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Coexisting with our Wild Animal Friends

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Tuesday, September 13, 7:00 PM, 2016 doors open at 6:30 PM.

Weiss Auditorium at Methodist Dallas Medical Center,

1401 Stemmons Ave., Dallas, TX 75208.   Park in lot B.

In light of the increased interest in wildlife activity in North Oak Cliff, Twelve Hills Nature Center and Methodist Dallas Medical Center are sponsoring a talk by Urban Biologist Brett Johnson on the topic of co-existing with our wild animal neighbors in Dallas.

The talk will be held at Weiss Auditorium at Methodist. The presentation will cover how to help with wildlife conservation in the city, and how you can reduce negative wildlife interactions. There will be a Q&A following.

Brett Johnson has worked for twelve years as urban wildlife biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. He joined the City of Dallas in 2015 as the Senior Environmental Coordinator/Urban Biologist for the Dallas Park and Recreation Department. Brett is one of the country’s leading experts on urban coyotes.

Doors open at 6:30. Light refreshments will be available. Please RSVP to twelvehillsnaturecenter@gmail.com .

Weiss Auditorium is at 1401 Stemmons (across from Pavilion 3). Parking will be available in Parking Lot B.

 

Advocate Poll “Best of Oak Cliff 2016” votes Twelve Hills “Best Place to Relax in OC”!

Thank-you, friends and supporters, for voting for Twelve Hills as Best Place to Relax in the Oak Cliff Advocate’s Best of Oak Cliff 2016 poll.  http://oakcliff.advocatemag.com/2016/08/advocates-best-oak-cliff-2016-recap/

Oak Cliff Culture   –    Best Place to Relax

Winner: Twelve Hills Nature Center
Runners-Up:
Wild Detectives
Lucky Dog Books
Nominees:
Golf Club of Dallas
Stevens Park Golf Course
Belmont Hotel

Twelve Hills is Awarded a TPWD Conservation License Plate Grant

Box 5 platesThe Wildlife Diversity Program is pleased to announce the winners of the 2016 Horned Lizard License Plate Grants. These pass-through grants are a valuable source of funding for the conservation community to conserve the natural resources of Texas. We are excited about the diversity of this year’s awardees, which include projects across the state, and include youth outreach, increasing wildlife viewing opportunities, habitat restoration, coalition building with the Teaming With Wildlife organization, and important research on rare and sensitive species.

See more at: https://tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/wild/wildlife_diversity/grants/conservation-plates/

 

North Texas Wild

Twelve Hills Nature Center offers Oak Cliff oasis

According to Marcie Haley, Twelve Hills Nature Center is a welcome anomaly in this part of town.

“In Oak Cliff, every piece of open land is being developed and yet here we are,” said Haley. “Twelve Hills is going to become more important as less and less open space is available.”

Haley is the director of the non-profit that oversees the five-acre oasis on Mary Cliff Road, south of I-30 near Stevens Park Golf Course in Dallas.

Wedged between St. Cecilia’s Catholic School, the Kessler Woods development and drainage to Combs Creek, Twelve Hills unfurls down a bumpy slope from a beautiful entryway of sandstone and native plants. The edges are thick with oak and cedar elms. The songbirds they host are vocal this summer morning, trilling and chirping and flying between the trees as Haley and I amble the walking trail around the preserve’s edges.

brown thrashers spring 2015 nBorja copy150914The focus of Twelve Hills is on birds and Master Birder volunteer Shannon Love has identified 51 species. The occasional rabbit has been sighted, along with lizards and small snakes, toads and frogs. The entrance garden plants are designed to attract butterfly species in all stages of development, with stone benches and walls providing a pleasant place to sit and observe the aerial beauty.

“The animal life is coming along,” said Haley, though she noted that the lack of a water feature is a drawback to attracting regular residents.

Native shrubs try to flourish in the understory but struggle through the invading privet. Small copses of trees and brush dot the central open space whose grasses and wildflowers show hints of its prairie origins.

“Jim Varnum, a very helpful person to me and the nature center in general, has been involved since the beginning,” said Haley. “He keeps the plant list and is up to 210 species.”

From Rubble Arises Beauty

The land where Twelve Hills resides was once an apartment complex of 12 buildings tucked amid 20 acres of trees. Built in 1950, after a few decades it trudged toward decrepit. The middle-class community that had grown to surround it demanded its demise, even though they loved the trees, and bulldozers took the buildings down. It remained as ersatz open space until 2000 when pressure for action reached a peak.

“Developers wanted it, St. Cecilia wanted it, and a group of neighbors arose that wanted to make the whole 20 acres into a nature center,” said Haley. “The school got its chunk and a developer, who had developed Kessler Woods, got the rest.”

But the open-space loving neighbors persisted and convinced the developer to sell them five acres back at a reduced price.

“Jennifer Touchet did an excellent job,” said Haley. “She raised awareness about the importance of a nature center to the neighborhood, and organized and led the effort to create Twelve Hills — from talking with city councilmen, circulating a petition, and obtaining nonprofit status.”

Twelve Hills incorporated as a nonprofit in 2005 and set up deed restrictions so the land could not be developed. Then began the long hard work of returning the neglected enclave to nature.

Healing the Land

Few sayings are more harmful to habitat preservation that to “let nature take its course.” Once an ecosystem has been disturbed, whether farming, roads or urban development, the forces that kept it in balance are forever sundered.

“Our biggest challenge is absolutely invasive plants. Privet, ugh” said Haley, echoing the sentiment of all North Texas naturalists who revile the flowering Chinese shrub.

Invasive foreign landscape plants like privet and nandina take over, killing the trees they find shelter beneath and creating monocultures. Local species do not relish the berries so they don’t support wildlife. Even opportunistic native trees like cedar elm will overgrow an area with brush and trumpet vines will crowd out native grasses and wildflowers.

It’s up to Twelve Hills volunteers to shape the land’s progress and maintain balance, from pruning and removing unwanted species, to seeding and planting desired ones. The lack of water for all but the front sections hinders their success as most plants require a year or two of supplemental watering to become established.

“I have a number of really dedicated volunteers out here,” said Haley. “John Wilt puts in a few days a week. He’s working the on the poison ivy. It was pretty much everywhere.”

A live oak competes with invasive privet.

This year’s plans include liberating from privet a large live oak called the Founders’ Tree. Also on the agenda is improving the appearance and diversity of grasses and wildflowers in the small pocket prairie that fronts the street, which already boasts a good spread of sideoats grama. Recently volunteers from North Texas Master Naturalists transplanted to Twelve Hills native blackland prairie grasses and forbs from a parcel being destroyed for development. Less than 2 percent of the blackland prairie ecosystem remains.

Growing New Naturalists

Twelve Hills is within walking distance of over 1,500 students ages 4 to 14, including adjacent St. Cecilia Catholic School and nearby Rosemont Elementary School of DISD, plus around 2,000 high school students. It serves as an outdoor classroom for the schools. In the Nature Leaders afterschool program at Rosemont the focus is on 5th graders taught by their teachers and master naturalist volunteers.

“It’s a 12-week program on the blackland prairie ecosystem,” said Haley. “We look at plants, animals and their relationships and their role in the prairie. As it nears the end of April, we shift to wildflowers. They also test the water and learn about water quality and watersheds, and learn a little bit about geology. We teach the students to lead nature walks. They develop talking points and then lead all their fellow students. They become role models.”

Haley pointed out that because the schoolchildren grow up with respect for Twelve Hills, they take ownership of it, picking up litter and watching for misuse by people of bad intent. Often times, she said, other classes come over on their own, just for the fun and fresh air.

“With their help and the help of our adult volunteers, we hope to see a prairie here some day with all those beautiful wildflowers and grasses,” said Haley, gesturing to the central open area of Twelve Hills. “We’ll use it to educate people, so when they see it they’ll have a sense of environmental stewardship and why the prairie needs to be preserved.”

A Deeper Sense of Nature

Paula Craig, a longtime neighborhood resident and Montessori teacher, has been involved with Twelve Hills from the start. According to Haley, the mission of the preserve is best summed up by Craig:

“There will be no more important concern in the next 20 years in lifestyle, business, recreation, theology and art than the natural environment and human use of resources. So one of the best gifts you can give your children is to start them early — yes, as toddlers — being in relationship to the natural world.”

Students collect seeds of native grasses.

Tagging-Monarchs-Bret-Turner,-Shelly-Kofler“Ground them in a deep understanding of nature. Children map on their bodies. They absorb the feel, smell, sounds of the earth that nurture all life. That knowledge will help shape their minds and nervous systems — that is, if their parents provide the child-sized experiences they need, valuing it over screen time and virtual living.”

 

Monarch Tagging

One Of Nature’s Most Amazing Migrations: Volunteers Tag Monarchs As They Move Through Texas

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During October Texans have a front-row seat for one of nature’s most amazing migrations — monarchs are moving through the state. And in West Dallas, some students are volunteering for a project that could help protect the species.

Nine members of the Nature Leaders Club at Rosemont Elementary gathered around their science teacher, Brett Turner, for some final instructions on how to tag monarch butterflies.

“The first thing we want to focus on is monarch safety,” Turner said. “When you do grab them make sure you hold them in the net.”
Sixth grader Candy Preciado wielded a butterfly net to catch monarchs for the tagging project.
Credit Shelley Kofler / KERA News

Armed with soft mesh nets attached to long wooden polls, they began a slow walk across the Twelve Hills Nature Preserve. Their mission: to carefully capture the world’s furthest migrating butterfly, and gently place an adhesive location tag the size of an eraser on a rear hind wing.

Joscelyn Segoviano, a sixth grader, knows just where to look for the fluttering, orange wings, laced with dramatic black veins.

“Right now the monarchs are coming back from Canada to Mexico,” she explained. “We’re looking for nectar plants because that’s probably where they’re going to stop and eat. That’s where we’re going to be able to catch them.”

Primetime for monarch migration

The odds of finding monarchs this time of year are pretty good because this is the height of the fall migration.

Last spring, monarchs passed through Texas as they flew north from their winter nesting grounds in Mexico, laying their eggs on milkweed and reproducing as they traveled. Those butterflies lived just three to five weeks.

This fourth generation that’s returning might live eight or nine months. Instead of reproducing, they’re saving their energy. They’re gorging on flower nectar to fuel a flight that lasts up to 2,000 miles and their hibernation until spring.

“This is one of the few organisms that actually gains in mass as it moves south. They need that gain because they live off that fat at the wintering sites in Mexico,” says Chip Taylor, the University of Kansas biologist who founded Monarch Watch, the tagging project for which the Dallas students have volunteered.

Herbicides a concern

In the past two decades, people have found more than 16,000 tagged butterflies and contacted Monarch Watch through the email or phone number on the tag. Taylor says the information is helping scientists understand the monarchs’ migration routes, how they’re affected by weather and how human activities might be contributing to a decline in the population.

Taylor says herbicides used on genetically-modified crops in the Midwest are a prime concern.

“They’ve come in there with Roundup-Ready corn and soybeans and they’ve spraying the fields with a herbicide and that has effectively eliminated milkweed from about 100 million acres of corn and soybeans. And that has driven the monarch population down,” Taylor says.

Taylor says protecting milkweed habitat in Texas is especially crucial because the monarchs pass through this state twice a year.

“Go to Mexico and be safe”

The West Dallas Nature Leaders are eager to do their part but they’re having a little trouble trapping their prey.

But Turner, the teacher, was prepared. He brought four captured monarchs just in case the students weren’t quick enough with their nets.

“Read me those six digits down at the bottom,” Turner told one student as he recorded the tag number, location of the release and the gender.

He told another student to peel the tag off a sticky sheet and carefully place it on the edge of a wing.

Cheers filled the preserve and students screamed “goodbye” as they released the tagged butterflies.

Sixth grader Candy Preciado was hopeful.

“I really want them to go to Mexico and be safe. And if somebody does catch them let us know,” she says.

She says she hopes to learn the butterflies tagged in Dallas make it home where they’ll begin the cycle of migration again next spring.

Why Mow?

Come early July, the vegetation at Twelve Hills will be mowed to a height of four to six inches.  Why have all the beautiful wildflowers been cut down, you wonder?

The intent is to restore and maintain Twelve Hills as an approximation of the blackland prairie ecosystem. Community members and school children will be able to experience a wildscape reminiscent of that present in this area when settlers arrived, before the land was drastically changed by the influences of modern man.

Prairies, diverse ecosystems of native grasses and forbs, interspersed with trees near bodies of water, stay that way because of the natural processes of recurrent fires and grazing by bison.  In an urban environment, these processes can not take place, so the land reverts to a forest.  Urban prairies are mowed twice a year to simulate the effects of  recurrent fires and grazing by bison.  This mowing takes place in early winter, after plants have set their seeds, and in July, to encourage the growth of grasses.  Mowing doesn’t work as well as fire to control non-native weeds, shrubs and trees, so some manual removal of invasive plants is necessary.

An urban oasis

Born from the ashes of crime-ridden apartments, the Twelve Hills Nature Center is a reclaimed refuge amid developed Oak Cliff.
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Twelve Hills Nature Center board president Marcie Haley sits at the center’s entrance. Creating the center was a community effort that took over 10 years to accomplish. Photos by Can Türkyilmaz

nature centerTraces of demolished apartments remain — scattered pieces of broken concrete, wire and pipe hidden among grasses and weeds. Yet this plot of land in north Oak Cliff isn’t an overgrown ruin but a carefully planned and maintained urban nature preserve, the Twelve Hills Nature Center. The Oak Cliff concrete jungle is an inextricable part of Twelve Hills, an oasis striving to reclaim the native blackland prairie that once covered the city.

Twelve Hills, located north of Davis and south of the Stevens Park Golf Course, has been a nature center for only a few years, but the land it inhabits could tell stories of disputes, deterioration and destruction from decades past.

The apartments

Not much of note happened on the land before the late 1950s, when a complex of 12 apartment buildings — some adorned with chandeliers and carpet — were built on roughly 20 acres and came to be called the Twelve Hills apartments.

“It was a nice community. There were always children out,” says Jarrell Carter, who grew up in the apartments from 1961-1969. “There was a swimming pool in the center of every apartment complex. It was sort of a meeting place. After work, after dinner, people would sit around the swimming pool and talk.”

Some of the land was undeveloped and Carter would frequent a limestone outcropping known as “the rocks.”

“It was really easy to go down, dig around and find fossils and shells. It wasn’t a nature preserve, but it was nature right in your hand,” Carter says.

Times changed. During the 1970s, fires, theft and crime became more frequent at the apartments. By the ’80s, Twelve Hills had deteriorated and neighbors were calling for its demolition. Only 35 people lived in the 500 units by 1989. Eventually, the buildings were vacated, windows were broken, walls and roofs collapsed and the decaying complex attracted even more crime.

A series of Dallas Morning News articles in the late ’80s and early ’90s exposed holes in a City of Dallas plan to renovate derelict apartments with federal funds. Twelve Hills was the centerpiece of the plan. After reports that investors would benefit from renovations more than the low-income families who would move in, the city backtracked and began exploring demolition costs. The initial estimate of a $280,000 cost to taxpayers skyrocketed to more than $1.2 million when the buildings were found to be seeped in asbestos.

Finally in 1992, the apartments were torn down and the debate began over what to do with the land, which the city had taken over because of the landowners’ failure to pay taxes.

“This land and how it is used will be critical to the neighborhoods around it,” Bob Stimson, who at the time was a Dallas city councilman, told the Dallas Morning News in 1996. “As the city goes after more and more property for back taxes, especially deteriorating apartment complexes, this will continue to come up.”

An oasis

At a 1999 neighborhood meeting concerning the land, Bebe Gomez of St. Cecilia Catholic School stood up and said that talks of a gated, high-end housing development would do nothing to help the community, that walls and gates would only divide it. This was before Dallas ISD took over part of the land and before entrepreneur Matt Holley bought the rest. The community had been debating different options, including residential development on all 20 acres.

After the meeting, Jennifer Touchet and several neighbors moved by Gomez’s words discussed creating a nature preserve that could serve the neighborhood as well as the entire Oak Cliff community.

“In our original vision, we talked about how we would love to be a model for other distressed communities and what they could do with tracts of land,” Touchet says.

The site for her represented hope and redemption, she says.

“It wasn’t just the land. We were about a vision and values and trying to bring something, bring a different set of values to the neighborhood,” Touchet says. “When the apartments were there, they were really bad. There were fires and drug dealings. A lot of people, especially older people, wanted some healing to happen in the neighborhood, and I think that’s what we did.”

Touchet and a group of individuals passionate about the cause asked an urban biologist to visit the property, look at the plants and wildlife, and advise whether it was worth preserving. It was, the urban biologist told them.

So for four years, the group worked with landscape architects, talked with city councilmen, gathered 900 signatures on a petition supporting the preserve and secured a nonprofit status for the Twelve Hills Nature Center. They also succeeded in rezoning five acres of the land to be used only for green space.

The group had something different than a park in mind: an environmental education area.

“There are a lot of kids living in apartments nearby that don’t have yards and don’t get to go to nature centers,” Touchet says, pointing to the one or two environmental education field trips DISD students may take during the course of grade school. “This was their only access to nature that they’d ever have. We thought it was really important … to teach people about stewardship.”

The group focused on re-naturalizing the land, returning it to the native blackland prairie grasses that blanketed Twelve Hills before it was covered in concrete. The point is to maintain wildlife diversity, according to Marcie Haley, the current Twelve Hills Nature Center board president. Over time, insects develop the ability to digest certain plant chemicals. As those plants are taken away, even if new ones are introduced, insects are left with less food, meaning birds are left with less food, meaning reptiles are left with less food, and so on down the food chain.

In undeveloped spaces, nature does a pretty good job of keeping invasive plants from taking over, Haley says. In a place like Twelve Hills, which is surrounded by development, people have to step in and take care of the land.

“Prairies were always kept that way, and trees were kept that way and kept out of prairies by fire and buffalo herds running across the land,” Haley says. “Those things don’t exist anymore, but there are other natural mechanisms that would keep a native plant in check.”

Sharing the land

After the land stood vacant for a decade, in 2003 Dallas ISD began construction of Rosemont Elementary School Primary campus on about 10 acres. The original Rosemont, what is now its upper campus, is across the street and St. Cecilia Catholic School is down the road, making Twelve Hills an outdoor classroom to anyone who drops by when the center is open — sunup to sundown.

Around 2005, the other 10 acres went to the highest bidder, former Oak Cliff resident Matt Holley. Because half of the land already was designated green space, and because Holley had discussed the nature preserve with Touchet and supported the effort, he sold 5.4 acres to the Twelve Hills group at a reduced price since the fledgling nonprofit couldn’t afford to pay full price for it. On the remaining land, Holley built a mid-century modern inspired gated community called Kessler Woods.

“Even during the downturn, a lot of great stuff continued to happen in Oak Cliff, and it speaks to the energy in the community,” Holley says.

The landscaping plan for the homes, which have since sold for between $450,000 and $1.5 million, was to blend harmoniously with the Twelve Hills Nature Center and the surrounding hills.

Holley and Rosemont Primary architects met to see if there was a way to “create synergy” so that the buildings complemented both each other and the land. Today, both the students and neighbors enjoy that synergy. Though Holley says not many Kessler Woods residents have children, they often run or walk through Twelve Hills. Rosemont classes visit the preserve whenever they want, though the biggest event of the year happens in the spring.

Around May, every class at Rosemont Primary from pre-kindergarten through fourth grade embarks on an hour-long nature walk through Twelve Hills with adult volunteers and fellow students trained as nature leaders. Flowers are blooming, and butterflies, bees and other insects are flying around. As students take in the excitement and ask questions, they are also learning environmental stewardship.

“Students have gone home and taught their families about the plants in their yard,” Haley says. “They take the knowledge with them. We hope that — and we think they probably will — take the desire to take care of the land with them also.”

Roots

The city buzz quiets as you walk past the stone entrance into a fairytale-like flurry of monarch butterflies. A creek trickles past the western corner of the center. Twelve Hills offers a much-needed breath of fresh air and that “restorative, calming effect that nature bestows,” Haley says. In children and adults alike, it nurtures a sense of “wonder and imagination.”

“Something like Twelve Hills is very special and has a path and a story to tell,” Tina Aguilar says.

Stories and places are fundamental to the core humanities class Aguilar teaches at El Centro College. Several times a year, Aguilar takes students of various ages and life experiences to visit the Twelve Hills Nature Center and discuss “sense of place,” which Aguilar defines as “those fragments that we have to live everyday.”

“Sense of place really is an understanding of how you situate in a particular place. It can be a particular city, it can be at home, it can be in your work environment,” Aguilar says. “It taps into our identity and our place, and connects us to the community.”

Aguilar chose to incorporate Twelve Hills into the class because of its history within the rich and vibrant Oak Cliff community and because it is a “sanctuary” amid a concrete city. When she takes her students there, she says, some of them are deeply moved when they step into a space many of them didn’t know existed.

But like Twelve Hills, the class isn’t just about great thoughts and ideas but also taking action. Aguilar gives students funding resources and lists potential contacts, and asks them to go through the process of creating an organization and applying for city funding. Some students have continued working on projects after the class ended.

“I ask them to think about those in-between spaces,” Aguilar says. “I get them to think about, what if you have this empty space? What could you put there, create, that is something that’s sacred for the community? … How do you give that place a heartbeat? What is the voice of that place?”

Like Aguilar’s students, the volunteers working with Twelve Hills are reclaiming a piece of land and envisioning what could be in those “in-between spaces.” The land has experienced transition from wilderness to apartment communities, from a high-crime spot to ruins, and from desolation to a re-imagining of what existed before settlement.

“This idea of taking back or regenerating, going back to what once was in the landscape, is very powerful,” Aguilar says. “The idea that you’re going to maintain and have advocacy for a site like Twelve Hills allows growth. It allows the minds involved, the people involved, to really see how they’re going to bestow that to future generations.”