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HISTORICAL – Houston’s Wilderness Preservation Pioneer

3-ONC Black Scrapbook Ladies

An early 20th-century outing of the Outdoor Nature Club.


Joseph Heiser founded The Outdoor Nature Club (ONC) in 1923. A politically active, amateur conservationist, Heiser organized the ONC to promote wilderness recreation along the Texas Gulf Coast and establish a forum for conservation issues.

Early in the 1920s, Heiser noticed that the Christmas harvest of holly along Buffalo Bayou had grown from family tradition into a commercial industry.   Because overconsumption of holly was a problem in several regions of the United States, Heiser began a nationwide letter-writing campaign.

Through ONC, Heiser asked that communities across the country post notices in public libraries, write to civic and women’s clubs, run editorials in newspapers, and broadcast from radio stations.1   National groups responded, including New York’s American Museum of Natural History, the Carnegie Institution of Washington and the New York Zoological Society. Newspapers published editorials, and organizations, particularly the Garden Club of America, joined the campaign by disqualifying arrangements that contained holly.

At the state level, Heiser’s campaign succeeded by making the harvest of holly illegal under Section 28.03 of the Texas Penal Code, which included prohibition of transportation or sale of holly. Also at the state level, Heiser successfully promoted the mockingbird as the Texas state bird.

Heiser, along with members of ONC, spearheaded preservation, during the 1930s, of a sanctuary on Vingt-et-un Islands in Trinity Bay, after discovering a colony of nesting roseate spoonbills. Working with the National Audubon Society, ONC leased the island from the state and hired a warden.2   By 1931, ONC had established the sanctuary, banded the roseate spoonbills, and adopted the spoonbill as their organizational symbol.3   Every December since, ONC sponsors the Christmas bird count along the Texas Gulf Coast.

Often labeled Houston’s John Muir, Heiser was synonymous with ONC for the first half of the 20th century. The Spoonbill newsletter and ONC history offer parallels between the evolving ethos of the Sierra Club (originally a wilderness recreation group in California) and the ONC, the first wilderness recreation group founded in Texas.


  1. “Spare the Holly! Use Substitutes,” Open Letter from J.M. Heiser, November 1, 1924.
  2. Houston Audubon Society was not established until 1969.
  3. Outdoor Nature Club History, 1923-2003. Slide Presentation Script, Slides 23-26, 2004.
All photos and citations from the Outdoor Nature Club Records an the Joseph Heiser Papers, Houston History Archives, Special Collections, UH Libraries.

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Author Dr. Teresa (Terry) Tomkins-Walsh is historian and archivist for the Houston History Archives with the Center for Public History at the University of Houston. Located in Special Collections at the UH Libraries, the Archives collects historical documents on the growth and development of Houston with particular concentrations in energy, environmental and ethnic history. Contact her at tomkinswalsh@uh.edu.

Joseph Heiser as a young man.

Joseph Heiser as a young man.

Outdoor Nature Club's Spoonbill Logo.

Outdoor Nature Club’s Spoonbill Logo.

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