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Conservation Ethic Taking Hold in North Texas Suburbs

By Marla Crockett, KERA 90.1 reporter

Conservation Ethic Taking Hold in North Texas Suburbs

Dallas, TX –

Marla Crockett, KERA reporter: This is the sound of grackles. They're native black birds that nest in treetops. And in North Texas, they're just about everywhere. John Davis, an Urban Biologist with the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife, frowns when he hears their song, because to him, grackles are a sign of sprawl and environmental stress.

John Davis, Urban Biologist, Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife: When we take a piece of property and we don't think through all the ramifications of what we do, we alter the natural habitats to such a degree that we only leave a handful of species capable of existing there. Those are generally generalist species. These are species that can live anywhere, eat anything. They can adapt to this environment we've created, this artificial environment.

Crockett: So have pesky exotic species like fire ants and Black and Norwegian rats. Standing on the corner near the entrance to a traditional subdivision - this one in Flower Mound - Davis points out other staples of the suburban outdoors: Bermuda grass and Bradford Pear trees.

Davis: What we've now seen is marketing forces at work. The Bradford pear is mass-produced. It has a lollipop shape to it, it's fast growing. It's very popular with them, but it leaves the city with an impact after the developers leave. The suburb itself can be so much more than what we're looking at right now.

Crockett: More, too, than standard development where the land is stripped bare to make way for cookie-cutter houses and streets. So, for the past several years, Davis has been doing what he can to change developers' attitudes. He admits his philosophy is backwards from theirs.

Davis: The land really tells you where to build and where not to build if you know how to listen to it. I speak to developers and throw the idea out there, and the smart ones get it (laughs).

Crockett: Smart ones like Willard Baker:

Willard Baker, Willard R. Baker Development Company: I latched onto him right away.

Crockett: The two met in 1999 at a seminar about conservation development put on by Flower Mound. The town wanted to retain its rural character, and Baker, the owner of Willard R. Baker Development Company, had a piece of land in mind for trying something different - 100 acres in west Flower Mound called Chimney Rock.

Willard Baker: The land itself laid out perfectly, because there was a lot of wooded area, there was a pond, a small lake, and the natural tree lines were positioned in a way that we didn't have to take out many trees in order to get the road system in.

Crockett: Flower Mound offered Baker a package of incentives, including tax relief, to designate half of his land as open space. Under the conservation agreement or easement, Baker had to pick a land trustee. He chose Connemara, the nature conservancy in Plano. And John Davis came onboard as an adviser to help him protect native plants and wildlife.

Davis: I hear a bluebird. Do you hear that? (He mimics the sound)

Crockett: Davis walked the property a number of times and figured out a plan. Houses would be put on parts of the land already disturbed by overgrazing - and animal life would be identified and left alone.

Davis: Yeah, this is a red harvester ant mound. I got really excited when I saw this. These guys are the primary food source for Texas horned lizards, and I happen to really enjoy those animals. But these guys are so interesting, in fact if you come over here.

Crockett: Davis stoops down, picks up three of the ants and defends their value.

Davis: Their sting is supposed to be powerful, and you'll look at this mound and think it's a fire ant mound. Fire ants are bad, these are beneficial. You can watch; I can take one of these and they run around on you and they don't sting. These are docile animals, it's highly beneficial to find them here.

Cliff Baker, Willard Baker R. Baker Development Company: On the management plan, whatever John tells us to do, that's what we do all the way.

Crockett: Cliff Baker, Willard's son, developed the infrastructure for Chimney Rock. There are 49 lots on the property, and at this point about 18 houses, starting at around $650,000.

Cliff Baker: I thought this one was going to be a little easier to do, but it turned out to be harder because you had to make personal decisions every single day about how dirt was to be moved. I was out here from dusk to dawn for 8 months working on the development. I sort of see it as my baby.

Crockett: Homeowner Will Carlton is just as fond of this conservation ethic.

Will Carlton, Chimney Rock homeowner: What we've done in the yard is plant buffalo grass, which is a native grass that does well here in Texas.

Crockett: Carlton, his wife and 3 children just moved into a 65-hundred square foot home on the premier lot at Chimney Rock - a 10-acre conservancy. His land is also part of the conservation easement, so he's dealt with Connemara, the land trustee.

Carlton: We had to work with them to establish two different...I guess management zones or conservation zones. There's one around the home that allows us to have a yard and mow the grass and the other one is pretty much a leave it alone, pretty much just leave it as it is.

Crockett: Carlton develops real estate himself, so he understands the economics that keep developers from taking the time and care that have gone into Chimney Rock. But homeowners like him are also starting to demand more natural amenities, so he believes the market can change.

Carlton: One thing that may be done, you may have smaller lots in certain areas. Homes will be smaller but there's more open space you can use. As we get smarter about how to market the properties; that customers can choose from in different price ranges.

Crockett: Flower Mound is also talking about costs and benefits in selling conservation development to developers and the community. Bill Forbes is the town's Director of Environmental Resources.

Bill Forbes, Director of Environmental Resources, Town of Flower Mound: These native areas do a tremendous amount of benefit in several different areas - mitigation of air pollution, control of flood intensity...The dollar value of one urban forest in the Metroplex was calculated at $5 million per year, and just the storm water control benefits were roughly $2.6 million per year.

Crockett: Another conservation subdivision is underway, and Forbes says other developers have expressed interest as well. The town has quadrupled in size the past 15 years and would like to control growth through a network of these subdivisions. If that happens, Forbes adds, Flower Mound has the chance to present a different kind of future for residents - one, presumably, without a glut of grackles. For KERA 90.l, I'm Marla Crockett.


For more information on the Landowner Workshop on Habitat Management, click here.


Email Marla Crockett about this story.