Feature: Wednesday, September 8, 2004
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The Engelmann sage and bluestem that Don Young cherishes are threatened by fast-spreading woodland.
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A fading sign explains the fading prairie.
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Firefighters spray down an Aug. 23 wildfire at Tandy Hills Park.
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Wayne Clark admires a tall patch of big bluestem.
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For years, Joe Kuban was unaware of the nature preserve only minutes away from his Nolan High School classroom.
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Saving a Patch of the Past

Local naturalists are worried that Fort Worth’s last grasslands are in danger.

By JEFF PRINCE

Don Young is upset over the prospect of a huge, noisy rig setting up next to his beloved Tandy Hills Park and drilling for gas beneath the nature preserve he has roamed for 40 years. He wants the city to take much better care of the rolling parkland just south of I-30 near Beach Street. Other nature-lovers agree. The high school ecology teacher just across the freeway wants to chop down most of the trees. A nature center director wants to set the park on fire. And if the city does drill, the tree-hug... umm, the grass-huggers want some of that gas money to pay for the carnage.

No, it’s not the Twilight Zone, it’s just 21st-century Eastside environmental politics. Smokey the Bear has left the room, trees are bad, and folks like Don Young think the fight over gas drilling is a great opportunity — to draw attention to the park’s neglect, at least. Other residents worry whether city officials, chasing the considerable profits possible from natural gas wells, are once again planning to give the East Side the smelly end of the stick.

In the middle of the battle is an important, fast-fading piece of Fort Worth’s past. There are no gravesites or statues here — those would be too new. It’s the land itself, and the grasses and wildflowers on it, that are historic in Tandy Hills. The park includes some of the few stretches left in Fort Worth of the prairie that once covered this part of Texas and the Midwest, one of the last places where current residents can see what the first settlers — and the earliest Native Americans — would have seen.

A nature-lover wearing a Panama hat and carrying a bamboo walking stick led the way along a narrow path beaten smooth by hikers’ boots. He chirped about the wildflowers, grasses, and trees he knows by heart. To some people, such as a neighbor who complained to the city, this field in Tandy Hills looks overgrown and in need of a mow. To Don Young, it’s a prairie paradise.

Settlers in the 1800s were spellbound by wildflowers around these parts. Vast grasslands stretched across North Texas, indeed all the way to Canada, with hardly a tree in sight for miles and miles. The heat and critters could be cruel, and the sight of the endless, windswept prairie drove more than one lonely settler back to civilization. Yet spring and summer’s rainbow colors softened the landscape; letters from this era inevitably mentioned the thrilling flora.

By the 1900s, however, ranching, farming, and early urban development had wiped out much of the natural vegetation. Million-year-old grasslands were plowed under, overgrazed, built on, and planted with crops, trees, and towns.

“That’s sideoats grama — the state grass of Texas,” said Young, using his walking stick to point out stalks of grass with oat-like seeds. Sideoats grama isn’t much to look at during August, but by fall it will turn a reddish hue and add another stroke of paint to this constantly evolving canvas, along with bluestem, buffalo, and Indian grasses. “Now this stuff here is Engelmann Sage,” Young said, motioning toward velvety lavender blooms. “It is extremely rare in this part of Texas. This may be the only place in Fort Worth where it exists.”

For decades, residents have driven on I-30 between Beach and Oakland streets, looked south, and probably wondered why such a large section of scenic hills has remained undeveloped. The land is a park overseen by Fort Worth Nature Center, but there is little signage and no parking lot. Only foot traffic is allowed. People in the West Meadowbrook area cherish the property, but it gets few visitors from outside the neighborhood.

“Old hippie” best describes Young, with his longish gray hair, cargo shorts, undershirt, hat, and stick. He was a young hippie when he roamed this same prairie in the 1960s. Back then, kids from Eastern Hills High School considered these hills to be their private nature preserve and party site. They came here to drink Ripple, smoke dope, smooch, and run around naked when the urge hit. Some of them learned to appreciate the big patch of natural wilderness that gave them a hidden place to exercise their young-human wildness.

In the 1980s, the hippies were replaced by people on four-wheelers and off-road bicycles, who ripped crisscrossing gashes of bike trails into the hillsides, killing plants and increasing erosion. Worse were illegal dumpers who tossed truckloads of tires, shingles, and other trash. Residents urged city officials to crack down, and the city chased away cyclists and erected a cable barrier to thwart dumpers.

This year, however, a new threat arrived. The city council is considering allowing horizontal drilling underneath the property, in order to tap into North Texas’ latest moneymaking craze — the huge supply of natural gas held within the Barnett Shale formation that underlies much of North Texas, from the Oklahoma border to south of Tarrant County. It’s one of the largest and richest of the United States’ dwindling natural gas fields.

City officials hope to make millions of dollars in gas royalties in the next dozen years, and they’ve pinpointed several prime locations for offsite drilling, including municipal airports, a wastewater plant, Gateway Park, Quanah Parker Park — and the pristine Tandy Hills.

“It’s like a bad dream come true,” said Young, who lives next door to Tandy Hills with wife Debora. “It’s breaking my heart that the city might drill on this land for any amount of money.”

Neighbors and environmentalists were not completely calmed by the city’s vow to drill from adjacent properties and prevent workers from driving trucks onto the parkland. Putting in a well means beating down a couple of acres next to the park for an access road and pad site, erecting lights, creating noise and odor, and “sticking a straw in the ground,” as drillers say. A strong oil and gas lobby, a supportive Bush administration, a local mayor with a background in the oil industry, and a city council eager for easy money to pad an always-tight budget add up to a worrisome scenario, Young said.

“Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile,” he said.

Greater Fort Worth Sierra Club conservation chairman Glenn Ford questions whether city leaders will keep drillers off parkland if big money starts talking. “They refuse to categorically state they will never go onto parkland,” he said.

Most of the club’s 1,800 members are solidly against tapping into gas reserves underneath city parks. There is no doubt that gas drilling affects the land. For several weeks, a crew drills thousands of feet into the ground. Big trucks come and go. A tall derrick is built. Saltwater backwash is pumped out onto the ground into tarps that don’t do much to curtail the runoff. Afterward, a wellhead is mounted and activity at the site is reduced.

Harry Ledbetter lives on the East Side and enjoys morning walks at Tandy Hills with his dog, Sugar. He cherishes the obscurity and solitude. But he has no complaints against offsite drilling, even next to his favorite park. He worked in the oil and gas industry years ago and said the salt pits created from drilling in the Breckenridge area had no lasting environmental impact. “You’d cover acres of land with salt pits,” he said. “The land is now covered with trees and looks fine.”

Drillers point to technological advances that have created more efficiency and environmental safety than in previous eras. Horizontal drilling enables crews to tap into numerous reservoirs at once, meaning fewer wells need to be drilled and impact on surface land is reduced. Once it’s extracted, natural gas, used for heating and in power plants, burns cleaner than coal or oil.

Tapping safely into those veins, however, can get tricky. Gas lines can break. Fires can start. Groundwater supplies can be reduced or contaminated. Surface land can be scarred, wildlife scared away.

Despite the risks, natural gas drilling in North Texas isn’t going away. Prices are high, and Fort Worth is in the middle of a boom, sitting smack dab on a gaseous gold mine that might last for a couple of decades.

Environmental issues aren’t the only concerns. The Sierra Club leaders are among those wondering if the city’s preoccupation with drilling on the East Side shows a willingness to encroach on lower income neighborhoods composed of mostly black and Hispanic residents, rather than taking on the wealthier and more powerful residents in other areas who are quick to hire lawyers and threaten legal action when their quality of life is threatened. “In all the locations that have been named, I’ve never seen one area in west Fort Worth mentioned at all for drilling purposes,” Ford said. “I think [gas wells] are going to be put in areas where people are unable to protest and have to take what is dished out to them. The people on the West Side wouldn’t put up with all the traffic, the noise, the odor, the lights.”

City officials said private drillers determine drill sites based on criteria such as where the gas lies, who owns the mineral rights, and whether existing gas lines are available to connect to. The city is doing no drilling itself, only getting up-front bonuses and collecting a portion of profits earned by private drillers. Where they seek to drill is not based on the income or color of a neighborhood, said city officials. A million-cubic-foot well — not unusual in this area — could earn more than $1 million over 10 years. The three Eastside parks being considered for off-site drilling include a combined 740 acres, which could support several wells and produce several million dollars for the city.

City staffers said they think it highly unlikely that the city council would ever approve drilling directly on municipal land. But offsite drilling is proving too lucrative to ignore. The city’s theory: Drilling on private property is going to occur anyway, so allowing companies to drill horizontally underneath city property beefs up the city budget while causing minimal impact to city property. The city council is preparing to advertise for competitive lease bids from drillers. Public hearings will soon follow.

Even as the drilling debate heats up, however, environmentalists are worried about another menace looming over Tandy Hills, threatening more damage than all the cyclists, litterbugs, and gas drillers combined. It’s a problem that has prompted one of the city’s leading conservationists to predict a complete loss of the park’s unique grassland over the next few decades. “The real damage is not offsite drilling, it’s neglect,” said Fort Worth Nature Center director L. Wayne Clark.

The city’s failure to provide money and staff for land management at Tandy Hills means the park is being overrun with scrub trees and brush that are steadily choking out the natural grasses and wildflowers. The land will soon cease to be a historic landscape, and become just another stand of ash, mesquites, hackberries, and post oaks — pretty in their own way but hardly distinctive. “For any grassland to remain grassland, it has to be managed,” said Daryl Coffey, a master tree farmer, third-generation conservationist, and Tarrant County criminal court judge. “The city has obviously done a poor job with Tandy Hills.”

Motorists on I-30 used cell phones to call 911 after spotting a grassfire at Tandy Hills Park on Aug. 23. Firefighters quickly arrived and put out the blaze. Coffey and others, however, believe that a fire — a controlled one — is the best thing that could happen to the park. Long ago, fires and bison herds ensured that grassland remained grassland. Nowadays, bison are long gone and fires are extinguished as quickly as possible.

“The Comanche used to burn every other year,” Coffey said. “Burns kept the grass good for the game. If you leave land alone in Texas, it will grow up in mesquites and cedar trees and junk trees. If everything grows unchecked, it will turn into a thicket, and then a forest.”

North Texas has plenty of overgrazed ranches, plowed pastures, and trees. Meanwhile, examples of the grassland prairie that once dominated this area are almost non-existent. It’s best local example, Tandy Hills, is on course for extinction.

Coffey’s solution is the same as many other experts. “It needs a chain saw and a fire,” he said.

Prairies in North Texas were maintained by both natural and man-made influences. Wild animals, most notably bison, ate tons of grass, stomped the ground, and distributed seeds into the disturbed soil — effectively plowing, planting, and fertilizing in one fell swoop, or poop, as it were. Without fences or man-made obstructions, there was no overgrazing. Prairies were vast and luxuriant. Fires set by lightning or on purpose by Indians kept down the growth of trees. Local tribes knew that grasses, which come back more quickly than tree saplings, would grow lush after a fire, which also enhanced flowering and seed production.

European immigrants, with their farms and then towns at stake, feared fires and put them out as quickly as possible. Many environmentalists feared fires as well, because they could kill trees and wildlife. But burn-offs were later espoused by Aldo Leopold, an Iowa forester, conservationist, and author, whose “A Sand County Almanac” in 1949 helped change the way Americans viewed the land. Considered the founding father of wildlife ecology, Leopold advocated land management, including prescribed burns.

“Up until Leopold, everyone said to leave nature alone,” Coffey said. “Leopold said, ‘Manage it and we’ll make it better.’ ”

Coffey has a name for people who argue against land management: quasi-intellectual pseudo-environmentalists. “They have the mantra of ‘Leave it alone, leave it alone,’ ” he said. “Our designated grasslands are now being overgrown by trees. Look at the LBJ National Grasslands. Now it’s a bunch of brush, scrub oaks, and mesquites without much grass on it.”

Those who might have been supporters of Tandy Hills’ grassland status in many cases never knew about the park’s nature preserve status. Dr. Joe Kuban heads the science department at Nolan High School and has taught environmental science and ecology for almost 30 years. Nolan boasts one of the country’s longest-running high school ecology programs, and Kuban is noted for his far-flung field trips. Tandy Hills was donated to the city in the 1960s, yet Kuban only learned of the park’s existence in 1990. “I was going to Big Bend and Caddo Lake, and here was this beautiful, natural site just five minutes away,” he said.

The teacher and his students have become the park’s biggest benefactors. They use a $2,500 annual grant from Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company to study the vegetation, cut and remove trees, and pick up trash. The effort is a drop in the bucket. Students and volunteers can remove only a handful of trees each year, hardly enough to slow the transformation to forest. “Tandy Hills is being taken over [by trees],” he said.

Kuban is a firm believer in controlled burns but said Tandy Hills’ trees are so large and entrenched that fire won’t be enough to return the area to prairie. “Tandy Hills probably hasn’t burned in 90 years,” he said. “I don’t know that we could return Tandy Hills to its natural state without a lot of money and work.”

The city has shown some interest in the park, but not nearly enough, he said. Through the years the city has erected barriers to prevent dumping, encouraged volunteer clean-up efforts, and helped run off four-wheelers, but has dedicated little money or effort to managing the property. “There has been a lack of action by Fort Worth,” Kuban said. “Maybe we have to question what their priorities are.”

City priorities at Tandy Hills in the past don’t appear to have been based on opposition to the theory of controlled burns to maintain grasslands — just on opposition to spending green stuff there.

There was a time when Tandy Hills was on the city’s radar. In the late 1980s, Clark was assigned to do an environmental assessment there. He made near weekly visits to Tandy Hills for more than a year, scrutinizing the vegetation, and identifying nine different types of grasses and more than 100 species of wildflowers. “Studying a particular grassland is like reading a book; as each page is turned more of the story is revealed,” Clark wrote in his 1989 report. Big bluestem and other prairie grasses grew so thick that “the slopes of Tandy Hills Park are among the best in the county and I believe the best anywhere in the city of Fort Worth, including the Nature Center,” the report said.

Ditto for wildflowers: “Wildflowers are what really make Tandy Hills a special area,” he wrote. “Tandy Hills wildflowers are in the right place and the right amounts (almost all pioneer accounts mention the beauty and number of wildflowers) and it is from my observations the best place in Fort Worth for native wildflowers.”

The study offered three options for management. The first, which could best be described as doing nothing, meant brush and trees would overtake the park sometime between 2010 and 2040. A second option involved saving what was left of the grasses and wildflowers through brush clearing and prescribed burns. The last and most expensive option, dubbed a “restoration,” included removal of woody growth, reseeding disturbed areas with seeds from local genetic stock, prescribed burns, and transplanting wildflowers grown in the Nature Center’s nursery.

Clark acknowledged the parks department’s budget restraints. “It will take the time and attention of city staff to carry through any management plan,” he wrote.

The city took the first option.

Fifteen years later, Clark said, the gradual choking out of native grasses and wildflowers is occurring as predicted. He doesn’t blame city officials so much as he attributes the neglect to government’s common principle — squeaky wheels get the grease. Residents and activists haven’t squawked much about the park. And for every person who frets about trees overtaking the park, there’s another who complains about the high grasses. City leaders haven’t felt much pressure either way. “We can tell them it [land management] ought to be done and come up with a plan, but unless enough citizens are behind it, it just doesn’t happen,” Clark said. “When the city has to make choices of what to fund, they fund what the people are wanting.”

Restoring the park would be expensive. Hiring a person to manage the land and oversee volunteers would cost about $30,000 a year, plus another $10,000 or so in supplies and equipment. “To do any kind of active management costs money,” he said. “The Nature Center has learned that there are a lot of little birds in the nest chirping to be fed and only so much money being spread around.”

In a 1992 interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, a parks department supervisor said no management plan existed at Tandy Hills and there was little money to pay for one. The supervisor said a plan would eventually be developed. Eight years later, the city’s 2000 comprehensive plan — a sort of wish list — included restoration of the Tandy Hills prairie as a goal. Four years later, nothing has been done.

“I was surprised it was even in the plan,” Clark said. “The people putting this together — the Planning Department— saw that it was cool and we needed to do that [restoration], but nobody is pushing it. It would fall back on the parks department and on the citizens to some extent to say, ‘Why isn’t this being done?’ Now, there is nobody pushing for it.”

Clark suggested that anyone concerned about the loss of the native grasslands should call their city representative and become a squeaky wheel. Squeakers have been few, but that’s about to change, said West Meadowbrook Neighborhood Association president Jeff Empante. “Our neighborhood has been very complacent about things,” he said. “We weren’t prepared to mobilize people, but we are doing that now.”

Even if the activists unite in support of Tandy Hills, there is another obstacle — a feeling, even among those in the parks department, that the land is doomed as a grassland prairie. Clark’s own supervisor, Parks and Community Services’ acting assistant director Harold Pitchford, predicts Tandy Hills will become a wooded forest, and he doesn’t seem particularly concerned about it. “That’s the natural way that things happen,” he said. “That’s how forests get started. To say that it would always be native grassland is not true. Land evolves. It’s evolving from a native grassland to a stand of trees.”

Cutting the trees and re-establishing the native grasses and wildflowers wouldn’t be physically or financially feasible, he said. Controlled burns would be difficult because of the liability involved — residential and commercial properties are adjacent to the park. Smoke might obstruct visibility on nearby I-30, and wind changes could cause the fire to get out of hand. “If you want to manage a prairie grassland, you’ve got to be able to do controlled burns, and I don’t know that you will ever be able to do that at Tandy Hills,” he said.

Fort Worth Fire Capt. David Coble agreed that the dangers involved make a controlled burn unlikely. That leaves a tall task — cutting and removing thousands of trees. “Thinning may be the only answer,” he said.

Still, controlled burns have been used for 20 years without incident at the Nature Center, and the Tandy Hills site would be no different, Clark said. Prescribed burns involve a formula for determining fuel load, moisture, and wind speed and direction. “It’s almost like walking a dog,” he said. “You just walk the fire around. The danger is minimal to almost nothing.”

Tree removal in addition to controlled burns will be necessary to restore the grassland prairie but the Nature Center’s seven employees have their hands full caring for their top priority, the 3,600-acre sanctuary in far North Fort Worth. Several people interviewed for this story suggested a solution: Money earned through gas drilling could be dedicated to managing and restoring Tandy Hills’ prairie. If the city leases mineral rights under the park to private drillers, it stands to collect, on average, $1.25 million per well over the next 10 to 15 years. Tandy Hills could conceivably support two wells, earning the city $2.5 million.

Whether that money would go to the park is unclear. “The city council hasn’t made a determination on how they will budget or spend those funds,” said acting parks director Randle Harwood, who has asked that the city use the money for park improvement. “The city manager hasn’t made a recommendation on that either.”

City Council member Becky Haskin told Empante and the West Meadowbrook Neighborhood Association that she plans to propose reinvesting money earned from gas drilling at parks back into Tandy Hills and the parks department.

Doug Rademaker, head of the city engineering department, said a member of the city attorney’s staff is researching whether the city is limited on how profits may be used. The findings are to be presented to the city council this fall, Rademaker said, but the staff isn’t recommending that the council wait on that study before deciding whether to drill beneath Tandy Hills and other city parks, and who to give the leases to. “Our belief is we should go ahead and move forward,” he said.

Big bluestem, one of the prettiest grasses found in Tarrant County, still grows thick in parts of Tandy Hills. Clark stood amid a patch that reached more than five feet tall and ran his hands across the stalks, clearly enamored. “Unlike trees, grass doesn’t have rings around it that tell you how old it is, but this bluestem [patch] might be more than 100 years old,” he said.

He walked to the top of a hill and looked west toward downtown. Fifteen years ago, his view was unimpeded from where he stood. Now trees block his sight. He doesn’t care about the view of downtown so much as maintaining the landscape in its historic grassland state, with wildflowers scattered like colored corn. He sees the park as a museum, himself as a curator, and the wildflowers and grasses as the artwork. Just as people restore old paintings and show them in museums like the Kimball or the Amon Carter, Clark wants to restore Tandy Hills and preserve it for future generations.

Several city-owned properties include areas of grassland prairie, although Tandy’s is the biggest and best. Fort Worth could scout and document these areas, manage them, and develop an eco-tour that carries students, residents, and tourists to the various areas, he suggested. “If they put that together in some sort of comprehensive program, they could add that as another feather in the city’s cap,” he said. “They are really missing out on something they already own.”

The city’s lack of interest is disappointing to Clark, a short, stocky, friendly guy with blond hair and a gray mustache, who obviously loves nature and takes seriously his role in preserving it. He’s an environmentalist but in a practical way that sometimes offends purists. For instance, he didn’t hesitate to suggest trapping and killing feral hogs that were damaging the ecosystem at the Nature Center a couple of years ago.

Clark envisions a management plan for natural grasslands that involves tree removal, mowing, grazing by bison, controlled burns, and selective use of herbicides on stumps. Regardless of naysayers, Fort Worth can save its scant remaining prairies if people are interested and willing to pay, he said.

“We’ve never had the resources or a mandate to go in and do a management plan and figure what it’s going to cost,” the naturalist said. “We try to take care of the Nature Center first and then slip Tandy Hills in to keep it from falling into an unknown void of attention.”

The void is growing. Neighbors are becoming squeaky about gas drilling but most — having only recently learned of the grassy history at Tandy Hills — seem less interested in the overgrowth of trees. Clark’s is the strongest voice, but it will soon be lost — he is planning to retire next year and move to Colorado. The prairie’s future appears as dubious as that of the bison that once grazed there and the Indians who burned the prairie land because they loved and needed it.

Fort Worth grew up on a sparse prairie, and people shouldn’t forget their roots, said Nolan science teacher Kuban. “Tandy Hills sits in a precarious situation. If we don’t do anything it’s going to be a woodland, and that’s not what it was,” he said. “If you grow up on a prairie you need to know what a prairie is all about.” l


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