By Joe Southern
Paul and Angie Wierzbicki moved to Fort Bend County in 2008 when Paul was hired as Missouri City’s first city forester.
In February, Angie was hired as the Cullinan Park Conservancy’s first executive director, making them Fort Bend County’s leading environmental family. The environment, or more specifically how people interact with the environment, is a passion of theirs.
“It’s about getting out into nature,” Angie said. “We’re all looking at these screens all day … It just refreshes the soul.”
Paul, who is now Missouri City’s forester and horticulturist, is responsible for establishing the city’s Edible Arbor Trail and the Right Tree Trail (in conjunction with CenterPoint Energy).
“When I started learning about trees I couldn’t stop,” Paul said.
They met at Western Illinois University where they each received their master’s degree in parks and recreation management. Paul was more focused on the agricultural aspects and Angie leaned toward the administrative side and working with nonprofit organizations.
Prior to receiving her master’s degree in 2007, Angie served two years in the Peace Corps in Malawi, Africa, where she worked on environmental health projects. Before being hired for the part-time position with Cullinan Park Conservancy, Angie was executive director of the Fort Bend Cares Foundation.
“I have a personal passion about nature and the environment and parks and people,” Angie said.
She has done a lot of volunteer work with the park over the years and got to know several of the conservancy’s board members. They became familiar with her and her love of nature and her experience running on nonprofit organization.
“They put two and two together,” she said.
Angie has big plans for the 754-acre park, which was recently annexed by the City of Sugar Land in a three-way agreement with the City of Houston, which owns the park, and the conservancy. She is currently spearheading fundraising efforts, which she hopes will lead to needed improvements. One of her more urgent tasks is raising $500,000 to match a grant from the George Foundation.
Among the improvements she wants to see includes opening up the entrance to the park for better visibility, building a permanent restroom, building a canoe launch on Oyster Creek, establishing a children’s nature area and wildlife viewing areas and clearing out invasive plant and animal species that are detrimental to native species. She would also like to see the trail system upgraded and expanded.
“It’s still really wild back there,” she said, pointing from the parking lot toward a wooded section of the park.
“It’s just incredible the amount of wildlife here,” she said.
She sees her job as one of bringing people out to experience nature. Paul’s job centers on bringing nature to people. As an urban forester, he oversees the planting and maintenance of Missouri City’s trees, along with various landscapes.
“My primary role is to take care of the city-owned trees,” Paul said.
He created the Edible Arbor Trail along Missouri City’s portion of Oyster Creek between Murphy Road and Dulles Avenue in 2010 to help teach people about the kinds of trees and plants they can grow here that also produce food. There are currently five groves with about 10 trees each.
He said there are 260 edible plants, shrubs and trees on the trail.
In 2009, the year after Hurricane Ike hit the area, he teamed up with CenterPoint Energy to create the Right Tree Trail. That trail shows which kinds of trees are safe to plant near power lines. The trail has trees from smaller varieties moving upward to larger ones the further away from the lines they go.
The Wierzbickis said there is a lot that people can do when it comes to protecting and enjoying the environment. One of the first things people can do is offer financial support. Angie said out of all the money raised in the country for charitable causes, only 1 percent goes to environmental concerns. She also encourages people to lobby their state and local governments to increase spending on parks and recreation.
“The public and private foundations really need to come forward,” she said.
Paul said that as people build homes or work on landscaping that they need to consider sustainable landscapes and diversification of species. He said it’s important to find trees and plants that can withstand spring floods and summer heat and drought. He also encourages citizens to participate in events like Mulch Madness and tree plantings.
Paul said the small things that people do, including recycling, can make a big difference. Just in the short time he has been here he is seeing significant changes in the environment.
“Climate change is real,” he said. “In nine years I’ve seen how much the climate has changed slowly and steadily.”
As the area continues rapid growth and development, the Wierzbickis said it is important that people learn how to accommodate and adapt with the environment.
“When you’re at home you’re breathing the area these trees are making and drinking the water these wetlands are cleansing,” Paul said.