Some of the most unique and precious real estate in Dallas boasts well-built houses and beautiful land, but you can’t live there and none of it will ever be for sale. With only 5,000 of the original 60 million acres of native Texas blackland prairie remaining, CliffDwellers can take pride that neighboring Twelve Hills Nature Center has preserved this space and proven again how Oak Cliff honors the past. Located at Mary Cliff Road and Kyle Avenue, this urban nature preserve serves as a model for other communities to turn small, undeveloped land parcels into nature centers that encourage ecological stewardship for education and recreation. Within walking distance of several schools, single-family homes, and apartment buildings, the center offers easy access to wildlife that many people wouldn’t otherwise experience.

The board members of Twelve Hills actively reach out to the surrounding community to teach children and their families the importance of staying connected to the land. Volunteers helped clear the land, plant trees, and remove trash and poison ivy.

A new environmental program, the Nature Leadership Club, recently began with a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Federation. Based on the curriculum from the Botanical Research Institute of Texas, 16 students in grades three through five will learn how a prairie environment functions. Meeting weekly, they’ll be conducting experiments such as water sampling to study the impact of runoff from surrounding development. They’ll also be designing an outdoor classroom and assisting in construction of it. Board member Susan Schott says, “They’ll present their proposals to the Board, so we have no idea what the classroom will look like yet. It could be as simple as a circle of tree stumps.” She adds, “Whatever it is, it will blend into the area and give shade.”

The students will act as Nature Leaders during Nature Week in the spring, a popular annual event attended by over 1,000 children. The kids scatter wildflower seeds, look for wildlife and make “bird cookies” with peanut butter-covered bagels and birdseed.

The Nature Leaders also serve as advisors to make sure the center is meeting student needs for the nearby schools. Science teachers use the educational programs at Twelve Hills to dovetail with TAKS testing.

Operating as a non-profit, the center relies on grants and donations. Funds are needed to complete the front entrance, grade trails and expand the education program. An exciting development in these efforts, reports board member Irene Ellis, is a challenge grant from the Meadows Foundation. The grant will provide a one to one match of funds raised up to $69,000, and will be used to complete the trailhead entrance. The deadline for the matching money is September 1, so Ellis encourages the community to give now. Of course, donations are gratefully accepted year round.

And about those houses? They were built by the Scouts to give shelter to bats and birds, which helps cut down on the mosquito population.  Purple martin houses were recently erected, and Twelve Hills is also home to a pair of nesting red-tailed hawks. The hawks prefer the open land, which affords them good hunting opportunities.

You don’t need a real estate agent or an appointment to view these homes. Just put on your walking shoes. The center is free to the public and is open during daylight hours.

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