Conservation in the City

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 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 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, 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, 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, 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, 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.”

Read the full article on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services website.