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Tandy Hills Natural Area: Land of Controversy / Wildflower Wonder-land by Don Young

Tandy Hills Natural Area: Land of Controversy/Wildflower Wonderland 

from the Post Oak & Prairie Journal: A Regional Journal of the Cross Timbers and Prairies Vol 2, no. 1

 

Available here as a pdf

Tandy Hills Natural Area is a wildly bio-diverse slice of prairie heaven in the heart of a major metropolitan city, Fort Worth, Texas. To fully appreciate its charms and treasures, indeed its very existence, it helps to have a bit of historical overview.

The modern history of Tandy Hills began on April 22, 1960,
when beatnik-loving Fort Worth Mayor, Tom McCann and
City Council voted to purchase the land from a group of
businessmen. (The land was originally acquired by the pioneering
Tandy family in 1854.) Bounded by I-30 on the
north and low-income neighborhoods elsewhere, the
roughly 160-acres just east of downtown Fort Worth
(including adjacent Stratford Park) is among the largest
and most ecologically diverse urban native prairies anywhere.
The decision to purchase the land was not without controversy.
The land was considered unsuitable for a park due
to the hilly terrain. More than a year after the purchase,
some council members still unhappy about the $173,000
price demanded an investigation saying the sellers may
have colluded with Park Advisory Board members. Others
pursued a plan to sell the land to land developers hoping
to recoup some of the money.

Eventually, the land purchase
controversy died down but
civic neglect into the late 70s
made the land susceptible to
trash dumping. In the 1980s
dirt bikers and other off-road
vehicle users discovered the
prairie hills and caused extensive
damage. Various neighborhood
and environmental
groups started making noise.
In 1987, at the direction of the
Fort Worth Park & Recreation
Dept., L.Wayne Clark, of the
Fort Worth Nature Center &
Refuge, authored the Environmental
Assessment of Tandy
Hills Park (Clark, 1989). His
paper was a sign of paradigm
shift within the parks department.
The biggest threat to Tandy Hills occurred in 2004. The
City of Fort Worth was about to become the nationwide
ground zero for the urban fracking industry, thanks to the
confluence of the controversial method of natural gas extraction
and the Barnett Shale which lay under Fort Worth.
Open spaces such as Tandy Hills were considered “low
hanging fruit” by the industry.

However, an equal and opposite reaction occurred in 2004
when a few concerned neighbors founded Friends of Tandy
Hills Natural Area. After learning about industry interest
in the natural area, they mounted a public education
campaign, including sending hundreds of letters to Mayor
Mike Moncrief and industry officials and a few public protests.
As it turned out, Tandy Hills became the birthplace
of the anti-fracking movement that evolved into a
global movement.

Dovetailing with Earth Day, the group inaugurated Prairie
Fest in 2006 in an effort to raise public awareness of Tandy
Hills in general and to help insure its preservation. The
effort paid off. The city took notice and in 2008 created the
Tandy Hills Master Plan (City of Fort Worth, 2008) and in
2010 entered into a support organization agreement with
Friends of Tandy Hills. The April 2016 Tandy Hills BioBlitz
was a resounding success, reinforcing to city officials the
immense ecological value of Tandy Hills.

The one thing about Tandy Hills that inspires so much passion
and controversy is wildflowers. The amazing diversity
of wildflower species found here attracts scientists, citizen
scientists, naturalists, photographers, hikers, poets, children
and nature mystics by the droves.

In his 1989 assessment (see above), L. Wayne Clark noted:
“Wildflowers are what really make Tandy Hills a
special area. Although many areas have the climax
grasses for our region, few have many wildflowers...
Tandy Hills wildflowers are in the right place
and the right amounts (almost all pioneer accounts
mention the beauty and numbers of wildflowers)
and it is from my observations the best place in
Fort Worth for native wildflowers.”

Every April, this amazing phenomenon is plainly visible to
any springtime visitor. The three meadows along View
Street, with their very shallow limestone soil, are arguably
among the most eye-catching and bio-diverse in the region.
The eastern-most meadow has been dubbed, “The Iconic
Meadow” due to its size, floristic diversity and wide open
view.

On a typical day in April you can expect to see dozens of
species blooming, all at once, in a tangle of arresting color.
There are two showy species that dominate this spring carpet,
the first being Purple Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja purpurea),
which begins blooming in mid-March and usually
peaks in late April. According to researchers from Northwestern
University and Chicago Botanic Garden, who conducted
studies of Purple Paintbrush in 2018 and 2019, Tandy
Hills has the densest population they have observed in
all the north Texas and Oklahoma prairies they have visited.

A few weeks later
starting about mid-
April, Engelmann's
Sage (Salvia engelmannii)
begins
blooming, filling in
most of the gaps between
the Paintbrush.
In his 2016
Tandy Hills BioBlitz
Handbook, Dr. Bruce
Benz notes that Tandy
Hills’ biological
diversity inventory
includes at least
eight species that are
endemic to Texas,
one of which is
Engelmann's Sage
(Benz, 2016). Its bluepurple blooms are a pleasing contrast with the red-purple paintbrush. In some years, clouds of Greenthread
(Thelesperma filofolium) and/or Engelmann's Daisy
(Engelmannia peristenia) are equally dominant.
The paint-by-number spring prairie additionally includes
less dominant but equally showy species including:
Sensitive Briar (Mimosa quadrivalvis)
Yellow Puff (Neptunia lutea)
Winecup (Callirhoe pedata)
Two-leaf Senna (Senna roemeriana)
Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium chilense)
Prairie Bishop's Weed (Bifora americana)
Indian Blanket Gaillardia pulchella)
Drummond's Skullcap (Scutellaria wrightii)
Prairie Larkspur (Delphinium carolinianum)
Wild Hyacinth (Camassia scilloides)
Blue Flax (Linum pratense)
Yellow Flax (Linum rigidum)
Fringed Blue Star (Amsonia ciliata)
Lesser numbers of larger species like Antelopehorns Milkweed
(Asclepias asperula), White Compassplant
(Silphium albiflorum), False
Foxglove (Penstemon cobaea). They make
clear that the sobriquet “iconic meadow”
is no exaggeration.
Wildflowers in these numbers attract a
wide diversity of pollinators in massive
numbers including more than 450 insect
species. This naturally leads to robust
bird diversity (Stevens, 2007). At least
119 species have been recorded on the
Tandy Hills iNaturalist Project Page.

Like all urban natural areas, Tandy Hills is plagued by
Privet (Ligustrum spp.) and other woody species. But,
scattered between these woody areas are hidden meadows
that when found, offer up characteristics unique to their
location. Some have been named, such as Barbara's Button
Hill. This exposed hillock with a nearby seep has, by far,
the largest population of Barbara's Button (Marshallia caespitosa)
wildflowers in the park, so many individuals that it's
difficult for anything else to grow.

Another hidden gem is located in the central flats where an
enormous patch of Wild Hyacinth takes over for a few
weeks every spring. Scattered individuals are found elsewhere
but this spot is the motherlode.

Similar micro-meadow systems exist for species including
American Basketflower (Centaurea americana), Prairie Celestial
(Nemastylis geminiflora), Texas Bluebell (Eustoma grandiflorum),
and Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea). In
most cases, the number of individuals is so large that color
variations are common.

Other seasons have their charms. Tandy Hills is blessed
with thriving populations of iconic species such as Trout
Lilies (Erythronium albidum) and Great Plains Ladies Tresses
Orchids (Spiranthes magnicamporum). But it's the overwhelming
magnificence of spring wildflowers that gets the
most attention, and rightly so. Most of
the controversies since 1960 have occurred
because of a passion to preserve
and protect this uncommonly rare urban
prairie paradise. So far, so good.

References:
Benz, B. 2016. Tandy Hills 2016 BioBlitz
Handbook & Diversity Inventory.
https://tandyhills.org/tandy-hills-2016-
bioblitz-handbook-diversity-inventory
City of Fort Worth, Parks & Community
Services Department. 2008. Tandy Hills/
Stratford Parks Strategic Master Plan. https://
www.tandyhills.org/master-plan-tandy-hills-natural-area
Clark, L.W. 1989. First Annual Report, Environmental Assessment
of Tandy Hills Park, 1989. https://
tandyhills.org/first-annual-report-environmentalassessment-
tandy-hills-park-1989
Stevens, T. 2007. Tandy Hills-Stratford Parks Ornithological
Assessment. https://www.tandyhills.org/tandy-hillsstratford-
parks-ornithological-assessment.
Tandy Hills Natural Area: Land of Controversy/Wildflower Wonderland 

Don Young is President of Friends of Tandy Hills Natural
Area and the author of the newsletter, Prairie Notes. He and
wife, Debora Young, founded Friends of Tandy Hills Natural
Area in 2004. They live across from the park and work together
on their art glass business. Contact: info@tandyhills.org

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