City set to open nature center

01/20/2014 10:26 AM

01/20/2014 10:27 AM

As the city plans to open its new Elmer W. Oliver Nature Park on Saturday, dozens of residents have found the 80-acre oasis of wilderness and trails on Matlock Road too tantalizing to wait for the official unveiling.

“I live right around the corner from it, so I’ve been walking it. I don’t know whether I should have or not,” said Paula Foxx, a yoga instructor who can vouch for the park’s tranquility. She’s thinking about teaching some of her classes there. “I enjoy that it’s really about nature. I guess it’s the simplicity that makes it so beautiful.”

City officials don’t see the early birds as trespassers so much as an indicator of high public interest in the park, which is as unique in the city for what it doesn’t have as for what it does have.

No baseball. No soccer. No playground. No biking. No manicured fields. And preferably no loud human noises.

But it does have a mile of crushed brown granite trails that wind through stands of pecan trees, oaks, hackberries, elms and junipers. They lead to ponds where students will study biology, to a scruffy, green field that will become a lake of bluebonnets in the spring, and to a cliff-top observation deck where you can touch the canopies of trees rooted along Walnut Creek 30 feet below.

And wildlife abounds, said Sam Kieschnick, who holds the city’s recently created job of nature education specialist, though he prefers answering to “naturalist.”

“We went out there with a birder two weeks ago, and in one hour we counted 18 different species,” he said, adding that their most interesting find was an Eastern Towhee, which sports a robin-like breast and black cap. “The other thing about the park: when you go out there, you will hear nature, not just see it.”

Kieschnick and other city park staff have put together a wide range of activities for the grand opening of the $3 million first phase of the park, set for 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. It will feature speakers at the top of each hour, along with trail walking, bird watching and, for the kids, tadpole watching and pet-rock making. Live owls, hawks and reptiles will be showcased.

There will be no public parking on opening day at the park. Visitors can park at Mansfield High School, 3001 E. Broad St., and take free shuttles to and from the park beginning at 9 a.m. For more details, go to www.OliverNaturePark.com

Oliver is the only nature preservation park among the city’s 14 parks, so it will dominate Kieschnick’s time. He’s already lining up tours and activities for the weeks and months that follow.

“This park is going to be special in that there are teaching tools all around me,” he said.

The first phase, which started construction last March, also includes a natural amphitheater, a bridge, picnic areas, restrooms and parking. The second phase, also $3 million, will focus mostly on extending the 12-foot-wide concrete trail of the Walnut Creek Linear Park to its conclusion 2.75 miles away at Joe Pool Lake. The second phase is set to begin in 2015 and conclude in 12 months.

The $7 million final phase includes a roughly 8,000-square-foot nature education center and 2,000-square-foot learning lab and is expected to be finished in 2018.

The park is the culmination of talks that started about 20 years ago between the city and the Williams family, a relationship sparked by a city employee who was captivated by the seemingly untouched expanse of woods and hills.

Cathy Anderson, who was parks and recreation director and retired in 2008 as assistant city manager, reached out to Marianne Williams about selling the land to the city and found her agreeable.

One day, with permission, Anderson and then-City Councilwoman Linda Herndon took out for a hike on the land.

“We walked way up into the property, where there were beautiful bluebonnets and two or three ponds,” Anderson recalled. “I saw a metal sign on the ground. I kind of kicked at it, and then out came these bees, and one got me right on the lip.”

That didn’t deflate her interest in the park concept. She continued periodic talks with Williams, who shared Anderson’s enthusiasm, but Williams didn’t give the green light until she fell ill with terminal cancer.

“She said she wanted that to happen before she died,” Anderson said. “We were both crying on the phone.”

Williams died during the sale negotiations. The $1 million deal closed in early 2004. The park is named for Marianne Williams father, who originally purchased the land in the 1960s.

Kelly Williams Sr. said his wife didn’t want a developer to have their land to turn into more of the same – albeit upscale -- housing subdivisions that have encroached on it over the years.

“Marianne loved her dad and loved the farm,” Williams said. “She always called it the farm. It was a good place to have family reunions and get together and go play.”

The project slowed down after the city bought the land, partly because of the economic downturn. It wasn’t until 2010 when the city hired a consultant to design the park.

“We needed the time and the money to do that,” said city spokeswoman Belinda Willis. “It’s a big piece of property, and it’s untouched. You want to do right by this project. The family wanted to see this as a natural oasis in the middle of Mansfield.”

A city bustling with development, Mansfield needs the sanctuary of a nature park, Anderson said.

“As the city is growing, larger homes being built but with smaller yards,” she said. “I don’t think kids are getting a chance to learn nature. We want kids to understand the importance of having a habitat for the wildlife, and getting to know what exists among us.”  

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