Sarah Adloo, executive director of the Old-Growth Forest Network, and dendrochronologist Joe Buck examine a tree in a Cross Timbers remnant at the Fort Worth Nature Center last week. Photo by Michael Smith.
May 10, 2023
Last week, an ancient forest in Fort Worth received a venerable new distinction.
On May 5, a Western Cross Timbers remnant in the Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge became the first in Texas to be accepted into the national Old-Growth Forest Network.
Sarah Adloo, the network’s executive director, joined Fort Worth Nature Center staff and several Fort Worth dignitaries to celebrate the recognition.
“The Cross Timbers are not the tallest and they’re not the largest trees, but they contain centuries within those trees, and that’s magnificent,” said Adloo.
The Old-Growth Forest Network is a national nonprofit based in Maryland whose aim is to “identify and help protect one forest in each county of the U.S. where forests could grow,” according to their website. The forest at the Fort Worth Nature Center is the 200th such forest in the network.
Sarah Adloo, Old-Growth Forest Network executive director, speaks at the Fort Worth Nature Center ceremony. Photo by Michael Smith.
The organization was founded by Dr. Joan Maloof, after she became aware that almost all of the original forests in the U.S. have been logged or disturbed in some way. Only 1 percent remains in the eastern U.S. and 5 percent in the west.
For the Fort Worth Nature Center event, everyone gathered at the Cross Timbers Trail, a roughly 3.5 mile loop with views of the West Fork of the Trinity River.
Instead of a ribbon cutting, a log was strung across the trailhead, to be cut using a century-old crosscut saw. It was the kind of saw that once would have been used to cut down trees in this region, said Nature Center manager Rob Denkhaus.
Denkhaus said more than a hundred years ago, the city purchased land around the newly-built Lake Worth, to protect water quality. That was the beginning of a tradition of stewardship of these oak woodlands, which otherwise might have been cut down.
Today, the wooded area, filled with predominantly post oaks and blackjack oaks, features trees estimated to be more than 250 years old.
The trail leading deeper into the Cross Timbers Trail forest at the Fort Worth Nature Center. Photo by Michael Smith.
We think of old-growth forests as giant trees growing in remote wilderness. However, not all old-growth forests are huge.
It’s hard to pin down exactly what defines “old-growth.” A Forest Service report notes that the term has not been consistently defined, and their working definitions vary according to region and type of forest.
The common threads in definitions of old-growth include such things as the age of the forest, different tree sizes, the other members of the plant community, and the presence of some dead trees and logs.
A skink watches hikers from a tree trunk in the Cross Timbers forest. Photo by Michael Smith.
The Forest Service and the Old-Growth Forest Network both say that forests have cultural as well as ecological roles. They can represent history, a place of belonging or identity, and a source of learning and inspiration.
The old forests support a complex network of other species, providing refuges, nesting places, sources of food, as well as nurturing seedlings, sequestering carbon and building soil.
Several dignitariese spoke at the ceremony, including Marty Leonard, a supporter of the Nature Center from its early days. Leonard came up with the idea to seek the Old-Growth Forest Network status. She read about the nonprofit organization and passed the idea along to Denkhaus.
“I’m not what you would classify as a tree-hugger, but I’m a tree-lover, and have been for many years,” said Leonard.
Fort Worth City Council District 7 Representative Leonard Firestone lauded the Nature Center’s old-growth forest. He said the ceremony showed how much the city cares about preservation.
He also pointed to Fort Worth’s efforts to acquire natural spaces before they’re developed.
“Mayor Price and now Mayor Parker created something called the Open Space program,” Firestone said. “The mission of the program is to conserve high quality natural areas as the city grows, to provide environmental benefits and recreational opportunities that support economic development and enhance the livability and desirability of Fort Worth.”
The Old-Growth Forest Network ceremony was held May 5 at the Fort Worth Nature Center. From left in cowboy hat, City Councilman Leonard Firestone (accompanied by his daughter); Sarah Adloo; Dave Lewis; Rob Denkhaus; Marsha McLaughlin (former president of Friends of Fort Worth Nature Center); Marty Leonard; Haily Summerford (executive director of Friends of Fort Worth Nature Center); and Kelli Pickard (deputy assistant director, Parks Department.) Photo by Michael Smith.
Dave Lewis, the city of Fort Worth’s interim Park and Recreation director, also expressed his appreciation for the Fort Worth venue.
“[The Fort Worth Nature Center] is only a couple of miles from one of the biggest cities in the country, and you feel like you’re in a different world,” he said.
The Fort Worth city forester, Craig Fox, continued the praise for the 3,600-acre refuge, which features a diversity of ecosystems including woodland, prairie and marsh landscapes.
“It’s really a testament to the [efforts] of the staff, the support groups and volunteers that help keep it such a special place.”
Denkhaus reflected on some of the accolades the Nature Center has received over the 26 years he has been there and prior to his hiring.
In 1971, Greer Island Trail was designated as a National Recreational Trail by the U.S Department of the Interior.
In 1980, Fort Worth Nature Center was named a National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service.
In 2009, the Center was the recipient of the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department’s Lone Star Land Steward Award.
In 2016, the Center was named a Lone Star Legacy Park by Texas Recreation and Parks Society.
Meanwhile, the Center’s attendance and programs continue to expand.
Denkhaus attributes it to “a growing environmental awareness and increasing environmental ethic.”
“I think people are starting to value areas like this a lot more than they ever have,” he said.
Interim Park and Recreation director Dave Lewis, left, and Councilman Leonard Firestone try their hand at sawing the ceremonial log as Fort Worth Nature Center manager Rob Denkhaus looks on. Photo by Michael Smith.
For the “ribbon” cutting, several people tried their hands at sawing through the log using that antique, two-person crosscut saw. Denkhaus mentioned that in the days when it was used, this style of saw had a nickname: the “misery whip.” All of us who attempted it agreed that it was well-named. The cut frequently would bind the saw – it would get stuck – and the blade would have to be repositioned.
After anyone who was willing to try had taken a turn, Denkhaus finished the job with an electric saw.
INTO THE WOODS
Following the ceremony, several present took a walk down the Cross Timbers trail. I accompanied Denkhaus, Adloo, Leonard and dendrochronologist Joe Buck on a sunny, delightful walk.
The Cross Timbers Trail follows along the Trinity River channel at the beginning and then cuts back into the woods to circle an upland area with sandy soil, and mostly post oaks and blackjack oaks. The trail forms a loop, just over three miles long.
An American alligator cruises along beside the Cross Timbers Trail at the Fort Worth Nature Center. Photo by Michael Smith.
Along the way, we watched an American alligator taking a leisurely swim across the river channel and spotted a skink (a fairly large species of lizard) on a tree trunk.
In the forest, in the mornings or late afternoons, it is common to spot white-tailed deer walking or browsing among the trees, as birds call back and forth. Wild turkey, Virginia opossum, bobcat and nine-banded armadillos have also been sighted there.
That day, as we walked in the quiet, green forest, I think everyone present saw these historic woods in a new light.
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