As they say, when it rains, it pours. That was no cliché in Texas this year. No sooner had a group of Houston Gulf Coast Building and Construction Trades Council (BCTC) volunteers completed the first day of work on an elevated boardwalk at the Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in March than Mother Nature began to make up for a four year drought. The Refuge quickly began to flood and remained in high water or flood stage for more than 100 days, burying many parking areas and hiking trails under 10 feet of water.
Click image above to watch this IBEW HourPower video (produced by Oswego Creative) about the USA’s Work Boots on the Ground project at the Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge.
Located approximately 40 miles northeast of Houston, the 25,000 acre Trinity River NWR lies within the largest floodplain basin in Texas and is host to bayous, sloughs, oxbow lakes and mysterious ponds and home to a diversity of wildlife including deer, alligators, bobcats and many waterfowl and songbirds. Still fairly primitive, the Refuge is a place where visitors can find serenity in nature whether hiking, paddling, birdwatching, hunting or fishing.
The elevated boardwalk was the first project initiated through a joint partnership between the Department of Interior and the USA’s Work Boots on the Ground program. Once complete, it will be an intrinsic piece of the From Crosswalks to Boardwalks project, which will connect the city of Liberty, Texas, with the Refuge, allowing hikers to traverse more than 500 feet of wetlands, access 13 miles of trails and have a more intimate view of the bayou.
“There is such an industrious environment beneath our feet in the water – fish lounging, crawfish picking along, bugs mining for food,” said Laurie Gonzales, a wildlife biologist at Trinity River NWR. “It’s a whole other world. There’s something magical to children when they get to experience nature like that. This boardwalk will make those experiences possible.”
Trinity River NWR and partner groups secured building permits for the structure and received funding for materials through a Recreational Trails Grant from the state of Texas, but they did not get funding for the manpower to build it. That’s where the Gulf Coast Building Trades volunteers came in.
“There is so much skill that goes into building a structure,” Gonzales said. “This crew has to plan out the work zone, bring in heavy materials, use machinery…and brave the heat and mosquitoes, all while balancing themselves in the mud and muck. Skilled union volunteers will be put to the test…but I know they can handle it because they are one tough bunch.”
All the flood waters couldn’t dampen the spirits of the diehard volunteers. Once the water receded, they headed back to the Refuge in September to use their planning, layout, carpentry, structural, concrete, fabrication and public relations skills to begin building the 520 foot bridge with an 18’ x 18’ observation deck over a bayou on federal land.
Giving up overtime pay on the weekends in the midst of a Gulf Coast construction boom, the volunteers will devote countless hours to the massive project through the fall. Because the site was under water so long, the volunteers have to manually carry nearly $80,000 worth of concrete piers and construction materials through the swamp to the work area because vehicles get stuck in the mud. As the boardwalk construction progresses, so does the trek in. Once they reach the bayou, volunteers will use a flat bottom boat to complete the last several hundred feet.
“We only had to dispatch one cottonmouth snake thus far and will probably have an alligator story to tell when we get to the bayou,” said Mike Cramer, financial secretary-treasurer of UA Plumbers Local 68 and the project coordinator.
When asked why he gave up so much time and energy to such a mentally and physically draining project, Cramer responded, “We all volunteer ourselves to the Union Sportsmen’s Alliance because we feel better…knowing we are giving something back to the organization we are dedicated to and the great outdoors. Union members do so many community projects…with little or no recognition. The USA provides a forum for these conservation projects to be recognized on a local and national level, while educating the general public about us and some of the wonderful unselfish things we accomplish on behalf of everyone.”