Fort Worth Nature Center marks 50 years as ‘outdoor laboratory’

04/24/2014 4:50 PM

04/24/2014 7:47 PM

One hundred years ago, Fort Worth just wanted clean water.

Fifty years later, determined Audubon Society members just wanted a small nature preserve where they could watch birds.

That the two conservation efforts grew into Fort Worth’s wild green jewel is “all about karma,” Rob Denkhaus said.

The 3,621-acre Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge, one of the largest city-owned nature preserves in the country, marks its 50th birthday this year as an unmanicured wild haven within sight of downtown’s skyscrapers.

The first of several anniversary events will be held Saturday when the Friends of the Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge hold a VIP celebration dinner, “Fort Worth Wild,” featuring Carter Smith, executive director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

But the party wouldn’t be complete without paying homage to city leaders who built Lake Worth in 1914 and then bought the land around it to preserve water quality, said Denkhaus, the refuge’s natural resource manager.

“We’re celebrating 50 years, but those couldn’t be celebrated if there hadn’t been the 50 years prior to that where nobody came in and screwed the place up,” he said. “They didn’t want it developed. They were really farsighted folks. They had the foresight to see that as a problem and to protect it.”

Equally important was a “bold experiment” in 1964 by the Fort Worth Parks Department and a group of Audubon Society members to establish the 380-acre natural area on and around Greer Island, where the West Fork of the Trinity River becomes Lake Worth, said Tony Burgess, a retired professor in TCU’s department of environmental science who now lives in Homer, Alaska.

Three years later, the city expanded the refuge to more than 3,000 acres, creating an accessible urban wilderness of wetlands, thick forests and plant-rich prairies that harks back to how much of the region once appeared.

“Having the whole upper watershed protected is a remarkable accomplishment for the city,” Burgess said. “You have an entire wetlands ecosystem within the city limits functioning like it did 200 years ago, in the presence of an urban population.

A wilderness snapshot

The refuge is like a state park within the city, said Suzanne Tuttle, who started working at the nature center 21 years ago and has been its manager for nine years.

“You can really feel like you are out in the wilderness. All you can hear are birds calling and armadillos rustling in the leaves. You can really get that snapshot of Texas in 1700,” she said.

Many cities have nature areas, but the scale of the Fort Worth refuge makes it different, Denkhaus said.

What was also fortuitous was the makeup of the land that the city bought through eminent domain.

“They didn’t know it, but they took the most diverse piece of property in Tarrant County,” he said, noting that the refuge contains all eight of the soil associations found in the county.

“It’s just amazing that an area so diverse just happened to be set aside. It’s all about karma,” Denkhaus said of the refuge, which was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1980 by the National Park Service.

“This is the only spot where all eight of them are found in an area of 3,600 acres,” Denkhaus said. “If you have diverse soils, that leads to diverse plant communities, which leads to diverse animal communities.

“Which is why I’ve always said we have everything that we’re supposed to have in this part of Texas, plus a few extras,” he said.

997 plant species

Bob O’Kennon, a research scientist at the Botanical Research Institute of Texas in Fort Worth, said the extras are still being discovered.

Over 42 years of studying the preserve, O’Kennon has compiled a plant list of 997 species found there. He has added 30 in the last year alone, including two new plants that he’s still working to describe.

“That’s a lot for an area that big. There’s a pond that has 308 species in 1.7 acres, which is insane. And the thing is, most of it’s water. It’s phenomenal,” said O’Kennon, who sits on the board of the Friends group.

Rick Sheperd, a retired doctor and the president of the 850-member Friends group, which was established in 1974, said the nonprofit provides $160,000 to $180,000 a year to the refuge, which had a budget of $755,000 in 2013.

“This is a special place in the standpoint that you can come out here and still be within the city limits but it’s an absolutely wild environment,” Sheperd said during a walk on Greer Island, a wetland teeming with bird life that was the initial 55-acre incubator for the refuge.

The refuge has essentially become an outdoor laboratory for the natural world, he said, noting that maintaining its “wild state” is the group’s biggest goal. The Friends also own and pay the bills for the refuge’s 40-year-old bison herd as well as provide funding for staff and other needs.

One of the group’s goals is to generate funding to restore Broadview Park, which contains the remnants of another twist in the history of the refuge.

For a short time in the 1930s, it was known as State Park 31, and a company of Civilian Conservation Corps workers hand-built most of the refuge’s roads and trails, as well as a stone outhouse, an outdoor banquet area, dozens of picnic tables and three lookouts over Lake Worth.

But the park idea was jettisoned and the land reverted to the city. Over the years, the elaborate stone structures fell into disrepair.

Two other historical remnants live on in the refuge, which is home to alligators, bobcats, deer and around 300 bird species.

Sitting almost in the middle of the center are private residences where once stood a lodge owned by the Swifts, who owned the packinghouse bearing their name in the Fort Worth Stockyards.

The Swift family sold the acreage in the 1940s and it was parceled out and developed, Denkhaus said, noting that around 20 homes are still inhabited. The refuge buys them when they come available and now owns nine houses and 19 lots.

“We have never approached anybody. They have always approached us. Most of them are good neighbors. They know what they’ve got in their back yards, and they play security for us at night,” Denkhaus said.

Part of the refuge’s nine-person full-time staff works in a service center that was built as a church-owned alcohol rehabilitation center that leased the land from the city.

It closed in the early 1980s, but workers still find stashes of liquor bottles around the site, Denkhaus said.

A volunteer army

Lani Aker, a Fort Worth paralegal, has been retreating to the refuge since 1981.

“It’s beautiful out there. It’s an escape to the country, the peacefulness, the quiet, getting back to nature,” said Aker, who for five years has worked on Saturdays as a volunteer in the group Natural Guard, which maintains trails and footbridges, feeds the bison and uproots invasive plants.

Last year, volunteers contributed 7,802 hours of labor to the refuge, the equivalent of more than three full-time workers, Tuttle said, noting that the Friends’ contributions are “extremely critical” to its operations

“We would be so hamstrung if we didn’t have their support,” said Tuttle, who started visiting the nature center as a child in the 1960s.

For Denkhaus, the allure of the wilderness within the city, which draws 50,000 visitors a year, is encountering the next surprise.

“You may have driven a road or walked a trail a thousand times, but you never know when a bobcat or a wildflower display is around the next bend. There’s just little exclamation points scattered around the park as you walk about,” he said.

Burgess sees the refuge as an antidote to “nature deficit disorder.”

“It’s priceless. There’s nothing else approaching it in another Texas city. The nature center is a gift.”

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