Fifteen years of celebrating Texas’ outdoors.
By Melissa Gaskill
Back in 1992, organizers of the original Texas Wildlife Expo hoped to inform a new generation of Texans about hunting’s history and its role in wildlife management and conservation. They also wanted everyone to have fun.
The event succeeded on both accounts, perhaps beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. From the 7,000 people who came that first year to take part in shooting events, deer and turkey calling contests, sporting dog demonstrations and other hunting-related activities, Texas Parks and Wildlife Expo has grown to encompass nearly every possible outdoor activity, and almost a half-million Texans have attended.
“Expo started as the idea of two people, former Texas Parks and Wildlife commissioner Chuck Nash and outdoor writer Mike Leggett,” says Andy Sansom, former executive director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “At the time, hunting and, to a lesser extent, fishing, were being challenged a little bit. The original idea was a kind of celebration of those outdoor activities.”
Leggett was researching a story about the growing antihunting movement and interviewed a Montana wildlife department official, who told him about a planned appreciation dinner for hunters. “I thought, ‘If those guys could do it, we should be able to do something better,’” says Leggett. “I talked to Nash, and he took the ball and ran with it. He’s the guy who really made it work.”
Nash simply felt that the general public didn’t know what the department did. “A kind of open house would show them,” he says. “And, it had to be free.” It is now the nation’s largest family festival focused on wildlife and parks, and the event remains free, thanks to the support of sponsors.
For the second Expo, fishing events were added, and in subsequent years, additions included everything from climbing to canoeing, orienteering, tool making, live animals, mountain biking, camping, kayaking, cooking, photography and scuba diving — in short, just about any and every outdoor experience imaginable. Additions for 2006 include presentations on women’s outdoor gear and the ethical principles of responsible outdoor use from national conservation organization Leave No Trace, says Expo director Ernie Gammage. “We have also made infrastructure improvements and will be recycling this year.”
The expanded activities reflect a wider focus on creating awareness of the importance of outdoor activities in general, and of the contribution outdoor users make to preserving our wildlife and natural resources. They are also a way to draw a larger audience.
“More people came because it was broad,” says Sansom. “Parents brought their children for the climbing wall or the biking, and then they would try shooting or fishing while they were here. So, young people who would otherwise never have picked up a gun became avid hunters because of that exposure.”
Joe McBride, owner of McBride’s Guns in Austin and an early Expo supporter, agrees. “For many, this is their only exposure to hunting, fishing, parks and all the aspects of the outdoors that the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is involved with,” he says. “It is also a way for the state to recognize the important role of hunting in Texas culture and in wildlife management and conservation. It’s a way to show youngsters what it is all about.”
Most young Texans now grow up in cities, and offering them outdoor experiences makes Expo worth all the work for those involved in the event. “To see the expression on kids’ faces when they catch their first fish, or shoot a gun for the first time, that was the most rewarding,” says Bob Hauser, coordinator of the first five Expos.
“That kind of hands-on experience sets this event apart from any other,” says Bob Cook, executive director of TPWD. “It’s a meaningful way to introduce urban children to the outdoors. We’re also sending an important message that there are many ways to enjoy the out-of-doors. I don’t believe there is another event covering such a broad spectrum of activities.”
“The one-on-one, hands-on assistance that kids get in all sorts of activities sets this event apart from any other of its kind,” adds Sansom, who is now executive director of the River Systems Institute in San Marcos. “There’s no other event where that is possible. It makes a material contribution to introducing urban children to all kinds of outdoor activities.”
Another important aspect, he says, is Expo’s tangible expression of the idea that there is no one best way to enjoy the outdoors. “There are many ways, and as long as you do them responsibly, they are all positive and good. You’ll find fishing shows or hunting shows, but I don’t believe you’ll find another event so dedicated to the broad spectrum of outdoor activities, and that is probably the single most important thing about Expo.”
There are educational messages throughout the event on important issues like water quality and conservation, but those never overshadow the importance of fun and enjoyment of the outdoors, or the original vision. People remain passionate about that, says Gammage. “There is a deep emotional connection. We understand the importance of passing on that legacy of caring for the outdoors.”
The core elements, shooting and fishing, are still among Expo’s most popular events, Leggett notes. “The other things are important and belong there, but that basic foundation still comes from that traditional aspect of the outdoors in Texas.”
Whatever might be added or changed about the event in the coming years, there’s one thing everyone agrees never will. It’s all free.
Texas Parks & Wildlife Expo 2006
Saturday, October 7 and Sunday, October 8
9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Texas Parks and Wildlife Headquarters, Austin
Limited free parking near the grounds. Shuttle bus parking, Highland Mall, near the intersection of I-35 and Highway 290. Buses run from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Out-of-towners looking for hotel and motel information can call the Austin Convention and Visitor’s Bureau at (512) 478-0098.
Make reservations at a Central Texas state park by calling (512) 389-8900 or online at <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/business/park_reservations/>. Maps and directions at <www.tpwd.state. tx.us/expo>, or call (800) 792-1112.