Local college students Kimberly Villarreal, Jacob Estes and Paige Priddy served as interns at Tandy Hills Natural Area, funded by a grant from the North Texas Community Foundation's Conservation and Environment Fund​. Photo by J.G. Domke.

Aug. 24, 2023

While many North Texans hunkered down inside during one of the hottest summers on record, some local college students shook off the heat and spent the last two months gaining real-world experience in the great outdoors.

When Kimberly Villarreal applied to be an intern at the Tandy Hills Natural Area in Fort Worth, the University of Texas at Arlington senior said she just thought it would be a fun way to spend time outside before her last semester. 

“As someone who is passionate about conservation and natural resources, I was interested in finding a project that focuses on just that and gaining essential hands-on experience,” she said.

The summer job is a pilot program funded by the Conservation and Environment Fund at North Texas Community Foundation, says Michelle Villafranca, park operations and natural resource planner for the city of Fort Worth’s Park and Recreation Department.

For the inaugural internship, the city of Fort Worth hired three college students to train in natural resources management at the 200-plus-acre prairie remnant, which includes Tandy Hills, Stratford Nature Area and the recently aquired Broadcast Hill property. 

Villarreal, who graduates in December from UTA, with an environmental science degree, was part of the team along with Paige Priddy, who will be starting her sophomore year in Wildlife Sustainability at Tarleton State University, and Jacob Estes, who is hoping to transfer from Tarrant County College to study forestry at Stephen F. Austin State University. 

Over the summer, the newbies were schooled in trail maintenance, mapping and serving as park ambassadors. 

The latter included “enlightening visitors about the significance of the prairie while familiarizing them with park regulations,” said Villarreal, diplomatically.

In the past, that task that has befallen Don Young, cofounder of Friends of Tandy Hills Natural Area, who lives across the street from the park. Over the years, he has chased down a plethora of four-wheeler drivers, horseback riders and a steady stream of commercial photographers without permits, which are all prohibited in the park.

“The interns are really good with that kind of stuff,” said Young. “They are wearing official shirts and caps. No one ever paid as much attention to me as they do with someone in authority. ”

Kimberly Villarreal, Paige Priddy and Jacob Estes study the flora of Tandy Hills prairie remnant with a backdrop of the Fort Worth skyline. Photo by J.G. Domke.Kimberly Villarreal, Paige Priddy and Jacob Estes confer about a plant at Tandy Hills prairie remnant with a backdrop of the Fort Worth skyline. Photo by J.G. Domke.


When the interns weren’t policing, they were slowly being introduced to a wild landscape unknown to many city kids, even life-long residents of the area.

“I’ve lived in Fort Worth almost my whole life,” said Estes. “I never knew what a rare and beautiful prairie ecosystem was native here,” he admitted. “I’ve grown to love and adore the grass-based lands that we are starting to see disappear.” 

Out in the field, the crew carried backpacks with water, first-aid kits and an assortment of big and little clippers, hand saws, gloves and notebooks. They followed existing trails, removing branches blocking paths, even once having to remove a fallen tree. They pruned sprawling shrubs and documented plants.

“The most fun day was when we explored the dry creek basin to see if we could find the rumored pick-up truck,” said Priddy.

Narrow Leaf Gumweed spotted at Tandy Hills Natural Area. Photo by Paige Priddy.

Their workweek started on Wednesday at 7:30 a.m. where they worked outside till noon. Then on Saturday and Sunday, they worked in the evening from 4 p.m. till 8:30 p.m. As the summer heated up, the interns’ weekend field time didn’t start till 6 p.m.

During those hours, they observed the local wildlife creep out, including residents who stopped by after the heat waned to photograph Fort Worth downtown at sunset. 

The trio would sometimes do a vegetation survey, which involves identifying every plant in a quadrant running one meter by 50 meters. They noted native and nonnative plants, the presence of leaf litter or bare ground, insects, soil, etc.

They posted photos on iNaturalist. Even in late summer, when most Texans think everything has dried up, they recorded a few native plants blooming. 

“You can find patches of sunflowers buzzing with pollinators and birds flying over trees searching for their next meal — an experience that is difficult to get in the city,” said Villarreal.


While you might expect heat to be the most daunting feature of the job, the interns said they got acclimated. Instead it was other worries of park management that stuck with them.

Estes, who hopes to work for the U.S. Forest Service or National Park Service next summer, said the human abuse of the land was sometimes disheartening.

Kimberly Villarreal, Paige Priddy and Jacob Estes study the flora of the Tandy Hills prairie remnant. Photo by J.G. Domke.

He said they found dumpsites, evidence of fires, spent fireworks and trampled grasses and flowers. 

“It’s challenging to see this kind of destruction or disrespect to an area, which is already scarce,” said Estes, who has also considered a career in wildland firefighting. 

White Rosinweed in late summer at Tandy Hills Natural Area. Photo by Jacob Estes.

In addition, like most natural areas, the park is plagued by invasive plants, including the ever-present privet, nandina, Johnson grass, Heavenly Bamboo and Sweet Scabious. 

“I have a new perspective on how much the local Fort Worth prairie ecosystem needs help,” Priddy said.

Overall, the internship, which ended last weekend, was deemed a huge success, by their supervisor Villafranca.

“They accomplished so much,” said Villafranca on their last day. “I’m so proud of them.” 

Villafranca hopes to make this internship a permanent program.

Julie Thibodeaux contributed to this report.


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