AUSTIN, Texas — New exhibits and activities about springs, rivers, bays and beaches; wildlife conservation; Texas history at state parks; nature photography and more will debut Oct. 1-2 at America’s largest free, family-oriented festival of the outdoors. The 14th annual Texas Parks & Wildlife Expo will allow tens of thousands of visitors to try fishing, shooting, kayaking, mountain biking, rock climbing and more, all at no cost.

The Expo began in 1992 as a tribute to the role of hunters in wildlife conservation, and it still promotes that tradition as a central focus. Today, it includes fishing, state parks, Texas history and almost everything else in the world of natural and cultural resource conservation and recreation. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department produces the event, which remains free to the public through sponsor support.

This year, more than a half dozen new activities will add to the sprawling diversity of the state’s largest outdoor event.

This year at Expo TPWD will also unveil “Life’s Better Outside,” a new slogan developed for TPWD by GSD&M, a nationally regarded advertising agency based in Austin. This slogan is part of a broader creative outreach campaign that the advertising agency developed for TPWD pro-bono. “Life’s Better Outside, and if you don’t believe it, come to the Expo,” said Ernie Gammage, TPWD Expo Director.

Photography returns for the second year with two new free workshops per day from expert Arthur Morris. This free-lance nature photographer and writer specializes in birds. In 1995, he became a Canon contract photographer, part of their “Explorers of Light” program. Morris has published more than 11,000 photographs and he photographs, travels, speaks, and teaches extensively across North America. Also in the photo area, visitors will be able try out the latest gear, from the basics to high-end. Photography activities will again take place near the beautiful wetlands area, where visitors can take and print digital photos. Lenses, video equipment, printers and binoculars will also be on hand to try, provided by Canon, sponsor of the photo area.

A completely revamped Hunting and Wildlife Management area will showcase the five basic tools of habitat management–axe, cow, plow, fire and gun. Large photos on eight-foot banners will be grouped into new kiosk exhibits. One set will cover the five tools, with others about private land conservation, public hunting and wildlife management areas. A new “Living With Wildlife” exhibit will show how people can safely coexist with wildlife, including tips for homeowners. A rainwater simulator will show how rain on well-managed land percolates slowly through the soil, making connections between rural land management and water and air quality that affects all Texans.

Visitors can travel an entire watershed in the new “Texas Water Ways: Ranches To Reefs” area. They’ll hear the sounds of trickling springs, rushing rivers and crashing surf as they move through the tent with exhibits about freshwater springs, rivers, and lakes, then on to coastal bays and estuaries, Gulf beaches and out to deep water reefs.

A “dive master” will lead visitors through the Blue Room in a simulated undersea exploration of a model of the Flower Gardens, a famed natural reef favored by Scuba divers about 100 miles offshore. Along the way, they’ll learn about challenges and choices facing Texans regarding our most precious natural resource.

Other new activities include an exhibit on the world’s tallest freestanding masonry obelisk, the San Jacinto Monument, and a new air gun challenge where visitors can try shooting and see demonstrations by three-time Olympic gold medallist Kim Rhode.

Expo has other opportunities for visitors to try their firearm, crossbow and archery skills. Participants must first attend the short Shooting Safety Orientation at the Expo, which imparts safe and ethical practices.

Those who want to keep cool in the Texas heat may check out the fishing and aquatic events. Thousands of children catch their first fish at Expo each year, with bait, gear and guidance provided. Coastal touch tanks allow visitors to get up close and personal with live marine life. There’s also a boater safety program and an 8,100-gallon square-foot tank aptly named “The Wet Zone” where Expo visitors can try kayaking.

In the State Parks area, visitors can learn how and where to camp, rock climb, mountain bike and more. History comes alive as participants in period costume come from state parks across Texas to showcase life in various eras.

Law Enforcement exhibits allow visitors to meet game wardens, look at confiscated illegal hunting and fishing equipment, and learn about the laws of the land. The popular “Who Dunnit” activity puts visitors in the roles of game wardens, trying to spot violations committed by wardens posing as lawbreakers in a mock hunting camp.

All events are free, as are water and air-conditioned shuttle service and parking. Although food may be brought in, coolers are discouraged because of the long walk to the fair grounds. There will be special shuttle service within the fair grounds for people with disabilities. And sorry, no pets allowed. Fido might scare the wild animals or be scared by the noise. Visitors need only bring cameras and sunscreen – a little cash can be handy to buy food or outdoor gear and apparel.

Major Expo sponsors this year are: Anheuser-Busch, Canon, Clear Channel radio in Austin, HOLT CAT, La Invasora radio, The Dow Chemical Company, Time Warner Cable, and Toyota. Other sponsors include Academy Sports & Outdoors, Bass Pro Shops, Careco Multimedia, ChevronTexaco, Mossy Oak Apparel Company, Sportsman’s Warehouse, Arby’s of Central Texas, Austin Coca-Cola Bottling Company, Boone & Crockett Club, CEMEX, Lower Colorado River Authority, McBride’s, Omni Austin Hotel-Southpark, Shikar Safari International Foundation, Temple-Inland, Weatherby Foundation International and Winchester Energy Company, Ltd.

Out-of-towners looking for a place to stay during Expo can call the Austin Convention and Visitor’s Bureau at (512) 478-0098 for hotel and motel information. To make reservations at a Central Texas state park, call (512) 389-8900 or book online.

There is limited free parking near the grounds, but the best way to get to the Expo is to catch a free shuttle bus. If rain shuts down on-site parking, all visitors must park at Highland Mall near the intersection of I-35 and Highway 290. Buses run from 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m. daily.

For more information about Expo, including maps and directions, visit the TPWD Web site or call (800) 792-1112.

– Texas Saltwater Fishing Guide