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Green Thumb Earns Harris Mayor’s Service Award

Dr. William Maury Harris at Japhet Creek ParkOn any given Saturday, students from Dr. William Maury Harris’ environmental science and studies classes can be found working with him to clean up Japhet Creek Linear Park – picking up trash, planting native trees and bushes, mulching around trees and removing non-native plant species.

For his work on the park, Harris, who is associate professor of environmental science and studies and director of student research, will be awarded the Distinguished Service Award from the 2013 Mayor’s Proud Partners program during a luncheon on Oct. 28 at the Hilton Americas-Houston Hotel.

Harris has been involved with transforming Japhet Creek Park for about seven years. The park, located east of downtown, is one of the few unpiped, unchannelized tributaries that flows a significant distance to buffalo bayou – about a mile. The surrounding community got involved to secure land for the park, and Harris helped develop a master plan.

“Japhet Creek Park was a park that started off based on the desires of the community,” Harris said.  “People who lived there wanted to protect it as natural space, and there is a lot of community ownership of the park.”

Harris teaches courses at St. Thomas on the science of the human environment, physical and historical geology, coastal ecology, urban environmental investigations and GIS. Every semester, he brings more than 50 UST students to join him in clean-ups.

“Service learning helps my students to see what we are talking about in the classroom in the

real world and drive home the importance of protecting the environment,” Harris said.

Volunteers have removed over 150 tires, including large truck tires rolled into the creek. They remove vines, pickup grocery and chip bags, and other trash. They cut down invasive bamboo-like cane and lantana.

“We found an ATM in it once,” Harris said. “There’s all kinds of things. The city doesn’t have a lot of money for the park, so we’ll do a lot of trail maintenance: cut weeds and put in new mulch.”

Though he and volunteers worked on the park for several years, Harris became a founding member of the Japhet Creek Nature Conservancy just one year ago to expand the park and its amenities, and it was recognized by Keep Houston Beautiful, the city’s leading organization in beautification, litter reduction and recycling education.  

Dr. Maury Harris at Japhet Creek Park“Dr. Harris, a founding member of the Japhet Creek Nature Conservancy, recognized the unique nature benefits of Japhet Creek and has engaged his students in learning, monitoring and improving this City of Houston greenfinger park,” said Eileen Hatcher, executive director of the Japhet Creek Nature Conservancy.

Harris’ devotion to the local environment has meant spending countless Saturdays and evenings working on the ecosystems related to the Buffalo Bayou.  

“I have worked hard over the last 15 years with the Buffalo Bayou Partnership and now the people with Japhet Creek,” Harris said. “It is nice to be recognized for the hard work that I have done, but I do it because I enjoy it.”

Harris said the next step for the park is to obtain non-profit status for the Conservancy so the group can fundraise. The Conservancy hopes to secure more land and expand the park all the way down to the bayou. He also has plans to develop a weekend indoor farmers market to bring more awareness to the park.

“We’re trying to turn it into a place that attracts people into the neighborhood,” he said.