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There’s no shame in having a pulpit. It could be shameful if you have it, but don’t put it to good use.

Laura Bush admits that she, as the wife of a former president, has a pretty big pulpit, and she says she’s decided to use it to push, pull, gather and encourage Texans toward common conservation goals. She has started by being one of the founders and the public face of “Taking Care of Texas.”

Bush was in Austin this week to deliver the keynote address at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Lone Star Land Steward Awards banquet, and she graciously carved out time to talk with me about the organization and what it’s designed to do.

“I see (Taking Care of Texas) as a convenor, trying to reach out to all (conservation groups) and to inform the public about all those programs,” Bush said. “The environment has been important to me since my Girl Scout days back in Midland.”

The effort comes at an important time in a state wracked by drought, short and long-term water resource issues, a new generation of oil and gas exploration, urban expansion, dwindling native habitats … it’s a long list.

Bush believes that Taking Care of Texas has arrived at exactly the right time in Texas and that the guidance and oversight she’s prepared to offer can work. “We (she and TCT’s board) have talked about ways to reach out in our state because we believe that Texas should be a leader in conservation,” she said. “But we’re lucky. We don’t have to re-invent the wheel to do that.”

Both Bushes, Laura and former President George W., have committed to conservation both at their ranch in Crawford west of Waco and at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas.

At the ranch, they have restored and are protecting 120 acres of native grass prairie. That may not sound like much, but that’s a large piece of land to devote to native grass, which has virtually been lost throughout Texas. Keeping it going is a major undertaking but the family is allowing landowners and conservation groups to visit for demonstration events there.

The library features a 5-acre native grass prairie planted with a mix of native plants developed by the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin.

That’s a nice bit of synergy, too, I think. Lots of people thought Lady Bird Johnson was a bit flighty when she began pushing clean highways and anti-litter campaigns back in the 1960s. But that developed into the modern ecological and environmental movement with a legacy that endures today.

Laura Bush’s organization is focused on Texas land, water and coasts. “We’re a big state with lots of challenges,” she said.

“People don’t know where their water comes from, and they need to know. (Water) is a foundational issue for all of Texas, and we need to conserve it in every way we can,” she said. “The gulf is important because it’s the incubator of life.”

And because private land is the norm in Texas – more than 95 percent of land is in private lands – any real conservation is going to have to come from individual landowners. “It’s important for landowners to know what is the science and how it works for them.”

Taking Care of Texas should be the focal point for education and cooperation, finding the common ground between programs that might work in Jefferson County in the southeast and Dallam County in the Panhandle.

“Nothing is more important than the stewardship of our home ground,” said Carter Smith, TPWD’s executive director. “(Taking Care of Texas) is providing a powerful and compelling catalyst for private industry, landowners and the public to have an impact on that effort.”

“All we can do is try to get the word out. This is my life’s work,” she told me.

- Mike Leggett 

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For more information, see TakingCareofTexas.org. Executive director Erin Franz can be reached at erin@takingcareoftexas.org.