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Collin County's Connemara Meadow Preserve being restored to its former glory
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
By SAM HODGES / The Dallas Morning News
Rich Jaynes knows he's unusual in his love of grasses, particularly species native to Texas. So he was teasing, but just a little, when he showed off some sideoats grama to the dozen people he was leading on a nature walk at Connemara Meadow Preserve."See this guy right here?" he said, caressing a straw-colored stalk. "This is the state grass of Texas! Who doesn't have a tear in their eye? This is a beautiful grass. Don't call it 'grandma.' Then you'd be offending it. Fighting words."
Not a few people love Connemara, a haven of green and quiet off busy Alma Drive on the border of Plano and Allen. And those who know it best say the meadow is making a comeback, in biodiversity and overall health, after a period of heavy use.
But public access to the privately owned conservation area remains limited to weekend tours led by volunteers like Jaynes. Those in charge of the meadow would like to see it open again on a daily basis – on the meadow's terms.
That means gentle use, no pets, and a staff member on-site to make sure nature, not recreation, is the priority.
"I would love to have the funding to hire a sanctuary manager," said Gailon Brehm, who heads the meadow committee of Connemara Conservancy. "We could provide almost full-time access, with the volunteer team we have."
Through the 1970s, Frances Montgomery Williams worried that open space was disappearing because of development. In 1981, the Connemara Conservancy Foundation began with her gift of the meadowland, part of her family's property. The foundation's mission would expand to land protection across North Texas, through arranging conservation easements.
Meanwhile, the public began to find its way to Connemara Meadow Preserve, which offers an upper and lower meadow, stands of hardwoods, and a wetlands border in the form of Rowlett Creek.
For about two decades, the preserve drew crowds for an annual outdoor sculpture exhibit. Others came just to get away, enchanted by a place that offers a near-total retreat from development, though subdivisions and highways are just beyond the trees.
"I used to come out here for picnics," said Dick Grote, who joined the recent nature tour. "It was the greatest cheap date in Texas."
But over the years, as population swelled nearby, Connemara became a de facto dog park.
Kirk Evans knew the place from his boyhood in Allen, and was alarmed by what he saw when he and his wife moved back in 2001.
"There was dog mess everywhere," the Allen ISD science teacher said. "We were kind of bummed."
Conservancy leaders tried to require that dogs be kept on leashes and picked up after. But there was no enforcement, so little changed.
"We decided to close it and take a breath," Brehm said.
Sprucing it up
That was about three years ago. Since then, areas that had been worn to bare soil have become lush again. Evans and students at Norton Elementary have installed bluebird boxes and planted sideoats grama.
Jaynes discovered a patch of blackland prairie, and has recruited volunteers to help him transplant big bluestem – a native grass – from land that's being turned into a highway near Celina.
"If you look at a patch of Johnson grass, you won't find anything but Johnson grass in there," Jaynes said of that non-native species. "In blackland prairie, you'll find dozens of species of plants growing in harmony with native tall grasses."
Evans and fellow educators have had hundreds of students at Connemara in recent years, and adults have experienced the place through Saturday plant and bird-watching tours.
But the "Temporarily Closed" sign nearly always remains in place.
Hoping to correct that, conservancy leaders have hired an executive director with a fundraising background. Luanne Samuel will raise money for the meadow preserve and the organization's broader conservation work.
To have an on-site manager – counting salary, benefits and expenses – will cost about $90,000 annually. Samuel plans to target corporations, foundations and individuals.
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