Nature Tourism in Texas
Join us as we explore how nature tourism grew from just birdwatching to include outdoor activities and events like paddling, wildlife-watching competitions, and other ways of connecting with nature – including apps that enhance your experience – with special guest Shelly Plante, Texas Parks and Wildlife Nature Tourism manager.
UTTS -- S2:E4: Nature Tourism in Texas
Back in the day, if you asked someone to define nature tourism, chances are they’d do so with one word: birdwatching.
[SHELLY PLANTE] Nature tourism has evolved over the past twenty-plus years, and now it’s not just birdwatching.
Of course, birdwatching remains a big part of nature tourism. Also, on the podcast, you’ll learn about other nature tourism opportunities in Texas that are not strictly for the birds. And, we hear about an app that can enhance your nature watching experience no matter where you are in the world.
Stay with us.
From Texas Parks and Wildlife…this is Under the Texas Sky …a podcast about nature…and people… and the connection they share…I’m Cecilia Nasti.
There’s something exquisitely relaxing and regenerative about being surrounded by nature.
And the world is full of beautiful wild places and fascinating wild things just waiting to be discovered.
[SHELLY PLANTE] It could be as easy as going into your backyard and enjoying any wildlife you find there: from the caterpillars and butterflies, to birds singing in the trees, to the raccoon that comes and visits at night.
That’s Shelly Plante; she’s Nature Tourism Manager at Texas Parks and Wildlife.
[SHELLY PLANTE] Nature tourism is a lot of things. But the common element that they all have is connecting you to nature is some memorable way.
Growing up Shelly did connect with nature in memorable ways. She says she was fortunate to have grown up in a middle-class American family that could not afford lavish vacations. You might wonder why that’s a good thing. For Shelly’s family, it meant they went camping! And because both of her parents were teachers, she says their family had every summer and spring break off together.
[SHELLY PLANTE] And we would go camp for about a month at a time every summer; we would go camp on spring break because we all had it off. We would go to Goose Island state park [for example], and I’d get to go fishing with my uncles and I’d get to go hiking with my cousins, and we just spent a lot of time outdoors. So, I was very fortunate growing up.
While Shelly’s early exposure to the outdoors influenced her career path, she says it wasn’t a straight trajectory.
Competitive swimming in high school moved her indoors from outdoors. She adds that high school brought with it membership in the ecology club and a passion for recycling and saving the whales…
[SHELLY PLANTE] …and all the things that you did in the nineties…
Once in college, her attention turned to archaeology and Spanish.
[SHELLY PLANTE] …and then, I took a geography class that had everything to do with conservation and endangered species.
She said that reawakened something deep inside her core…
[SHELLY PLANTE] …and I realized that I could do that for my college career. And through that, I found an internship with Texas Parks and Wildlife department doing birdwatching things. It was birdwatching educational trunks for kids in West Texas is what I worked on. And I got the opportunity to work on a conference with landowners and birdwatchers and figuring out how to talk about conservation in meaningful ways with different audiences at the table.
That work lead to a contract position at Parks and Wildlife…
[SHELLY PLANTE] …which lead to a career in nature tourism.
Circle of life. So, back to the job of nature tourism.
[SHELLY PLANTE] I think a lot of what my job is, and what I consider nature tourism, is just connecting people to nature wherever they are.
Such as your own backyard… or neighborhood…or...
[SHELLY PLANTE] …it could be taking trips specifically to see birds or other wildlife. Or, it could be that when you choose to travel that you make sure nature can be a part of it. It may not be the primary reason you’re going, but it is a part of your experience. So, that there are parks nearby that you can go explore, that there are places you can go hike. It could be that you want to go camping…
Shelly Plante says one of the primary ways Texas Parks and Wildlife connects people with nature is by making it easy for everyone to discover diverse places to explore.
[SHELLY PLANTE] And one of the first things that we at Texas Parks and Wildlife did is we created the Great Texas Wildlife Trails program. We were the first state to ever put together wildlife viewing sites in this way.
That was waaaay back in the mid-1990s….
[SHELLY PLANTE] And we were the first state to ever have a birdwatching trail; it is called the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail. There are now over forty states and several countries, and they’re all based on that Texas model. We are named regularly as the grandfather of wildlife viewing trails, because none had done it before us.
That one trail paved the way for the development of a statewide network of more than 900 wildlife viewing sites.
[SHELLY PLANTE] That’s city sites, county site, state and federal sites…
…but it’s also private ranches, and non-profits, and nature centers…
[SHELLY PLANTE—CON’T] …and zoos that have great native landscaping areas and native animal displays. We maintain that project which literally puts at your fingertips where you can go wildlife viewing in your own backyard, or if you wanted to take a trip somewhere, what you could go see.
A popular and highly acclaimed event that evolved as a result of Texas Parks and Wildlife’s innovative birding and wildlife trail maps celebrates its 24th anniversary in 2020: The Great Texas Birding Classic.
[SHELLY PLANTE] Which is a birdwatching tournament that started out on just the coast but has now expanded statewide. And I have seen this as a great way to get people outdoors because we have several youth tournaments. We have some all ages tournaments. We have tournaments for really great birders…
…as well as tournaments for people who don’t know much about birding but who may go out with those great birders to learn.
[SHELLY PLANTE—CON’T] And, I’ve seen mothers make this their Mother’s Day present every year from their kids that they go and birdwatch as a family as part of the Great Texas Birding Classic. I’ve seen a group of ladies who made this their girl’s trip every spring.
Shelly says she’s even seen groups of co-workers who turn the Great Texas Birding Classic into a team-building exercise.
[SHELLY PLANTE—CON’T] So, this is, yeah, another way through an event to do nature tourism.
By the way, The Great Texas Birding Classic takes place every year between April 15th and May 15th, the deadline for teams to register is always April first. Money raised through registration and sponsorships goes into grants to restore habitat for your feathered friends – in fact, with this year’s event TPWD will have given away more than $1million in conservation grants! And the winners of the tournament decide where that money goes. So, start thinking about who you want on your team for the next tournament and how you’d like to help birds.
This is Under the Texas Sky…a podcast about nature…and people…and the connection they share…I’m Cecilia Nasti.
As Texas Parks and Wildlife Nature Tourism manager Shelly Plante mentioned at the start of the podcast, nature focused tourism opportunities are diverse, and only limited by your time and interests.
[PADDLING AND CRICKETS]
Let’s say you like being on the water.
[SHELLY PLANTE] Then we have paddling trails, which is different than wildlife viewing. But, if you just wanted to paddle for muscle building you would go to a gym; if you want to paddle and be in nature and connect with nature and do nature tourism, you go on a paddling trail. So, we now have close to 80 paddling trails throughout the state of Texas, that have been certified and surveyed by us. And it’s yet another way to get close to nature in a quieter way; when you’re on the water animals don’t hear you coming up. So, you get really great views of great blue herons and red eared slider turtles and other amazing things as you go through the paddling trails in Texas.
Texas Paddling Trails are an exciting way for landowners and communities to partner with Texas Parks and Wildlife to conserve habitats while providing recreational opportunities for the traveling public. The paddling trails of Texas promote sustainable economic development and build public support for conservation of waterways and wildlife. If your community wants to work with Parks and Wildlife to develop a paddling trail, go to the paddling trails home page on the TPWD website and fill out an application.
[SHELLY PLANTE] What I love about the paddling trails is paddling has become so popular. You see canoes, kayaks and stand up paddle boards on any water body it seems in the state of Texas right now. And people who’ve never done it—it’s a little mysterious. Like, how do we get on the water? Where can we have access? There are a lot of private lands in this state—how can I get on a river and get off of a river and not be on someone’s private property? And so, what I love about paddling trails is it’s taken a lot of the mystery out of this thing that has become so popular. So, people who maybe don’t know where to go paddle can easily say, I just need a half day paddle—where can I go that’s near me? And they can look on the paddling trails website and find that information really easily.
Printed trail maps are available, but the Texas Paddling Trails website is where folks seeking a day on the water find the most up-to-date information about all the state’s trails. It’s a case of high tech and high touch finding common ground—or in this case—common water.
Certain websites come in handy for parents who want to help their kids connect with nature.
[SHELLY PLANTE] Parents are very busy. We all have a million things on our to-do lists every day; and it does take effort to carve out time to go out. I think if you’re interested in nature as a parent, there are a lot of tools in addition to the Great Texas Wildlife Trails. There are Nature Rocks sites from Texas Children in Nature for most of our state—most of the urban areas in our state has a Nature Rocks website. You can find sites for kids. You can find new ways to discover nature, and I encourage you to do that.
That website is NatureRocksTexas.org. Texas Parks and Wildlife Nature Tourism Manager Shelly Plante believes technology has the ability to enhance our connection to the outdoors, not estrange us from it.
[SHELLY PLANTE] I am definitely in the camp that technology doesn’t necessarily take away from nature, because I think there’ve been some amazing apps that have come out that enhance people’s interaction with the natural world.
We now have apps such as iNaturalist and eBird. And then we have a lot of birding apps that can identify things for you, or help you come up with a bird identification. And you don’t necessarily have to have a huge field guide out with you that you’re carrying around. So, apps have opened the world in a different way.
And iNaturalist, I think, is a great example. This is something that we ultimately want to figure out a way to have as part of our wildlife trails website, because that is a quick and easy way to see what is being seen at a site. You can go and look at a map on iNaturalist and see what species have been recorded, what people are seeing. As someone who may not know very much about what you’re seeing, it is an awesome app to use and take a picture of something. I use it all the time. If I see an insect I’ve never seen before, I’m taking a picture of that insect and I’m putting it on iNaturalist. I’m mapping where I am, and then it will suggest what it thinks that insect might be based on where I am located in the world. It’s an international app, so I use it when I travel; I use it all the time, but it does require a photo.
eBird is great, because you can look up sites…if you’re going to visit a site…say, you’re going to Brazos Bend State Park. You’ve never been there, and you want to know what birds have been being seen in Brazos Bend. You can go on eBird, look up Brazos Bend State Park—because it is a hotspot on eBird—and then see what birds have been being seen this month. What birds have been seen throughout the year… You can really drill down as far as you like to see what’s being seen.
So, I think it, hopefully, helps people be more knowledgeable about the places their going to go so they can have a better time. And I find it more enjoyable if you know what you’re seeing. A lot of people—not everyone—some people just want the prettiness of nature around them, and that is a completely valid way to go enjoy nature. But some people are a bit more analytical and want to know what bird is that, or what butterfly did I see and was that special or unique in some way? And these apps really give a quick access in your hand to answer that question.
And if the question you have is, “How can I help my children, connect with the natural world?” Texas Parks and Wildlife Nature Tourism manager, Shelly Plante shares a page from her personal playbook.
[SHELLY PLANTE] I think camping is an amazing way to give kids memories. And, what I’ve seen as my kids have gotten older is parents don’t want to be outnumbered by their children when they go out camping, and they may not remember everything they need when they go camping… So, what me and some friends of mine have been doing is we camp in groups. We get a couple of other families—whatever we can get together—so that we can all go camp together. And then the adults kind of outnumber the kids. But the kids have some freedom that they don’t have in today’s society. If we can get camping sites next to each other the kids know that they can go from site to site to site. And they have more freedom than they ever have in our cities nowadays. And it’s been really transformative, I think, for my kids to learn a sense of independence, to learn a sense of exploration, to connect with nature on their own without me hovering over their shoulder without me trying to dictate what that should look like…
And isn’t that what we want for our children—for them to develop a sense of curiosity about the world around them and the independence to discover it for themselves?
Whether you and your family want to connect with the outdoors through camping, birdwatching, paddling or observing the birds, bugs and plants in your own backyard, find resources to help you get the most out of your experience on the Texas Parks and Wildlife website.
We invite you to share your favorite Texas outdoor memories or suggest topics for the show at underthetexassky.org; click on the Get Involved link and we’ll be in touch.
[MUS—ORBIT YOUR SOUL]
And so, we come to the end of another podcast. Under the Texas Sky is a production of Texas Parks and Wildlife and is available at UndertheTexasSky.org or wherever you get your podcasts.
We record the podcast at The Block House in Austin, Texas. Joel Block does our sound design.
We receive help with the Under the Texas Sky website and podcast distribution from Susan Griswold and Benjamin Kailing.
I’m your producer and host, Cecilia Nasti, reminding you that life’s better outside when you’re Under the Texas Sky.
Join us again next time for Under the Texas Sky.
[SHELLY PLANTE] Nature tourism has evolved over the past twenty-plus years, and now it’s not just birdwatching.