New partnership helps preserve natural area

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Staff Photographer
Nathan Hunsinger
Jim Bednarz, a University of North Texas adjunct professor, studies a willows spy catcher caught for a research project at the Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area in Lewisville on Wednesday.

Lining the southern shore of Lewisville Lake is a 2,000-acre chunk of what ecologists call the “real” Texas.

Not the Texas of Whataburgers or frozen margaritas on the patio, but the Texas of prairie grasses and songbirds that used to dominate the land before waves of pioneers and farmers moved west.

“This is a kind of preserving of Texas heritage,” said restoration ecologist Ken Steigman.

There was a time when the Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area, called LLELA, could only pay three staffers to safeguard these 2,000 acres of prairie and forest and open it for three days a week.

Now for the first time, anyone can visit LLELA seven days a week, thanks to a partnership with the city of Lewisville that adds staffing and money to help support the wilderness area.

For residents in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and visitors, that means not having to drive lengthy distances during hot summer weeks to remember the taste of fresh air and the sound of a bird’s song. For the park’s small staff, that means LLELA is at last gaining some solid grounding.

“I think LLELA is finally here to stay, and hopefully what we’ve worked so hard for over the last 11 years will be preserved,” said Ken Steigman, LLELA’s director.

LLELA, a unique convergence of Blackland Prairie, Eastern Cross Timbers forest and wetlands that span the south end of Lewisville Lake, is a kind of wilderness “oasis” that has managed to stay relatively intact in a growing urban metroplex since 1990.

The area has served as a survey site for researchers, a field trip stop for students and a wilderness playground where everyday residents can record field notes on sightings of animals like bobcats, otters, herons and hawks.

LLELA, which is managed by a consortium of organizations including the University of North Texas and Lewisville ISD, has about 20,000 visitors each year who can kayak, camp, hike and birdwatch throughout the preserve.

Steigman and a corps of more than 75 volunteers continually work to restore the area, tending to rescued patches of prairie grasses, banding birds for migration studies and reintroducing animal and plant species that had been wiped out by ranching and farming in the last two centuries.

Steigman said he thinks keeping a part of wilderness near and open to the public is crucial as the overwhelming influence of technology threatens to keep people indoors and out of touch with nature.

“The sad thing is that so many young people now, with all the technology revolution that has occurred over the last 20 years, most of them aren’t looking up from keeping their phones moving,” Steigman said. “They’re really beginning to be alienated from the natural world, and it’s really important for people to be able to make that connection.”

The federal grants that used to fund LLELA’s operation and restoration since its establishment ran out last year, which lead its fans to embark on fundraising campaigns and a search for alternative sources of funding.

It was the city of Lewisville, Steigman said, that stepped in to help save LLELA, despite its historical lack of involvement with the preserve.

It decided to fund all of LLELA’s education programs, man the park’s gate and become an equal partner in the leasing of the preserve.

It did so because, as the city was forming its long-term development plan last year, residents had made it clear they wanted to enjoy greater access to the outdoors, said Bob Monaghan, director of parks and leisure services for Lewisville.

IN THE KNOW

What: Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area

Where: Entrance is at 201 E. Jones St. in Lewisville

Hours: 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. March 1 to Oct. 31; 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Nov. 1 to Feb. 28

Fee: $5 per vehicle

For more information: Call 972-219-3930 (Monday to Friday) or 972-219-7980 (Saturday to Sunday); or visit http://llela.unt.edu/

Note: The campground is currently closed because of flooding from earlier this year.


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