Environmentalists work to save a precious patch of Texas blackland prairie

A tiny 10-acre parcel of native blackland prairie is an important piece of Texas history that supports endangered and rare species.

Courtesy of Carol Clark
A monarch butterfly rests on a plant in the blackland prairie near Plano, Texas. Environmental groups are worried that a planned music festival could destroy the rare habitat, which supports wildlife and represents an indispensable piece of Texas history.

In terms of geographical footprints, it represents a mere microscopic part of what once reigned supreme across a broad swath of land – from the Texas-Oklahoma border all the way southwest toward Austin and San Antonio. 

But to local environmentalists like John Lingenfelder, a small 10-acre parcel of native blackland prairie in the North Texas city of Plano is an indispensable piece of state history and an ecological bounty that supports endangered and other rare species.

That's why an upcoming major music festival set to take place in the wider Oak Point Park and Nature Preserve site, close to the prairie's characteristically tall grasses, is drawing grave concern.

The environmental activists say the circa 20,000-capacity event slated for May next year poses a threat to the existence of a delicately poised natural habitat, especially since reputed plans for the festival may see attendance in future years rise to as many as 70,000 people.  

"We have defined 200 species of native plants in these less than 10 acres. Even to the untrained eye, it is incredible to behold in the spring and summer," marvels Mr. Lingenfelder, a board member of the Collin County Chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas.

Of the 12 million acres of blackland prairie that once carved a trail down the middle of the state, today only about 200,000 acres remain – "mostly in small pieces," Lingenfelder explains. The rest, he says, disappeared under the plow over the last 100-plus years as early settlers conquered the lands. 

In its heyday, prior to reduction by cotton farming in the 1800s and later mass urbanization, the blackland prairie ecoregion was tamed only by vast herds of grazing bison and by fires – set by lightning strikes and at the hand of native Americans.

“The changes to the land that have occurred over the last 100 or so years have dramatically altered the flora and fauna of these regions," the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department reports. "The once diverse wildlife communities that occurred on the prairies and savannahs have been reduced dramatically and continue to decline."

More unusual, Lingenfelder goes on, at Oak Point Park the subterranean Austin chalk – which makes up the geological underpinning of the blackland prairie lands – is close to the surface. This means the plants found here "are very specific to this geology, not the type found in the deep blackland prairie," Lingenfelder says.

Why is this important? Lingenfelder points to the ecology it supports. The endangered Monarch butterfly, for instance, utilizes a particular flower found here to feed on nectar in its migration south to Mexico from the northern United States and southern Canada. And the “near-threatened” painted bunting bird nests in the trees surrounding blackland prairie.

"In the last 15 years, the population of the Monarch butterfly has declined 75 percent," he explains. "Among the reasons is that many, many places that they pass over that had the plants have disappeared – they have gone under the plow. 

"It just so happens that this little remnant prairie – over the last 3 to 4 weeks – was covered with that type of plant and the butterflies covered that area."

The prairie also must be maintained so that current and future generations of Texans understand what the state looked like when settlers arrived, he says.

No one apparently knew the true extent of the bounty that lay inside the Oak Point Park and Nature Preserve until very recently, Lingenfelder says. Experts surveying the area sometime between late 2012 and early this year discovered the patch, after which a more detailed study of the species populating it was conducted.

They then realized it was a rare tract of blackland prairie. The "ah ha" moment came as the environmentalists realized it must be unplowed land due to the fact, says Lingenfelder, that many of the plants discovered don't grow unless the area has not been disturbed for  "at least 40 to 50 years."

Despite his concerns, Lingenfelder concedes that the music festival would be an economic boon for the Plano area.

"I think that the idea is great," he says. "It would be a huge draw. The city is very sympathetic to our prairie and want to have it go on. The people in parks and recreation have been very accommodating, but they have reached a point they can't give anymore. From our point of view, we have to work with them over the next couple of years. Nothing will be done [to the prairie] right now. We have bought at least two years."

The City of Plano insists it has been preserving the prairie and will continue to do so. Historical markers have not yet been placed by the site of the habitat, but there there are plans to do so.

Yet concerns persist. The local chapters of the Native Plant Society of Texas and the Prairie and Timbers Audubon Society are at the vanguard.

“Once this remnant is disturbed by landscaping, it will be gone forever,” Lingenfelder says. “There is not any prairie nearby from which transitory wildlife can bring seeds or insects to replenish this remnant to the way it is – like it could've been when prairie was abundant.

"That is the reason dozens of us are working very hard to preserve this small piece of the wild.”

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