Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Union Volunteers Rebuild Texas Fishing Pier

ATHENS, Texas—On the last weekend in June, nine union volunteers from International Union of Elevator Constructors (IUEC) Local 21 braved the heat and humidity to help rebuild a dilapidated fishing pier at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center (TFFC) in Athens, Texas.

Home to the Texas Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame and 300,000 gallons of indoor and outdoor aquariums, the fisheries center is one of five Texas Parks and Wildlife Department freshwater fish hatcheries and the state’s flagship fisheries outreach facility. In addition to being a fish hatchery, the center features educational exhibits, trails, dive shows, and hatchery tours. It’s also where families come from far and wide to catch a variety of freshwater fish, including channel catfish, Lone Star largemouth bass, rainbow trout and sunfish.

Through the Union Sportsmen’s Alliance (USA) Work Boots on the Ground (WBG) conservation program, IUEC Local 21 volunteers helped demolish two of the three fishing piers in April. They were back in full force on June 29 despite the temperature breaking 100 degrees and a heat index of 105.

“There was sweat everywhere,” says Tom Lang, Inland Fisheries Division outreach director at Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “I do want to thank the good Lord for overcast skies and the occasional breeze that we got.”

The tough conditions didn’t stop IUEC Local 21 volunteers and TFFC staff from dismantling the last of the three piers and nearly finishing the installation of one of the new piers.

JR Karnes is a member and volunteer project leader for IUEC Local 21. He helped organize and participated in the April and June work projects. With a dozen volunteers in April, Karnes says they showed up and tore out two piers in four hours.

“My union brothers all know how to work,” he says. “After the plan goes out, we hardly even look at each other ‘cause you’re just working.'" When planning the work project, Karnes says that some people told him they grew up fishing on those same piers.

The fishing piers are a highlight of the center, which has hosted more than one million visitors since it opened in 1996. Lang says that around 750,000 visitors use those piers to wet a line.

“Adults and kids alike use the piers for fishing,” he says. “From newborns to elderly in wheelchairs. People from all across the country come here. We get school groups and senior citizens' homes.”

After 27 years, the piers were showing their age and falling apart. Their reconstruction was part of a larger $8 million renovation project to the center. Lang says USA volunteers help his small maintenance team “increase their bandwidth.”

“They are tremendously hardworking and dedicated people,” Lang says. “We all commiserated in the heat, and we got a lot of work done. It was great.”

Karnes agrees. “I would like to thank Tom Lang and his team at TFFC as well as USA Conservation Programs Manager Sam Phipps for letting Local 21 be part of this project,” he says. “And special thanks to my brothers and sisters at Local 21—this project would have never happened without them.”

If all goes as planned, Lang hopes to reopen the center in spring 2025. He’d love to see union volunteers come back to show off their work. “We’re looking forward to more projects with them," Lang says, “And what I am really excited about is seeing all of them come back with their families to enjoy the work that they put in. We love working with them.”