Time runs out on fight to preserve Fort Worth prairie

Posted Sunday, Jul. 14, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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A determined grassroots effort to preserve a pristine patch of prairie south of Fort Worth appears to have run out of time.

Dubbed the Fort Worth Prairie Park by Jarid Manos, who spearheaded the long-odds preservation attempt by a small group of conservationists, the 2,000 acres are set to be sold by the state’s General Land Office, which bought the property for $21 million in 2005 as an investment.

“The General Land Office is not the parks department. Our job is to put money in the Permanent School Fund,” said Jim Suydam, a spokesman for Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and the land office.

The sale of the property, known by the land office as the Rock Creek Ranch, is on the School Land Board’s agenda for Tuesday. Suydam said he could not reveal details on the pending sale.

Manos, the founder and CEO of the Great Plains Restoration Council, which blends prairie preservation and youth programs, said the land represents a “national park-like” opportunity.

“The GLO may kill the prairie, which is the last of any landscape-level wild prairie in Dallas and Tarrant counties, and most people may not even notice its death. But the loss of such a gift to generations of youth and adults — what they could have had — is pretty significant,” Manos said.

“We’ve never accepted that the original Queen City of the Prairie would only be able to experience wild prairie in the 19th-century paintings of the Sid Richardson or Amon Carter museums,” he said.

Path of development

The property, 18 miles south of downtown Fort Worth just east of Benbrook Lake, is now bisected by the under-construction Chisholm Trail Parkway, which is why the General Land Office bought it, Suydam said.

“Where the roads go is where development goes. That’s why we purchased the property,” he said, noting that Patterson had talked to both Manos and the Nature Conservancy and “basically gave them time to raise money and purchase it.”

“We’ve been talking to people for years [about selling the property] but the economy and the real estate market has picked up,” Suydam said.

Greg Hughes, a systems engineer for Lockheed Martin and a member of the Friends of the Fort Worth Prairie Park, said the land is a verdant remnant of the once-vast prairie around Fort Worth.

“It’s remarkably healthy. It’s never been plowed. It’s never been grazed in an unhealthy fashion, so it’s got a rich diversity of plant and animal life. It’s truly unique,” he said.

“If it’s turned into a developed property, it will pretty much be an irreplaceable loss,” Hughes said.

Jo Ann Collins, a master naturalist and member of the friends group, said the group’s main goal was to get the word out about the land’s value and its connection to the area’s heritage.

“It has literally been a grassroots effort: We’re trying to save the grasslands. Here in Fort Worth, we tend to spread out and cover things up. Green space is mowed grass,” she said.

Susan Tuttle, manager of the Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge, said she became familiar with the property when she used to buy native grass hay for the refuge’s buffalo herd from the previous owner.

“It’s a very pretty prairie. There are still some large landowners with prairie, but to have one that is a couple of thousand acres, especially so close to the city, is pretty unique,” she said.

Dogged campaign

Manos has waged a tireless campaign to turn the property into a public prairie.

The land is behind a locked gate, but he wrangled access from Patterson and has regularly led school kids, scientists and conservation activists, as well as government officials — including the land commissioner — on hikes across the tall grass prairie, with a scenic run of Rock Creek.

“Jarid’s worthy of consideration. He’s a sincere, honest guy,” Patterson told the Star-Telegram in 2010. “But I can’t give the land away. I have a fiduciary responsibility. It’s all a matter of the rate of return. It’s risk versus return. We’re in the business of making money.”

In 2007, Manos persuaded the Tarrant County Commissioners Court to make a $1 million commitment for seed money. He cajoled Texas Parks and Wildlife Department leaders into walking the land and considering it as a park purchase.

Parks officials, who were then looking for a new park site near Fort Worth, ultimately decided to find a bigger property and bought a site near Mineral Wells.

The General Land Office sold a 70.8-acre parcel for $1,047,400 for the Chisholm Trail Parkway right of way.

Manos then persuaded the North Texas Tollway Authority to minimize lighting on the parkway to protect the night sky.

“He’s pretty persuasive. They never contacted us — and we own the land,” Suydam said with a laugh. “Jarid doesn’t have a lease, but he has buffalo out there.”

The friends group will hold a public hike on the property at 10700 Old Granbury Road at 6:30 p.m. Sunday in remembrance of one of the buffaloes that recently died, Collins said.

Manos also helped facilitate a land swap with the land office and a private property owner who has placed a conservation easement on 235 acres along Rock Creek.

Manos thought that was the first step in a phased purchase of the land as funds were raised.

“We were moving forward with the agreed-upon plan, till this surprise,” he said.

Manos’ determined effort impressed but did not sway the land office, Suydam said.

“Jarid has done some great work. He has done an amazing job in pulling together interest on this — just not money,” he said.

Collins concedes that the land office is doing its job.

“They are raising money to sell to the highest bidder,” she said.

Tuttle said that’s the office’s mandate.

“To support the state fund, their job is to buy things, hold them and turn them over for profit. That was a wise purchase on their behalf,” she said.

Manos doesn’t buy it.

“The GLO often says they are doing this for the schoolchildren of Texas, but if that is so, let the school kids — and those of us who are their parents — vote. Don’t kill one of Texas’ rarest ecological jewels in our name.”

Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981 Twitter: @stevecamp

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