Dreaming of Buffalo

Prairie preservationists want to turn Austin's eyes – and energies – eastward

 Pflugerville prairie meadow in springtime
Pflugerville prairie meadow in springtime (Photo By Jason and Lisa Spangler)

If you think a prairie is flat, you've never seen a prairie.

If you think a prairie is monotonous, you've never seen a prairie.

In fact, no matter what you think a prairie looks like, you've probably never actually seen one. That flat, boring stuff you see driving through Kansas? That ain't prairie. Those monotonous fields of scraggly knee-high grass in the pastures outside town? That ain't prairie. That's the sad, sickly result of spending a couple of centuries plowing and grazing and messing things up.

A real tallgrass prairie is so alive you can hear it: birds chattering, cottontails bounding out of the scrub, hawks soaring high overhead. It's richly textured, even in winter: it's got tall, reddish clumps of little bluestem; bare, prickly toothache trees, their branches jointed like finger bones; and pointy-leaved, evergreen agarita trees, like holly with an attitude. For the real show, however, you have to go in spring, when the wildflowers bloom. You might want to hurry, though. While tallgrass once covered 12 million acres from Texas to Manitoba, 99% of it is now gone. The Nature Conservancy considers the tallgrass prairie the most endangered ecosystem in North America; groups including Defenders of Wildlife and the World Wildlife Fund have also raised the alarm about dwindling stock.

As for the Central Texas tallgrass prairie, which is known as Blackland for its thick, dark soil, the picture is even more bleak: as little as .01% remains. After extensive searching, the Native Prairies Association of Texas, a land trust and advocacy group, has identified in private hands seven prairie remnants still standing in the immediate Austin area (plus some scraps along railways) totalling maybe 1,700 acres – in all, the size of the Barton Creek Greenbelt. That's all. Most of Austin has never seen them, and it's possible that most of us never will.

Unless you're standing there in spring, when the flowers are blooming and the hawks are screaming and the meadowlarks are chasing each other, a prairie isn't loud or flashy or dramatic. In fact, prairies have few champions, and a serious PR problem. If those seven remnants are to be saved, both for their own sake and as a gene bank and seed source for future restoration projects, Austinites accustomed to hugging trees and defending water will have to find a place in their pantheon – and pocketbooks – for grass.

"Two-thirds of Austin was prairie and now it's almost gone," said Jason Spangler of the Native Prairies Association of Texas. "We want to get the word out so people can learn about it, learn to love it, and want to protect it."

Off the Radar

Coby Dinges is standing in the Pflugerville Meadow on a Sunday morning in December. The meadow is 92 mostly intact acres surrounded by pasture and housing developments just east of I-35 at Wells Branch. Dinges isn't someone you'd take at first glance as a native plant enthusiast and butterfly nut – in his loose button-down shirt and dark, combed-back hair, he looks more like an investment banker on vacation, and in fact, his background is in finance. But his passion is prairies: He owns Native Texas Butterfly Gardens in Bee Cave, a nursery that sells only native plants, and is part of a small community of volunteers who collect, store, grow, and scatter prairie seeds. It's a calling, he says, that was inspired by summers spent tromping around Texas with his father, a biologist. "He thought it was important to respect the natural world, if nothing else," said Dinges. That's why he wishes prairies were better-known. "It's hard to respect things you know nothing about."

Dinges obviously respects the prairie. In fact, as he moves through the swishing, crinkling grasses, it's with an air of perpetual awe enhanced by a habit of ending his sentences with, "... if you can believe it!" He can't seem to walk more than about 10 feet without pointing out some rock, plant, or critter and telling you its name: common, scientific, and/or folksy nickname – no mean feat, considering a healthy prairie is home to 200 to 300 species of plants alone. More often than not, he can also tell you something unbelievable about it. Take that loggerhead shrike over there, the big-beaked gray bird sitting on the telephone wire on the edge of the property. It's known as the "butcher bird" because after catching its prey – a grasshopper, perhaps – it impales the carcass on thorns or a bit of barbed wire to save as a snack for later. If you can believe it.

Coby Dinges of Native Texas Butterfly Gardens: You'll stand here in spring and your mouth just hangs open.
Coby Dinges of Native Texas Butterfly Gardens: "You'll stand here in spring and your mouth just hangs open." (Photo By John Anderson)

Dinges knows his enchantment with the prairie is not universal. "A lot of people would look at this and say, 'It's a bunch of dead grass. It's a bunch of weeds.'" Like most prairie enthusiasts, then, he's desperate to get the public onboard the prairies-are-cool wagon. His answer?

"Wildflowers, wildflowers, wildflowers." Pflugerville meadow is a great place for that. He describes carpets of yellow and patches of purple, burgundy winecups stretching from right here to way over there, thick wallows of rare Texas bluebells, and all of it punctuated by pink and white spires of penstemon, swaying in the breeze. "You'll stand here in spring and your mouth just hangs open."

Birds are another people-friendly prairie asset. After all, if prairie ecosystems entirely disappear, many of the showiest wildflowers could still exist in gardens and nurseries. Prairie birds, on the other hand, would be screwed. As bird populations have plummeted in recent decades, many of the steepest declines have been among grassland birds. Partners in Flight, a coalition of government and nonprofit scientists, blame the loss of tallgrass prairie, and recommend that "all areas remaining should be incorporated into some type of preserve system to preserve this vital habitat."

Birds and flowers, an aura of danger – you'd think that prairie-hugging would be all the rage. It's not. In fact, when Jason Spangler of NPAT offered a presentation about the need to purchase and preserve prairies to the city's bond election advisory committee, most of its members were taken completely by surprise. "This was a case where something that wasn't on the radar came onto the radar, and really captured a fair amount of attention," said Robin Rather, chair of the open space subcommittee of the BEAC, who found herself deeply moved by the presentation. "I think people were disturbed that here is a really important part of our ecosystem that we haven't focused on, and it's all but vanished."

The subcommittee initially decided to propose about $10 million for prairies out of a total open space package of $165 million. But the committee's goal is still to whittle its lands package down to a target of $90 million, so the prairie portion will likely drop to $5 million. That may not go far – because so little native prairie still exists, owners of identified remnants possess a very, very valuable thing and can, if they wish, act accordingly.

"We're unlucky, in a way, because we're not just going after open space," said Spangler, who at the time was still hoping for $10 million. "There is very little prairie left, and what we've found has tended to be in fairly expensive areas." Still, he added, anything is better than nothing. "What little is left is disappearing," he said. "We don't have much time."

There are ways to stretch conservation dollars, such as land swaps; and other municipalities, like Round Rock or Pflugerville might also be persuaded to get on board. And governments aren't the only ones who can permanently protect land: NPAT itself is a land trust that owns or has acquired conservation easements to 1,200 acres of prairie, 100 of which is tallgrass. Still, if $5 million is the final figure from Austin, it seems inevitable that some of these remnants will be destroyed. A long-term prairie preservation plan, then, must also include restoration of degraded former prairies that are now pastures of non-native species. However, as those working on urban preserves well know, restoration and preservation are both harder than they might seem.

Operation Buffalo Pie

The city of Austin is home to roughly 1 gazillion waxleaf ligustrum plants, and only one René Barrera. Pretty tough odds for the man whose job is to preserve the city's preserves. That's not an oxymoron: Nature, in an urban setting, is usually anything but natural, so buying a chunk of land to protect it from being paved is only the first step toward protecting its inhabitants.

The main culprits are invasive species like ligustrum. Ligustrum isn't a prairie plant, but as a big, green, easily identifiable tree in Austin's woody preserves, it provides an easily recognizable – in fact, near-ubiquitous – example of how thickly invasive species can spread, and how hard they are to eradicate. Like the more notorious kudzu, ligustrum is a particularly vicious foe, with a will to live that rivals that of the zombies in Night of the Living Dead: cut one stalk down, and a dozen more shoot up from the lopped-off trunk. They can easily achieve eyeball height within a season, and within a few years their thick crown can shade out the forest floor so that almost nothing can grow there but another ligustrum. Plus, they offer tasty berries that entice unwitting birds into their evil plan for world domination, codenamed Operation Guano. Standing on a trail in the 39-acre Blunn Creek Preserve in South Austin, Barrera pointed out a particularly nasty patch – nothing but yellow-brown ligustrum trunks and dead leaves on the forest floor, for an area the size of a parking lot.

"You see that?" he said with dismay. "It's a ligustrum monoculture."

René Barrera at Blunn Creek Preserve, with American Beautyberry seeds
René Barrera at Blunn Creek Preserve, with American Beautyberry seeds (Photo By John Anderson)

Barrera is the sole city employee managing the city's 13 central and eastern preserves. Educational programs – such as elementary schoolers planting seedlings on a field trip, or a science class at LBJ High scattering prairie seeds – add another 5,000 hours of service to the program each year. Barring staff increases, preserving any new prairieland will roll into the already overloaded program.

Driving out Highway 71 toward the Onion Creek Wildlife Sanctuary, the roadways are thick with signs for developments with idyllic names like Los Cielos or the Vistas at Stony Ridge. But as Barrera pulled into the preserve, which abuts Travis County's Southeast Metro Park, the highway ecosystem of concrete and crud was quickly replaced by 180 acres of mesquite, juniper, and prickly pear. The bumping and thumping of Barrera's truck on the rutted gravel road flushed a hawk, which swooped across the windshield and into the air. Except for the power plant in the distance, and the water tower to the east that somehow appeared since the last time Barrera came by, it appeared to be the pristine, unsullied nature everyone likes to imagine still exists. The reality is anything but. "When you get a 'natural' area, you're getting it in a certain state," said Barrera. "It's either been farmed, grazed, or urbanized. You have to restore it."

Here's what happened to Onion Creek. In the beginning, it was a blackland soil with a creek running through it, rich with riparian and prairie life. Then much of it was plowed. When the farming stopped, some of the grasses and wildflowers survived – you still get maxmillian sunflowers, gayfeathers, goldenrod – so it is technically a prairie remnant. Because of its size, it also provides important habitat for wildlife, even persnickety species like rattlesnakes, skunks, and bobcats that don't do well in the suburbs. Now, however, the fires and the bison that kept the prairie in balance are gone, and what remains is a thicker, shrubbier, bushier environment than ever existed previously.

As restoration jobs go, however, Onion Creek is not even a particularly challenging case. Most pastures are totally colonized by non-native species like Johnson grass, which must be killed again and again and again, all the while without disturbing the native plants struggling to take root. According to Steve Windhager, who runs the landscape restoration program at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, restoration is a labor-intensive, money-intensive task. "Mowing, burning, and controlling invasive species control are a big deal," Windhager said. "The more money you have, the shorter time it takes. Less money you have, the longer it takes."

The city of Austin is (obviously) on the "less money" side of the equation, making management-intensive restoration difficult. Barrera already feels the pinch: Controlled burns don't happen much, since they aren't the kind of thing you can do with volunteers from Travis Heights Elementary. Barrera hopes to work with nonprofits and other governmental agencies to put together a controlled burn team to torch some fields. There's also Operation Buffalo Pie: Barerra wants to stock Indiangrass Preserve – 200 acres on the shore of Long Lake that is the city's only other prairie preserve – with a small herd of bison. (Because the city budget has no line item for bison, which run from $300 to $1,200 a head, it's a goal he can only achieve through grants or sponsors.)

No matter how creative Barrera gets, one issue beyond his control is the size of preserves. Small preserves are harder to manage – one big burn is significantly less work than a lot of little burns – and fragmented landscapes are simply less viable than larger ranges, where more animals can live, compete, breed, and eat each other for breakfast. In response, the bond committee and the Parks and Recreation Department have prioritized land acquisition along riparian greenways. Similarly, the city and county have slowly been expanding the protected area around Onion Creek. In addition to the sanctuary and the 300-acre Southeast Metro Park, the county bond package passed in November included $8 million to work on a greenway, and the proposed city bond also targets land in the area. Over the long term, large tracts – even degraded ones – could slowly be transformed into prairie plant communities with the potential to attract wildlife.

Any kind of restoration, however, starts with seeds, which is why prairie advocates consider any shred of native prairie so valuable. "Five acres of exquisite prairie – one acre – is not to be walked away from. There's so little left!" said Lee Stone of the NPAT board. "How dare we say, 'Oh, that part's too small to save,' when their seeds are there, and there could be fauna on it that aren't any place else. It would be arrogant for us to turn our noses up at an acre."

An Eastside Named Desire

In last week's public hearing on the roughly $614 million bond package that the city plans to put before voters some time next year, Stone was the lone speaker on behalf of the prairies. The other official representatives of the environment – about eight speakers, mostly from the Sierra Club – spoke almost entirely in terms of water quality. The current $90 million land budget calls for $45 million for aquifer lands, $21 million for east Austin open space (including prairies), and $28 million for parks distributed equitably all over town. The push among the best-known environmental groups has been to increase the aquifer portion – and that portion only – to $75 million.

None of the groups deny that prairies are important, but their top priority is clearly the quality of the water that reaches Austin through the southwest – either through creeks or the Edwards Aquifer, which feeds Barton Springs and about 50,000 private drinking wells, and contributes about 1% of the city's drinking water. (The rest comes from the Colorado River, flowing in from the northwest.) This priority is frustrating to prairie advocates, who point out that the vast majority of the $170 million spent on open space in the last 13 years already bought southwest land, and that the city already owns 30,000 acres in the Southwest (and another 9,000 in the Northwest), compared to just 7,000 in all of east Austin. "We're always so aware of the aquifer in Austin. We've said the preferred development zone is east, but we've completely ignored the value of the prairie," said Windhager of the Wildflower Center. "We have to be aware of all our environmental resources, not just the water."

That debate is particularly important given the inexorable march of State Highway 130, the four-lane toll road that will open in less than two years and spark a building boom fully expected to devour eastern Travis County. SH 130 is about a quarter-mile from Indiangrass preserve: a dun-colored slice in the earth already cut and graded, with yellow earthmovers rumbling back and forth, like ants hauling crumbs to the queen. It will touch Pflugerville Meadow, too – something heavy on Dinges' mind as he strolled back through the stiff winter grasses toward his truck. "That part's already gone," he said, pointing to the pasture to the west slated for commercial development. "And then they're also going to extend Wells Branch out to 130 – that monstrosity," he added with disgust.

The $21 million slated for SH 130 greenways is the only part of the current bond package to address the huge price tag that will accompany any attempt to develop 130 along the lines of the Envision Central Texas model – dense nodes of development surrounded by enough open space to prove viable habitat for whatever species still survive. (Some members of City Council, including Mayor Will Wynn, have suggested delaying the bond election to give time to figure out SH 130 infrastructure projects.) Whatever becomes of that effort, bond committee member Rodney Ahart believes the open space proposal is a good first step, but still only a first step of a necessary investment in the East and, ultimately, the city as a whole.

"It is high time for east of I-35 to really be beautified, and to get a lot of the attention that it really hasn't had," Ahart said. "It's so funny to me that people always say east of I-35 is the desired development zone. I always feel that's not true, because it seems to me that more people want to develop west of I-35. So, if it is truly the desired development zone, then we should make it desirable." end story

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  • More of the Story

  • Vanishing Prairies

    Prairie remnants identified by the Native Prairies Association of Texas

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prairie preservationeast Austin, prairie, Native Prairie Association of Texas, Jason Spangler, Coby Dinges, Lee Stone, Rene Barrera, Pflugerville Meadow, Will Wynn, Rodney Ahart, Robin Rather, SH 130, Barton Springs, Jason Windhager, Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, prairie restoration

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