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Nov. 4, 2008

New State Park Interpretive Exhibits Flourish With Increased Funds

AUSTIN, Texas — What if you led a horse to water and it didn’t know how to drink? That odd challenge faces state parks trying to help an increasingly urban public understand nature and history. The good news is, this fall a rich array of new interpretive exhibits and facilities is available for families seeking holiday excursions close to home, thanks to increased funding from the Texas Legislature.

"If people arrive at a state park, whether it’s a natural area or a historic site, and they’re totally on their own, with no written or visual aids and no staff to explain things, they’re going to miss a huge part of the experience," said Phil Hewitt, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department State Parks Division interpretation and exhibits director.

"Turn that around, and invest in people and resources to tell the story, and you have an exponential increase in visitors ‘getting it,’" Hewitt said. "Interpretation makes the crucial difference for people to understand what’s special about a park, to learn about natural and cultural resources, and to just have a lot more fun while they’re there."

Dozens of state parks across Texas have new interpretive exhibits, signs, staff and programs either recently arrived or on the way soon. This is a direct result of increased investment in parks by state lawmakers during the last legislative session. The department’s statewide Interpretation and Exhibits Branch budget increased from about $35,000 in fiscal year 2007 to about $285,000 in 2008. This increased funding, paired with a larger increase to hire new park interpreters across the state, has led to a profusion of new visitor experiences.

Below are a few examples of new or planned interpretive experiences across Texas.

In Southeast Texas, the Battleship TEXAS is getting a complete update of all the ship’s interpretive, wayfinding and safety signs. This includes 55 new interpretive labels located at significant points throughout the ship, about 14 larger interpretive exhibit panels in the port and starboard aircastles, orientation and welcome signs, assorted safety signs, new wayfinding signs (maps), and a new interpretive brochure. The 55 interpretive labels will be installed early in 2009. The rest of the project will be designed in FY2009 and installed in FY2010.

The new interpretation will explore the battleship’s place in America’s history as a modern nation. One new sign about the ship’s Main Battery notes that when TEXAS was commissioned in 1914, its big guns were the largest naval weapons in the world. Another sign for the Prophylactic Room recounts a historic reality of life aboard ship in wartime, noting that before the crew went ashore, they stopped here for condoms. When they returned from liberty, each crewmember was required to report to the room for examination and treatment if necessary.

In Central Texas, popular Guadalupe River State Park is getting a new suite of interpretive facilities. The major element is plans for a hands-on children’s science center in an existing 428-square-foot hexagonal building. The design theme is "Take Another Look to See What You’ve Been Missing." Materials include wayfinding, informative and promotional signs for the park and the science center in many places in and around the day-use area. Fundraising for this project will stretch the increased legislative funding, first using state dollars for conceptual design, then raising some private dollars to fabricate and install exhibits and signs.

This ambitious project at Guadalupe River could break new ground in state park interpretation and address a looming social concern, the growing disconnect between children and nature. The focus will be kids taking another look at the animals and plants of the park through the eyes of a scientist, including looking through oversize magnifying glasses, microscopes and binoculars to see what they’ve been missing. A central island in the science center will offer discovery baskets for hands-on learning, including real scientific instruments and specimens to examine. Outdoor options being explored include a new xeriscape garden, new open forest walking paths and a larger playground.

In Northwest Texas at Caprock Canyons State Park, this fall visitors can enjoy new interior exhibits to fill the park’s new $1 million visitor center that opened last year, new exterior interpretive wayside signs at the bison overlook adjacent to the visitor center, and a complete overhaul of existing exhibits at the park’s outdoor Interpretive Pavilion. The new interior exhibits cover four different "zones," each with a different content focus: geology of the canyonlands, the North American bison, ecology of the canyonlands, and the story of the trailway.

For example, one new Caprock exhibit panel interprets Mexican free-tailed bats that live each summer in the park’s Clarity Tunnel, a former railroad tunnel on the park’s hike and bike trailway. The panel tells visitors how the bats eat several thousand pounds of insects in a single night, including the cotton bollworm moth, a major agricultural pest. Another panel titled "Can You Dig It?" shows a striking photo of a TPWD archeologist down in a park dig dusting dirt off a bone sticking out of the dirt wall, and the panel asks visitors "What animal do you think these bones belonged to? Who might have hunted it?"

In South Texas, a new Butterfly Garden completed this year at Falcon State Park shows the fruit of volunteer collaboration. Longtime state parks volunteer Fran Bartle each year lives for months at a time in her mobile home at the park. She and former Superintendent Damon Reeves led an idea to create a new native plant garden to showcase beautiful butterflies of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Two large introductory signs feature butterfly photos and garden information, while four smaller signs scattered around the garden alert visitors to look for certain species on certain flowers. The park endowment fund also helped pay for the new butterfly garden.

In East Texas, a new traveling exhibit and school curriculum connected with Caddo Lake State Park is currently touring regional venues. Completed in late 2007, the exhibit involves three sets of six pop-up interpretive panels designed for temporary installations in parks, schools and other public venues. The exhibit highlights three time periods in the history of the Caddo native peoples — pre-historic, historic and modern. Schools and others can reserve the exhibit through the state parks Regional Interpretive Specialist in Tyler. The school curriculum is designed to be used with the exhibit, and both will soon be available on the TPWD website.

Near the central coast at Goliad State Park and Historic Site, plans for Mission Espiritu Santo’s Old Sacristy involve both interpretation and historic preservation. The sacristy is thought to be one of the last remaining pieces of original construction at the mission. Inside it, experts will install a railing to keep visitors from defacing the historic walls and an interpretive panel to explain the room’s historic function and significance. An outdoor wayside panel will interpret the original construction and the Civilian Conservation Corps reconstruction of the mission in the 1930s. Design work is complete, and after fabrication this winter, materials will be installed by January.

PHOTOS and GRAPHICS from new state park interpretive exhibits are available for news media use as high resolution .jpg files which can be downloaded from the News Images area of the TPWD Web site.

Diverse special events, tours and activities are set for November and December at state parks across Texas, including dozens of events with Christmas or holiday themes. The TPWD online Calendar allows visitors to search for events and tours by date, by location or by activity.

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2008-11-04


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