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Stewards of the Wild

Tomorrow’s leaders apply their skills to outdoor conservation.

By Tom Harvey

Oil market consultant Garrett Golding of Dallas is standing on the shore of a freshwater marsh off Matagorda Bay, looking into the lens of a video camera. He’s part of a new organization that’s getting young, urban professionals into outdoor conservation, and he has volunteered to be in a video about it.

“Now, look at the camera and say, ‘I’m keeping it wild because …,’” the video producer tells Golding. While Golding ponders what to say, his wife, Elizabeth, who’s also in the oil and gas industry, interjects from off screen: “… because my wife told me to,” and everybody laughs. Golding eventually says “… because I love being outside.” When Elizabeth’s turn comes, she says “… because I can.”

Meet Stewards of the Wild, a program of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation, the official nonprofit partner of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The first Stewards chapter started in Dallas in 2011, followed by more chapters in Austin, Houston and Fort Worth, with San Antonio on the way. In December 2015, the program had about 450 members statewide. Foundation Associate Director Jay Kleberg helped launch the Stewards, starting with like-minded friends, including grad school peers.

Stewards

A trail work day at McKinney Falls requires a leap across the creek.

“We have members in banking, real estate, law, government agencies or universities, several in Austin with business startups, some with large tech companies like Google and Facebook,” Kleberg says. “It ranges from oil and gas folks in Houston to some in full-time ranching or agribusiness, some affiliated with conservation nonprofits like the Hill Country Conservancy and Dallas Safari Club. If you were to name the top 15 industries in Texas, they’re all represented.”

There are lots of conservation nonprofits, many with long pedigrees that have been around many decades. One thing different about Stewards of the Wild is it focuses on younger 30-somethings in urban centers. The chapters organize trips to get these folks out of town for outdoor adventures in breathtaking natural settings, often paired with talks by wildlife scientists who lay out conservation issues and solutions.

“You’ve got to go where your target market is — where the people are — and they’re in cities now,” Kleberg says. “They may have grown up in rural Texas, but the jobs are in town. I would argue that some of these people are the leaders of business and industry today. But if you’re looking for the next generation of philanthropists, most of them are going to be running businesses in major metro areas.”

Few people may understand urban sprawl from a more personal perspective than Samantha “Sam” Fechtel, an Austin chapter leader who works for a medical device commercialization company. What used to be her family’s farmhouse is now the town square for the City of Southlake north of Dallas/Fort Worth.

Stewards

Group members learn about redfish during a fingerling release at Powderhorn Ranch on the coast.

“Last time I was there it was so far developed beyond anything I would have imagined, covered in stores and restaurants,” Fechtel says. This was her childhood nature place, where her granddad had a farm that he would lend out for church retreats, where her parents got married, where she played outdoors in summer. Yet Fechtel is surprisingly philosophical, not bitter, about its urbanization.
“It’s kind of a neat little urban place, with townhomes on what was our property or our neighbor’s,” she says. “They’ve created a small downtown where people can live and work and play. That was an unstoppable force, development in that area, close to growing suburban communities that needed the space.”

Fechtel never lived in the country but always had ready access to it through family and friends. Now, because of her Stewards experience, she says: “I’m way more aware of and thankful of state resources. I can get to McKinney Falls State Park in 20 minutes in traffic.” She’s also been to a handful of other state parks across the state, all new to her.

“I think there are a large number of Texas young professionals who are beginning to start our own families and also are part of bigger families with older generations and siblings still in middle or high school,” she says. “So we’re in an interesting spot where we can influence so many people. In this social-media-driven age, just by being out there our networks learn about it.”

Stewards

Stewards help maintain a trail at McKinney Falls State Park in Austin.

When her turn comes to speak for the video, Fechtel says: “I’m keeping it wild because I believe the people in the state of Texas have the right, and should take advantage of that right, to access the public lands that are unspoiled and available for all to enjoy.”

Most Stewards members are outdoor evangelizers, but Ben Masters brings a unique media vision. A native Texan with a Texas A&M wildlife biology degree, he was the “mastermind” behind Unbranded, a documentary film about wild mustang horses. In 2010, he and two friends completed a 2,000-mile ride along the Continental Divide. Broke at the time, they adopted some $125 mustangs from the Bureau of Land Management. Masters brought film director Phillip Baribeau on board, and then persuaded organizations and individuals from around the world to support the film. His next project? He wants to make a film about wildlife and habitat conservation issues in Texas.

“To be honest, I think it’s an incredible opportunity,” Masters says, “to be able to go with Stewards to these different locations and learn about landscapes in Texas you don’t normally have access to. And I think it’s important that people get involved like this, because if you spend time in places and you learn about them, you fall in love with them. You protect what you love.”

Masters is no stranger to making videos or being in them, and when the producer says, “I need you to look into the camera and say ‘I’m keeping it wild because …’” he blurts out, “Man, that is cheesy.” The producer laughs and says, “Well, pour on the cheese.”

Masters is quiet for a minute and finally looks into the camera and says, with absolute sincerity: “I’m keeping it wild because there are still places where wild is left. I think that’s important, and I think it’s worth keeping around.”

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