CEDAR HILL -- After a hard hunt for the remotest place they could find in Dallas County, David and Kim Hurt found the sweet spot for their dream home on a dead-end road that stopped at the lip of a 300-feet canyon.
But a deeper exploration of the thickly forested 65-acre property near Cedar Hill State Park revealed a "lost'' stand of flowering dogwoods that convinced the couple their "home paradise in an urban area'' was too special to keep to themselves.
Fourteen years later, their vision has become reality at the Dogwood Canyon Audubon Center at Cedar Hill, a 205-acre nature and bird sanctuary nestled in the Metroplex's version of the Hill Country, the White Rock Escarpment. The center, owned and operated by Audubon Texas, opened in September.
"This is an incredible place -- it's almost untouched by man,'' said Lee Papert, director of development and marketing for the center, which includes a 6,000-square-feet visitors center featuring classrooms, meeting rooms, a gift shop and a viewing room overlooking the small canyon.
The epiphany for David Hurt, an avid birder and amateur naturalist who owns Wild Birds Unlimited in Dallas, was when he stumbled upon about 40 flowering dogwoods, a species that is usually confined to the Piney Woods and post oak belts of Texas.
"You can imagine my surprise when I walked up on those dogwoods. They aren't growing in East Texas among pine trees. They are growing in a totally weird place among Hill Country trees like Ashe junipers," Hurt said.
"I realized when I found those dogwoods that it was a far better place for the public to enjoy than for my own family refuge."
There were other surprises in the woods, such as an 8-acre tract of rare trout lilies and flocks of uncommon birds, Hurt said.
The couple soon decided to start trying to raise money to secure options on adjacent properties with a goal of creating a bird sanctuary.
"There were 23 parcels of land and 16 landowners to deal with in Dogwood Canyon. We were kind of winging it,'' Hurt said with a laugh. "We didn't really know what we getting into."
They started with 17 donors who each chipped in $900. The Hurts then began working with the Audubon Society, which has focused on conserving and restoring natural ecosystems since 1883.
"They proposed that we give it to Audubon, and they said for every acre we gave to them, they would buy an acre,'' he said. "I thought that was pretty good."
The couple took the plunge, giving up about half of their net worth in the process, Hurt said.
"Kim and I aren't wealthy people. It takes a pretty exceptional partner in life to agree to that," Hurt said. "There was a lot of hardship. We were paying about $4,000 a month on land options, and it nearly killed us. It turned into an amazing ride."
In April 2001, fundraising gained traction when an Audubon group touring the canyon spotted golden-cheeked warblers, which hadn't been seen in Dallas County in 30 years.
The colorful warblers are the only bird that nests exclusively in Texas, and birders such as Hurt's friend Marty Leonard of Fort Worth wanted a glimpse, Hurt said.
Leonard got her look and then contributed $20,000, the first donation bigger than $1,000, he said. "She was the wind beneath our wings. She made us realize we had a good story,'' Hurt said.
But the wheels fell off the fundraising effort after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. "We almost pulled the plug. But Audubon was committed to it," he said.
Six months later, donors started emerging.
"It was the hardest work I've ever done to raise that money," Hurt said. "One year, I led 100 Dogwood Canyon tours between Feb. 15 and May 15 -- I lost 17 pounds."
The exercise paid off. Donors have contributed about $8 million, including more than $2 million from the family of C.E. Doolin, the co-founder of Frito-Lay, to build the visitor's center, Papert said.
What makes Dogwood Canyon special is its location at the confluence of East, West and Central Texas ecosystems, said Tania Homayoun, senior manager for conservation and education at the center.
"We have plants that you usually only find in East Texas, such as the flowering dogwood, and trees like Ashe junipers you find in Central Texas. And you have birds like the black-chinned hummingbird that you usually find farther west. It really is this meeting point of east and west," she said.
"Beyond that, it's extremely unusual to have a pristine piece of land in the middle of a metropolitan area. To have this space so close to downtown Fort Worth and downtown Dallas is pretty amazing," Homayoun said.
The Hurts gave up their dream spot for a home, but they have no regrets.
They bought a home owned by David's aunt and uncle that had 91 trees on the lot, including dogwoods planted in 1965.
"It isn't Dogwood Canyon, but it's good enough," he said.
Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981