Spring wildflowers are breathtaking at the hilltop prairies of Tandy Hills Natural Area. Photo by Don Young.
Nov. 4, 2022
Jeff Sargent's words sounded grim:
"North Texas is one of the fastest-growing regions in the U.S. On average, Texas loses 250 rural acres per day to urban development. Natural habitats are fragmented, and the species that depend on them disappear. Valuable farm and ranch land fall out of production."
But as the development director of the Native Prairies Association of Texas spoke to the prairie enthusiasts gathered for the People for Prairies conference in Flower Mound last month, he offered a reason to hope:
"People have been rediscovering the health benefits of nature: physical and mental health, clean air and water, and resilience in a changing climate," said Sargent. "Some cities also recognize the benefits of native biodiversity in urban landscapes and plan for it."
Prairie enthusiasts listen to speakers at the Native Prairies Association of Texas’ People for Prairies event held in Flower Mound last month. Photo by Amy Martin.
At NPAT's event in early October, spirits were high at the River Walk Hall in Flower Mound.
It's a rare treat to gather so many people that share the same passion: prairies. The broad mix included prairie stewards and managers — some professional, some volunteer — and native plant nerds who adore prairie flora.
At most tables, conversation themes spontaneously arose, creating informal working groups. Event-goers discussed propagating plants, grass identification, grassland birds and working with organizations and municipalities. The air was dense with ideas and creative exchanges, redolent with determination.
After a seated dinner and a vigorous "paddle raise" fundraising, a challenging panel took the stage to exchange varied perspectives. From urban planning and corporate development to natural resource managers, all sought grass-based open space solutions.
GSDFW reporter Amy Martin peruses the prairie remnant at Chisholm Trail Community Park in Fort Worth. Photo by Scooter Smith.
Fort Worth leads the way in prairie conservation with a foresighted and dedicated approach to open space, trying to get ahead of its explosive population growth rate curve. The city's park department recently secured hundreds of acres of precious Eastern Cross Timbers and Fort Worth Prairie.
But Cowtown's commitment goes beyond parklands, according to Brandi Kelp, senior planner and Open Space Conservation coordinator for Fort Worth.
"We're also looking at ways to purchase properties where we can sell off the front half along the roadway for mixed-use development," said Kelp.
"This enables people to shop, go to the coffee shop, grab their pizza, and then head out on the open-space trails. So these are the types of things that we're looking at that integrate open space as a development tool and encourage higher density development along these open spaces."
Fort Worth’s Open Space Working Group started in 2019, and includes 12 departments that meet weekly. Kelp said the group is also garnering research support from Trust for Public Land.
“This allowed us to succeed in conserving high-quality natural areas,” said Kelp. “We are trying to capture those spaces that are still left — our beautiful woodlands and our prairies — and make those publicly accessible for future generations.”
Another progressive nature-based city approach is arising in Lewisville, blessed with natural wonders like Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Center, the Trinity River's Elm Fork corridor, and a smattering of remaining wild space along southern Lake Lewisville.
A vibrant prairie restoration at Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Center. Photo by Angilee Wilkerson.
Lewisville Mayor TJ Gilmore, NPAT's City Steward Award recipient for 2022, spoke highly of the city's Thrive Nature Park. The conventional park parcel is being shepherded back into natural native Texas forest and prairie, aided by Elm Fork Master Naturalists and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
DEVELOPMENT WITH NATURE IN MIND
David Littman, Chief Executive Officer of Travel Funders Network and founder of Hotels.com, brought in a corporate perspective. Littman works with Garrett Boone and Greenspace Dallas to help rehabilitate the prairie at Harry S. Moss Park in Dallas.
"We know what we need to attract if we want to live in a wonderful environment. We are like Los Angeles 30 years ago. Now there is almost no nature within that city left. Creeks are concrete channels. We can do this historic thing here, a great opportunity, by saving the urban environment and through restoration."
Chris Hamilton, environmental manager and associate principal for Peloton Land Solutions, emphasized that corporate campuses must be integral to rescuing prairies. He highlighted Bluestem Park, a 16-acre restoration project in north Fort Worth, for Hillwood Development Company, a Perot company, which he described as very forward-thinking.
"It's a true prairie restoration, but instead of an engineer drainage channel for rainwater, we did a stream restoration project that's fully functional, sensitive and sustainable. We see a lot of people on their lunch break together, doing a walk in the park and enjoying the birds. I think it's something that's got legs, and we can take this out to other developers in other communities," said Hamilton.
Brandon Belcher, North Texas preserves manager for the Nature Conservancy Texas, gave a reflective talk about land stewardship and generational responsibility. Photo by Amy Martin.
With under five percent of Texas in state or national protection, NPAT recognizes that private lands are crucial to saving prairies. The final panelist was Mary E. Del Olmo, president of Bartush Land and Cattle Company, 3,500 acres along the Red River in North Texas. Their regenerative ranching program focuses on soil health: no fertilizer, no or few herbicides and prescribed burning for brush control. Cattle do not receive grain feed. Instead, cows are rotated briskly through grazing pastures so they feed on young nutritious grass.
"Those small pockets are needed, said Del Olmo, referring to prior speakers. “But we also need large swaths of land for wildlife and water conservation. People protect what they know and what they understand. And they spend their money on the things they know and understand. There are some barriers to helping people living in the city understand what we're doing in rural areas."
To make conservation ranching affordable, the Bartush ranch offers lodging and event space, hunting and fishing, and other services. Photo provided by Bartush Land and Cattle Company, courtesy of NPAT.
Del Olmo closed with a plea for educating North Texans about the progressive ideas discussed during the evening.
“Developers must consider pocket prairies and trails instead of manicured parks in their subdivisions. We must encourage people to plant native grass lawns instead of Bermuda lawns or St. Augustine. And we need to landscape with native plants. Finally, as individuals, we need to stop supporting the major meatpacking monopoly in this country, stop supporting the corporate farms that are putting small farmers out of business with produce brought in from overseas, and buy our food locally."
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