Texas range is giving way to concrete and asphalt

Urbanization devours ranches and farms at rate of 164 acres a day

January 05, 2003|By Josh Shaffer and Ellen Schroeder | Josh Shaffer and Ellen Schroeder,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

FORT WORTH, Texas - Amid the concrete and asphalt of south Arlington, traces of a howling wilderness remain. Walk five steps into the woods off Hidden Oaks Lane and the street disappears, hidden by vines and twisting branches.

These oaks once stretched to Kansas in an unbroken grove, a forest too dense for the pioneer's ax and too hardy for the scorching Texas summer. Now the remnants that survived the bulldozer mingle with basketball goals and satellite dishes.

The disappearance of the trees is a testament to Texas' dwindling supply of open land, from the untouched forests and prairies to the ranches and farms that replaced them.

Ten percent to 15 percent of the Cross Timbers forest remains, standing in isolated patches along highways and in subdivisions, said Richard Francaviglia, a history professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. Prairie is the most-threatened ecological region in the state. Much of it has long since been lost to agriculture, said Celeste Brancel-Brown of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in Austin.

On top of that, ranchland and farmland are vanishing at a rate of 164 acres a day statewide, according to a recent report from Texas Tech University.

Development is so pervasive that 85 percent of Texans live in an urban setting, according to the report, which warned of a future with decreased access to nature and wildlife.

"The mythic lone rider, turned typical Texan, is likely to be gazing out these days through the windshield of a sport utility vehicle onto a field marked by the pink flags signaling a coming subdivision," the report states.

The disappearance of open land is compounded by the long-held notion that Texas is an unlimited expanse. Conservation has never been a priority because, in a state that is larger than France, there is always more land.

Packing it in

One hundred years ago, Tarrant County was wide-open country with an average of 60 people per square mile.

Even then, Texas owned precious little land, having sold off huge tracts to finance its government during its years as an independent republic.

Open land began to vanish in the mid-1800s when the pioneers started arriving, Francaviglia said. Farmers and ranchers cleared the prairies first, avoiding the arduous job of cutting through forests. But by the late 1800s, development began to eat away at the trees as the railroad arrived and towns grew up along the tracks.

Despite that, most trees stayed untouched through the Depression, when slow-going cars and bumpy rural roads kept development clustered around big cities. As graded highways stretched into the country, cars grew more comfortable and Texans learned to tolerate 40-mile commutes, the forests fell.

Now, after decades of unbridled growth, Tarrant County has an average of 1,675 residents per square mile. In the densest part of west Fort Worth, that number jumps to 13,000. In Arlington, the city boundaries have widened, and the population has shot up to 332,119 from 160,113 in 1980.

For many, rampant development is something to lament. Little has been done to save the Cross Timbers, Francaviglia said. North Texas has no public reserve dedicated to the forest, although a piece of it can be seen at Lake Mineral Wells State Park.

Engineers are busy planning an 11.4-square-mile neighborhood west of Fort Worth. If annexed and approved, Walsh Ranch could eventually be home to more than 46,000 people, the largest development in the city's history.

"It's ideal grazing country," said Jim Gean, a rancher in Keller who is in his 80s. "It's one of those unique places, like the foothills country in Oklahoma. The thing is, I just loved looking at it, seeing that rolling, hilly prairie out there."

The Walsh Ranch

The fate of Walsh Ranch is especially poignant for Gean. His ranch is something of an anomaly in Keller, with coyotes hiding in the woods and hawks swooping over grassy acres.

Worth millions of dollars, Gean's ranch is the city's last and best stretch of open land, a 150-acre spread that once boasted 125 head of cattle. Its trees and cow pastures are enough to make a developer drool.

"There's hardly a week goes by that somebody doesn't call," Gean said, sadly. "Some developer or Realtor."

But the oddest part of the conservation debate is that many people, especially the environmentally minded, call for putting populations in dense clusters to save land elsewhere.

They want neighborhoods packed around an urban core with work and shopping close enough to reach by foot or by rail. In some cities, such as Minneapolis and Portland, Ore., development is strictly limited outside an inner-city ring.

But some analysts say there is little need to fret about crowding. Much of it is voluntary because few people want the responsibilities that come with having a 5-acre lot, said Ron Utt, a senior research fellow for the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.

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