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Observation Tower Going Up at Houston’s Sheldon Lake State Park
HOUSTON – Imagine being a red-tailed hawk soaring through the air and looking down upon an expanse of wetlands, ponds and a coastal tallgrass prairie inhabited by fish, alligators, songbirds and small mammals just 15 miles from downtown Houston.
Starting early next year, visitors to Sheldon Lake State Park will be able to experience a bird’s-eye view of the reservoir and surrounding countryside from the decks of a new observation tower to be erected in the park’s 40-acre Environmental Learning Center unit. Construction of the $1.3 million tower is slated to begin by the end of the summer and be completed sometime early next year.
In keeping with Sheldon Lake State Park’s reputation as the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s leading example of an environmentally-friendly and conservation-minded facility, the 75-foot tower will use photovoltaic cells to provide solar power to run an elevator and light the stairways and two observation decks. The tower was designed by PDG Architects of Houston.
“We’ll have enough solar arrays attached to the tower to generate more than enough energy so that it won’t cost any additional money to run it,” says park superintendent Robert Comstock. “You’ll be up there with the hawks and other raptors, and be able to look down onto the prairie and see things not easily seen at ground level.”
Comstock says interpretive panels will be located at the tower’s base, as well as on the observation decks at the 30- and 60-foot levels. There will be enough room to accommodate a class of 25 students along the railing of the two decks at one time.
The interpretive panels will educate the public about the park’s history and role as an outdoor classroom and nature preserve, and touch on such themes as the threat of invasive species, urban encroachment on Texas’ shrinking natural resources and the importance of prairie restoration and recycling.
Partial funding for the observation tower project is coming through federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act dollars targeted to renewable energy projects. The federal funds are distributed through the State Energy Conservation Office (SECO).
The observation tower will overlook the state park’s waterfowl-rich wetlands and 250 acres of coastal tallgrass prairie that will encompass more than 400 acres when restoration is completed this fall, Comstock notes.
The longtime park superintendent, who has run the former state fishery and wildlife management area facility since it became a state park in 1984, says the tower is part of the park’s master plan written years ago. “The idea behind the tower,” he says, “is to get people up in the air to bridge views between the lake and the prairie that’s being restored.”
Comstock refers to the state park as a “biological island” in an urban environment that provides one of the few inland, freshwater marshes along the upper Texas coast that is home to 250 species of nesting and migratory waterfowl and other birds. More than 20 wooded islands in the 1,200-acre reservoir provide nesting sites for heron and egret rookeries.
For decades, Houstonians have visited Sheldon Lake to fish the shallow waters of the reservoir that was created by the federal government in 1942 to service war industries along the Houston Ship Channel. But it’s the park’s Environmental Learning Center that today plays a vital role of introducing non-traditional users, many of them youngsters from inner city and suburban schools, to the outdoors, where they learn the importance of preserving natural resources, conserving energy and appreciating wildlife. Approximately 4,000 students a year, from second graders to high school students, visit the park to learn how to fish, observe nature and attend half-day programs on pond ecology, conservation, nature study, composting and recycling.
Phase 1 of the Sheldon Lake ELC was completed in 2006 and included construction of five alternative energy demonstration systems and the conversion of a dilapidated structure of the former fish hatchery into a 4,600-square-foot Pond Center building and pavilion utilizing green-building techniques, sustainably harvested wood and surplus oilfield pipe. It contains restrooms and serves as an orientation site for arriving students and a large classroom on rainy days. Future plans call for the construction of a 14,000-square-foot Nature/Visitors Center to serve as the orientation center, and to house administrative offices, classrooms and more.
The Pond Center building was the first TPWD structure to receive a prestigious Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified rating from the U.S. Green Building Council. The LEED rating means the Environmental Learning Center has met national standards for sustainable site development, water conservation, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality.
For more information about Sheldon Lake State Park, visit the park web page or call (281) 456-2800.
Images for media: For architectural renderings of the park’s observation tower, visit: http://archive.tpwd.state.tx.us/newsmedia/news_images/?g=sheldon_lake_sp_tower
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