical.”

Gonzales said “surprised was an understatement” when he learned that Ford chose him as the recipient of the Rising Leader award.

“It was a bit surreal,” Gonzales said. “How else would my name and his name be in the same sentence?”

Gonzales told the News&Guide that education caused “the future to open up” for him and that now he wants to return the favor.

“I realized that I wasn’t limited to just what my parents did,” he said. “I saw being a teacher as a way of giving back to the community.”

Gonzales’ friends told him to “just start something” when his search for existing organizations connecting leadership, Latinos/as and outdoor education came up empty-handed. When a Google domain search for Latino Outdoors came up as available, Gonzales said he was “laughing and crying.” It was go time.

Today, Latino Outdoors is a network of leaders committed to engaging Latinos in the outdoors and connecting families and youth with nature.

Gonzales talked about the importance of a diverse conservation movement that builds on past successes.

“What does the next centennial look like?” he asked.

He said that while the parks represent such diverse public lands, more inclusive leadership — and visitorship — is needed.

“Latino and American are not exclusive identities. They’re not,” he said, to cheers from the audience after quoting Cesar Chavez and President Barack Obama.

Guests remarked that the Murie Center was the perfect location for the night’s event.

“The heart and soul of old Jackson is still here,” said Nancy Leon, former co-chair of the Murie Center board of directors.

“Docent Dan” McIlhenny aptly described the cabin and the landscape surrounding it as “tranquil” and “peaceful,” noting that visitors are often inspired by “Two In the Far North,” the biographic novel that Mardy Murie wrote. Murie was a beloved leader in the conservation movement who went on to win Wyoming’s Citizen of the Century award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom but liked to fly under the radar.

“People read her words and come here on a pilgrimage,” McIlhenny said.

The executive director of the National Outdoor Leadership School, John Gans, also attended the Murie Center event.

“A key part of all of our programs is building a conservation ethic and a wilderness ethic,” Gans said. “A lot of leaders in the conservation movement are NOLS grads, and I see that kind of leadership represented here tonight.”

Spur Catering provided the evening’s food, including local cheeses and vegetables. Snake River Brewing, Grand Teton Distillery and Jackson Hole Winery provided the drinks.

The night concluded with a live auction of trips such as a winter expedition through Yellowstone, a getaway to the San Juan Islands of Washington and a vacation in Honolulu. The artist Borbay, whose daughter will start preschool at Teton Science Schools this fall, donated a commissioned piece of art.

The event was a success, said the Science Schools’ Daley.

“We saw 20 to 30 percent more attendees this year,” he said. “That really demonstrates the collaborative aspects of our integration with the Murie Center.”