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Memorial Internship Program Engages Graduate Students in Local Conservation Efforts


Practical Activism

By Kristin Tommey

Austin is one of the fastest growing cities in the nation. Its natural beauty is an undeniable draw. Just a few miles from downtown, residents spend free time swimming in spring-fed creeks, climbing limestone cliffs, and hiking in lush forests. But many don’t realize that they are living in a fragile ecosystem alongside a number of endangered species.

As more and more newcomers stream into the city, the development of subdivisions and high rises continues to affect the waters, land, and wildlife of the Texas Hill Country that make Austin such a desirable place to live.

At The University of Texas at Austin, students in the School of Architecture’s Community and Regional Planning (CRP) graduate program gain the skills and experience necessary to help preserve these natural environments and others across the country while supporting sustainable and equitable urban development.

Over more than three decades on the Forty Acres, Kent Butler, former director of CRP and associate dean for research and operations in the School of Architecture, played a key role in developing the program and was a driving force behind Texas conservation efforts. He believed that the best way to educate future planning leaders was to get students engaged in local issues.

“In every class Kent taught, students worked with organizations and clients on concrete, pragmatic projects related to water, land, and species conservation,” says Michael Oden, the current director of CRP and associate dean for research and operations in the School of Architecture. “He saw that project work was essential in helping students build their skills and learn how to make a difference in preserving the environment under conditions of rapid population growth.”

Kent Butler

Kent Butler

On May 11, 2011, Butler’s important work as a teacher, researcher, and activist was cut short by a fatal hiking accident in Yosemite National Park.

To preserve his legacy, his family established an endowed excellence fund in 2012 to support the Kent S. Butler Memorial Environmental Planning Internship Program. More than 140 donors — friends, colleagues, former students, professional organizations, and members of the local community — contributed, honoring Butler’s commitment to providing students with hands-on educational experiences.

Each year, CRP leadership selects one student from a number of applicants to participate in the Butler internship over the summer. Since the internship’s inception, five students have worked with organizations that advance environmental planning and policy work in the region. Students apply their newly developed skills to conducting substantive fieldwork, gaining leadership experience and professional connections that shape their future careers.

“We intentionally select partner organizations for the internship based on their close ties with Kent and his areas of research and practice,” Oden says. “The Butler interns are carrying on his work in a very literal way, and we believe that he would be excited about the contributions they are making through this initiative.”

Throughout his career, Butler applied his knowledge and expertise to dozens of large-scale projects that helped improve neighborhoods, water systems, and a number of infrastructure systems. For example, he helped create the groundwater management district for the Barton Springs-Edwards Aquifer and was instrumental in developing the plan for the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, the nation’s first regional, multispecies habitat conservation plan. Composed of multiple tracts of land managed by a variety of local entities, the system of preserves includes some of the city’s most notable recreational sites, like the Barton Creek Greenbelt, Mount Bonnell Park, and Hamilton Pool, as well as cave habitats and more remote forested areas accessible to the public through guided hikes.

CRP placed the first Butler intern, Paul Ward, MS ’12, with the City of Austin’s Balcones Canyonlands Preserve. Over the summer of 2012, Ward developed a site master plan for Austin Water Utility’s Wildland Conservations Division, located on an 839-acre tract of the preserve near Lake Austin.

“That was the first time I was in charge of engaging a community of people and building a consensus around an approach,” Ward says. “There were many passions, thoughts, and competing ideas on that project, and I learned a lot about the value of stakeholder buy-in throughout the process.”

Today, Ward works in Austin as a planner and urban designer at Perkins+Will, a global architecture and design firm. He says he often reflects on his internship experience, as well as his time with Butler as a research assistant before his death.

“Kent truly lived his values, and I saw firsthand the fruits of his labor through my internship,” Ward says. “The preserve — a cause that he dedicated so much of himself to — has had such a meaningful impact on our city and our region. His legacy inspires me to continue doing work that both preserves land and endangered species and improves quality of life.”

To learn more about supporting the School of Architecture’s Community and Regional Planning graduate program or to make a contribution to the Kent S. Butler Memorial Environmental Planning Internship Program, contact Luke Dunlap, director of development and external relations.

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