Feverishly pushing her camera’s shutter button from a car window, Judi Elliott hoped to capture a clear picture of an eagle soaring over Lewisville Lake.
Judi and her husband, Van, aren’t professional photographers. In retirement, they found enjoyment in snapping photos of birds — chickadees, mockingbirds or others that flew into the backyard of their Flower Mound home.
They had long wanted to take their own photo of a bald eagle, which was what first brought them to the Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area, a 2,600-acre nature preserve managed by the University of North Texas, city of Lewisville and Lewisville ISD that provides opportunities for environmental education, research and recreation.
On a clear September day in 2010, an eagle flew into view during the Elliotts’ LLELA volunteer shift. Judi whipped out her camera to finally get the coveted photo.
“We were hooked after that,” Judi said. “After seeing the eagle, we knew this is where we’d want to be all of the time. Plus, we’d met everyone, and they were so welcoming. We didn’t have a lot of experience working in nature, but they said, ‘We’ll teach you what you need to know.’”
LLELA Director Ken Steigman has always wanted to make the nature preserve an inviting place where UNT faculty, staff and students can work alongside community members to learn, research and help preserve and restore native Texas ecosystems and biodiversity. UNT has long been committed to biodiversity initiatives, including through its institutes of research excellence such as the BioDiscovery Institute and Advanced Environmental Research Institute, and its Pecan Creek Pollinative Prairie at Discovery Park.
“A lot of the volunteers feel like this is their place,” Steigman said. “This is public land, and I want them to feel a sense of ownership of the property.”
The Elliotts said they’ve learned how to become better stewards of the environment over the last decade as LLELA volunteers.
“Every time we come out to LLELA, it’s something new and different that we haven’t seen before. It’s so exciting. It’s really hard not to fall in love with this place,” Judi said.
Their experience at LLELA inspired the Elliotts to join the Elm Fork chapter of Texas Master Naturalists, a statewide program that trains volunteers to offer educational and outreach services about the responsible management of natural resources and natural areas within their communities. They added a rain barrel and compost bin and reduced their water consumption at home, too.
“Ours is just a drop in the bucket compared to what others are doing, but we’re doing what little bit we can to better take care of our environment,” Van said.
As some of the longest-running volunteers at LLELA, the Elliotts have put in hundreds of hours on various projects from trail maintenance to administrative work. Van and Judi were charter volunteers for LLELA’s eastern bluebird nest box program, which has collected data such as habitat preferences, life spans and population sizes for the bluebirds that can be used by researchers and wildlife managers to better understand their place in the overall ecosystem. The Elliotts also developed a database to collect volunteer information like hours and projects worked. This data has been helpful in staying engaged with volunteers and in applying for grants to further its conversation and research work, Steigman said.
“Van and Judi have been the most amazing ambassadors to LLELA,” Steigman said. “They’ve spread the word about what’s going on out here and encouraged many people to volunteer and participate over the years.”
Volunteers are essential to LLELA’s mission to preserve and restore the area’s natural heritage. The organization has just two full-time staff members and a force of 160 volunteers that help with research, educational programs, habitat restoration and more.
“This place wouldn’t work without volunteers,” Steigman said. “We’ve got this great mix of citizens and UNT students, faculty and staff who are all working together on these environmental projects out here. It’s really neat to see.”