LEWISVILLE — Denton County nature enthusiasts discussed whether county parks can become a nature tourism hot spot and spoke about the importance of preserving natural areas during an event Saturday morning at Lewisville Thrive.
The panelists discussed details of Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center, Ray Roberts Lake State Park, Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area and nearby attractions such as Bob Jones Nature Center in Southlake.
Amy Martin, author of Wild DFW: Explore the Amazing Nature Around Dallas-Fort Worth, had Diane Wetherbee, vice chair of the Flower Mound Foundation, speak on her behalf during the introduction due to her health.
“North Texas is fast-growing … we all know that,” Wetherbee said, reading Martin’s opening statement. “Thousands more move here each month. Hundreds of acres of nature go down to development every week. … We have to preserve it now, or it’s gone. And the way to preserve it is to show there’s potential for future nature tourism profit.”
Martin said they need to start acting now to get more tourists in the area because an aging generation isn’t camping anymore.
“What’s happening right now in nature tourism is that baby boomers are aging and these people, they still love nature, but they ain’t camping anymore,” Martin said during the panel.
Panelists also included Scott Keister, project manager of the Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area; Pat Thompson, a former Ray Roberts Lake State Park ranger; Clay Thurmond, project manager of Denton’s Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center; Anne Beckmann with Friends of Northeast Denton; and Jerry Hamby from the Elm Fork Master Naturalists Chapter.
How county parks can become a tourist attraction
It’s pelican season at Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area, Keister told the audience, and Lewisville’s 2,600-acre park is focusing on its bird banding station.
The station was founded in 2006 to monitor the flow of spring and fall migrating birds moving through LLELA and to document species diversity and abundance from year to year. Staff, faculty and students from the University of North Texas and community volunteers contribute in operating the station.
Hamby talked about how local residents can use the iNaturalist app to document their own observations, share them with fellow naturalists and discuss the findings. Data collected through iNaturalist also helps scientists and resource managers understand when and where animals and plants are found.
According to Hamby, Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center has logged about 15,000 observations thorough iNaturalist, while LLELA has over 103,000 and Bob Jones Nature Center & Preserve has about 6,600 observations.
Hamby said LLELA is one of the top 149 bird observation areas in the nation. Martin said bird watchers help drive nature tourism and explained how Texas A&M University helped shift McAllen in South Texas into a nature tourism destination.
“They have a huge bird nature tourism business that is particularly robust in winter because people are coming down from the North,” Martin said. “This could be done here. This could be done at LLELA and Clear Creek.”
Denton’s Clear Creek area features family-friendly hiking trails through diverse habitats and is a gateway to more than 2,900 acres of bottomland hardwood forest, upland prairie and aquatic habitats.
Thurmond said that at Clear Creek, he gets to meet people visiting from out of town, some from around the world.
“I meet people from all over the United States that are visiting relatives and they say, ‘You’ve got to go to Clear Creek,’” Thurmond said. “People from Plano come out there. There’s people from England and other countries that are out there.”
Thompson said Ray Roberts Lake State Park is one of the state’s top three most visited parks.
“If you’re looking for a nature experience, that is where you want to camp,” Martin said.
Community group Friends of Northeast Denton has been fighting to protect and defend the rural area’s unique ecology, which includes Clear Creek.
Beckmann said the North Central Texas Council of Governments has rated northeast Denton with the highest score for ecological importance in the entire 12-county Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Beckmann said abundant wildlife and plant diversity make it a popular spot for hiking and outdoor activities for individuals and group outings, such as school field trips.
“So, right now, the city of Denton is developing a plan to basically set the stage for development for the entire northeast area,” Beckmann said. “And a lot of that is pretty high-density housing, and that would include expansion of rural roadways out there in northeast Denton.”
Beckmann said Friends of Northeast Denton and some Denton City Council members have communicated with local state senators seeking to make the historic Hartlee Field Ranch into a state park. Texas voters recently approved Proposition 14 in the constitutional amendment election to create a parks conservation fund, with the goal of improving state parks and purchase more land for the parks system.
“We propose that the historical 826-acre Hartlee Field Ranch that was once used to train glider pilots in World War II be preserved as a state park,” Beckmann said.
“Denton County is one of the fastest-developing areas and the county judge sees it as a priority for the county to maintain this area — get that ecotourism and economic development,” Wetherbee said.
Keister said the city parks staff, volunteers and the Master Naturalists work pretty well together in Lewisville.
Martin said it is pivotal for locals to continue to ask city and county leaders to help nature parks become tourism attractions, even if it means bugging them nicely repeatedly.
“We’re obviously at a very pivotal time with the rapid development that’s going on,” Martin said. “And we have to move very quickly. 2024 is going to be an absolutely essential year for preserving the nature in Denton County.”