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Wildlife refuge emerges from former ammo plant

By Glenn Evans
March 24, 2012 at 10 p.m.

KARNACK - Bill Stephenson's boots click-clicked Saturday as he crossed a former railroad trellis in the Caddo Lake National Wildlife Refuge, but that wasn't the sound he heard in his mind.

"Hearing horse hooves hitting the wood is old time," the retired orthopedic surgeon from Longview said as he strode across what now is a horse riding trail.

Stephenson was walking with Mark Williams, U.S. Parks and Wildlife Service project leader and director of the 7,000-acre site that's slowly going back to its roots.

After spending roughly 50 years as the Longhorn Army Ammunition Plant, the land kissing Karnack's northern tip is more than two years into its transformation.

Already, all but seven or eight buildings have been removed or gutted.

Hikers, SUV-propelled families, horseback riders and bicyclists already can explore the refuge seven days a week, basically from sunup to sundown. (Four-wheelers and camping are not allowed).

The trellis Williams and Stephenson (known among the refuge crowd as "Doc") were walking on Saturday is the youngest piece of the two-fold transformation that Williams oversees.

The first goal, described under the 1992 law governing wildlife refuges, is to make things as homey as possible for the wildlife.

That's been a tall order in an EPA Superfund pollution site left by five decades of bomb-making in the wood beside the state's largest natural lake.

Secondly, there are the Big Six uses for human critters: hunting, fishing, wildlife photography, wildlife education, wildlife observation and wildlife interpretation. That last one enrolls volunteers who not only learn but take active roles in wildlife's success in a refuge.

<strong>"All in different stages"</strong>

Laura Baar-Speight, a wildlife biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, also was on hand Saturday leading volunteers deeper into the wildlife interpretation element.

She took a moment from teaching the Texas Master Naturalists about reptiles and amphibians to explain why those natural residents flourished better under conditions the refuge restores.

The arrival of Europeans, she explained, resulted in the loss of both natural grasslands, to farming, and the end of lightning-induced wildfires that kept the forest bed clean.

There was once an ever-moving puzzle of open spaces and woods.

"In the ecology of this area, maybe a lightning strike happens and the trees burn down," she said. "So, we have an opening in the forest."

Sunlight reaching the ground lured grass to those open areas, she said, later small, woody plants and then small trees that became big ones.

"But, while that's becoming a forest, maybe over here you have another wildfire," she continued. "And it was all in different stages, and that's what kept diversity."

<strong>Back in the saddle again</strong>

Horseback riders already have enjoyed the nine-mile observation trail over Central Creek the two men walked on Saturday, but it's new.

This coming Saturday, area 4-H students will officially christen the trail at Doc's invitation. (Stephenson volunteers through the support group Friends of the Caddo Lake National Wildlife Refuge).

Back toward the riding trail head, a culvert allows rains to flow beneath the high-built pathway and spill through a low area of hardwoods.

What happens here is a small model of Fish and Wildlife's mission to recreate, through human effort, what human activity took away.

During the winter, stop-logs dropped into the culvert beneath the riding trail create a 5- to 10-acre lake for migrating wood ducks and mallards. The oaks and other hardwoods are dormant, so they don't mind standing in the seasonal bath. Meanwhile, the acorns they drop that time of year are easy picking in the ducks' favorite dunking depth of 18-24 inches.

Spring comes, the birds fly north, the stop-logs are lifted and the oaks come back to life on dry earth.

"What we're trying to do is mimic nature," Williams said, and the little seasonal pond for the winter Texans is one of the smaller examples.

Then, there are the prescribed burns.

<strong>Creating a forest</strong>

From February to early May, crews set fire to the underbrush - about 1,500 acres each year to create a three-year cycle.

Most trees here are between 45 and 55 years old, sprouting where cotton fields dominated before TNT, rockets and bombs became the cash crop. From World War II to 1994, the Longhorn Army Ammunition Plant kept 3,000 former cotton farmers and others busy 24 hours a day seven days a week.

The cycle of prescribed burns, gradually, aims to thin out what Williams calls the "understory" to give the pines - especially the short-leaf variety that once was dominant in this part of the state - room to grow.

Meanwhile, long-leaf and loblolly pines are harvested. They are recycled into cash for projects such as the riding trail, plus about $30,000 enriching Harrison County government coffers.

Hardwoods - oaks and other acorn-bearing trees - also will flourish without the understory and add to the mast that native species need.

Mast, Williams explained, is wildlife food.

"We're trying to recreate what it is they need in terms of habitat," Williams said. "If you can visualize in your mind: big, tall forest with grass, under, on the ground - that's the kind of forest we're looking for."

It's the kind of forest Davy Crockett saw when he arrived in Texas.

<strong>No need to duck</strong>

"You could ride a horse from Texarkana to Nacogdoches and never slow down," Williams said. "I don't know if I'd want to fight at the Alamo, but I sure would like to have been around back then, just to see the forest."

The old army plant actually comprises 8,415 acres, but about 1,400 remain in the Army's hands until it and the Fish and Wildlife Service that Williams works for can agree that five decades of pollution are cleansed.

After nearly two years of impasse, the two federal agencies got together, physically at least, in Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's office four weeks ago.

Williams said the two sides are scheduled to meet again sometime this spring in Albuquerque, N.M.

"It's on the road," Williams said. "It's come a long way from looking like an Army base to looking like a refuge."



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