Eagle Scout makes waves in the battle against zebra mussels


Declan Howell’s presentation to the Council’s Conservation Committee was so impressive that it left members with only one question: “When are you going to college?”

The young man had submitted a detailed summary of his project for the BSA’s new Distinguished Conservation Service Award.

Declan told the group of adults on the Zoom call how he worked with the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department to set up sample boxes that track invasive zebra clams near boat trips in and around Austin, Texas.

“Once zebra mussels infect a lake, they spread too quickly to be controlled,” Declan explained. “Any chemicals that kill the mussels injure or kill other marine organisms.”

By helping officials identify zebra mussel infestations at an early stage, the damage they cause can be minimized.

It’s all very advanced stuff, which brings us back to the committee question, when is college, Declan?

“He gave us an interesting look and said he hadn’t thought of it,” recalls Jessica Snider, director of STEM, nature conservation and sustainability at the Capitol Area Council. “He said he was only 13. I think almost every jaw fell on the Zoom call.”

We caught up with 13 year old Eagle Scout from Troop 70 of Austin to learn more about this hugely impressive project.

The problem with zebras

Declan remembers the first time he heard about zebra mussels. His parents were watching the local news when a report aired on zebra clams invading Lake Austin.

“I remember being relatively unconcerned because I lacked the knowledge to understand the real implications of this event,” says Declan.

He’s getting it now. Zebra mussels (or Dreissena polymorpha) are a type of invasive mussel from Eastern Europe. They eat algae, which allows sunlight to penetrate deeper into the water. This destroys lower temperature habitats and reduces the space available for animals that rely on these colder waters to survive.

They also clog man-made infrastructure and increase maintenance costs to remove them from inlets, boats and equipment. They’re also frustratingly robust.

“They breed quickly,” says Declan, “and careless boaters can move mussels from one lake to another.”

A first class idea

For First Class Rank Requirement 9b, scouts must investigate an environmental issue affecting their community and share what they learn about that issue with their patrol or force.

As you can imagine, Declan’s speech was about zebra mussels.

“There was an article about zebra mussels in our local lakes, and since we have so many lakes in Austin, it made a huge impact on my community,” Declan says. “I presented the speech to my patrol – all very unimpressed. It wasn’t a particularly inspiring speech because I had only done a little research and didn’t know much. “

This was an eye-opening moment for Declan. Having a passion for a subject is important, but it’s best to combine that passion with information.

Looking back, Declan finds that he followed a five-step process from identifying the problem to partially resolving it.

  1. Research the problem. “Find out what it is, why it is there, how you can help, when it started, and who can help you in your community,” he says.
  2. Don’t reinvent the wheel. “Look for previously used solutions or preventative measures to this problem,” says Declan. “Look for opportunities to add to or improve on the work that has already been done.”
  3. Get help. “I got my project done on the scale that I did, thanks to the great support from the Lower Colorado River Authority and the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department.”
  4. Make your plan. “Based on your research, create a plan for how you want to carry out your project,” says Declan. This includes collecting materials (Declan donated most of its materials from Home Depot) and creating a schedule for completing your project.
  5. Finish it. “Ask for volunteers in your troops and community and do your project,” he says. “Any help for the environment can make a difference, no matter how small your project may seem.”

How it works

For his project, Declan used a so-called settlement sampler. The device offers zebra mussels a perfect surface for buckling up.

“Zebra mussels are very different from local mussels in that they attach themselves to smooth surfaces rather than rough surfaces,” says Declan. “This preference creates big problems for the mussels when it comes to water filtration.”

Heather Ball served as an advisor to Declan’s Distinguished Conservation Service Award. She says she was proud to be part of the scouting when Declan completed the project.

“Declan decided to attack a very crafty opponent in the zebra mussel that invades our Texan lakes and streams,” says Ball he focused, slowing down. He created colorful, informative flyers. He followed up personally with the dock owners. And he has documented his leadership skills in his careful planning and implementation of the project. “

Much remains to be done

Despite the initial approval of the Conservation Committee, Declan is still a long way off from college.

But he has started to think about what will follow his high school career. He would like to attend either the University of California at San Diego or the University of Wisconsin at Madison to study pharmacy or pharmacology. He hopes to get his pharmacist license and work in pharmaceutical research.

Before that, however, Declan wants to give something back to scouting and work towards the next project of the Distinguished Conservation Service Award, which he expects to be related to water conservation.

That dedication impressed Declan’s parents, David and Heather Howell.

David, an Eagle Scout, is the deputy scoutmaster in Troop 72, a girls’ troop that includes Declan’s younger sister Vivienne. Heather has served in a variety of force and district roles and helped found Troop 72.

“What impressed us most about Declan’s project was its laser focus on detecting zebra mussels,” says Heather. “That he decided on this topic for his project well in advance as a very young person, before he even had to think about Eagle projects and stuck to it for years, impressed both of us very much. ”

David agrees.

“As parents, we honestly weren’t sure what he could do at the individual Boy Scout level to make a difference in the fight against zebra mussels,” says David. “We actively encouraged him to explore other ideas, but he was persistent and came up with a great project idea that was realistically feasible and really had an impact.”

This project earned Declan a Take Care of Texas Pin from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. But David says awards aren’t as meaningful as what they represent.

“Declan’s growth in scouting has been remarkable for us,” says David. “His experience in scouting has given him a lot of self-confidence, as he knows that even as a young person he can take measures in his community that really make a difference.”

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