Master Naturalists turn Upper Highland Lakes Nature Center into outdoor classroom

Upper Highland Lakes Nature Center

Master Naturalist Billy Huston stands in the geologic amphitheater he uses to teach students how the earth was formed. All three rocks that make up earth are present in this formation at the Upper Highland Lakes Nature Center in Burnet. Staff photo by Suzanne Freeman

See, hear, smell, touch, and even take home a small piece of the history and geology of the Texas Hill Country at the Upper Highland Lakes Nature Center on Reveille Peak Ranch in Burnet. Geared toward teaching children about nature, the nonprofit center stakes out 6 acres of the ranch for a variety of learning stations, including a registered archeological dig, a pollinator garden, demonstration gardens, a rainwater collection station, bee colonies, habitats, and a geological formation that represents all three types of rock that make up the earth.

“We call this a geologic amphitheater,” said Billy Huston of Oatmeal as he stood in the middle of what looked like a river of melting rock frozen in action. “You can see this span of time in only four or five places in the world, like the Grand Canyon. It has all three types of rock. It’s exactly what kids learn about in school.”

As a longtime Master Naturalist, Huston knows the science behind the small canyon of stone. Kids better grasp the concepts as they crawl over the formation.

“They can walk on it, touch it, put a piece of it in their pockets,” Huston said. “It’s a whole earth lesson right here.”

The exposed rock is at least 1.3 billion years old, Huston continued, and came to light when the October 2018 flood washed through the area and cleared off the soil under which it was hiding.

The new and treasured geology section is one of the natural assets that volunteers use to teach with at the site, which opened in 2012. Huston’s vision for using nature to teach came to fruition when Reveille Peak Ranch owner Vol Montgomery offered to let him develop the center at the ranch.

“Our success comes from two things,” Huston said. “We have a very generous landlord and enthusiastic members of our Friends group.”

Upper Highland Lakes Nature Center
An archeology dig at the Upper Highland Lakes Nature Center in Burnet is the 501st such dig registered in Llano County, said Billy Huston, a member of the Highland Lakes Master Naturalists. Huston started the nature center on Reveille Peak Ranch in 2012. Staff photo by Suzanne Freeman

Friends of the Upper Highland Lakes Nature Center is a crucial piece of the center’s nonprofit status, providing membership dues, donations, and volunteers.

The nature center has an abundance of wild things to go along with its geology. At the main entrance, demonstration gardens model planting for pollinators and raised and keyhole beds.

“In our Native American garden, we teach how they planted, what they planted, and how they survived — how they got their food, medicine, and shelter from plants,” Huston said. “Outdoors is our best classroom.”

As Huston walked along trails a Boy Scout troop outlined with tree branches, he pointed out both native and non-native bee colonies, a rainwater collection station used to water the gardens, and a beaver hut to demonstrate habitats. The trail also leads to a registered archeological dig complete with the ancient tools and projectile points found on site and a stage and seating area for demonstrations and overnight camping sing-alongs.

“We put a white sheet up behind the stage and shine a light behind the sheet so it will attract all the bugs,” Huston said. “Afterwards, they take the trapped bugs and identify them. Another great lesson that doesn’t cost a thing.”

Students do not have to be on site to learn about nature. The Master Naturalists take the center into classrooms on a regular basis. Stacked neatly in a storage building near the rainwater tanks are well-organized and labeled discovery trunks filled with materials to teach at least 15 different subjects.

Volunteer Paula Richards of Oatmeal stopped by on a recent day to pick up the discovery trunk for monarch butterflies. She was preparing to teach a lesson at Candlelight Ranch in Marble Falls the next week. Her enthusiasm for the subject became evident when asked to demonstrate the materials, starting with a monarch butterfly puppet.

“This puppet is really popular with the kids,” she said as she unfolded a cloth caterpillar and turned it into a cocoon. “It starts out as a caterpillar. You hang it up, and it becomes a chrysalis. Unzip that and out comes the butterfly!”

Upper Highland Lakes Nature Center
If the kids can’t come to the Upper Highland Lakes Nature Center in Burnet, Paula Richards is one of the Master Naturalists who brings the center to the classroom with props like this monarch butterfly puppet that begins as a caterpillar. Staff photo by Suzanne Freeman

If it’s a local animal, they have puppets or masks or even costumes for the kids to use in demonstrations and question-and-answer sessions.

“It’s all about helping kids understand their place in the grand scheme of nature,” Richards said. “They can see firsthand how important their planet is and their role in it. That’s really what we’re trying to do.”

Adults can learn what the kids are learning every other Saturday at Numinous Coffee Roasters, 715 RR 1431 in Marble Falls. From 9 a.m.-noon, someone from the nature center sets up a table using a discovery trunk and is on hand to discuss the subject of the day and answer questions. (For subjects and dates, check out the Upper Highland Lakes Nature Center website at uhlnc.org.)

The entire project is funded by donations and membership fees to the Highland Lakes Master Naturalists. Currently, the more than 100 members from Burnet, Llano, and Blanco counties comprise most of the volunteers who go into the classrooms and help at the center.

New features are added as money becomes available. Huston and his team are certainly not short on ideas of what needs to happen next. A rustic, rusty grain silo in the geology area soon will be made into a showcase for the different types of rocks found.

What the center really needs now, however, is a building to provide year-round teaching opportunities.

“We can use the (Reveille Peak Ranch) pavilion, but, in the winter, it’s still cold,” Huston said. “And during the summer, if we advertise a free interpretive hike, maybe only two or three people show up. It’s just too hot. With a building, we could double our outreach.”

Anyone with a double-wide they want to give away — “or sell cheaply”— or anyone with a building that could be moved onto the site, can email Huston at info@uhlnc.org.

Already, some 4,000 people, mostly children from local school districts, come through the center each year where they “learn to make nature personal.”

“What that means is we show how to make nature part of your life,” Huston said. “If you understand nature and appreciate it, you’ll be a good steward of nature.”

To be a good steward of the Upper Highland Lakes Nature Center or to schedule a visit at 105 CR 114 in Burnet, you can email info@uhlnc.org or visit the website at uhlnc.org for more information. The center is open by appointment only.

suzanne@thepicayune.com

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