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Dogwood Canyon Debuts

by Jerome Weeks 8 Sep 2011 4:11 PM

A new Audubon Center has opened in Cedar Hill. Dallas is now the only US county with two. The reason? Dogwood Canyon’s incredible ecosystem.


Cedar Hill christens the Dogwood Canyon Audubon Center this Friday — with a free, grand opening weekend beginning Saturday. With the Trinity River Center, this makes Dallas the only county in the country with two Audubon preserves. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports the new center is in one of the most unusual ecosystems in North Texas.

  • KERA radio report:

  • Expanded online report:

[bird calls and forest sounds start and continue under]

David Hurt is sitting in the woods 50 feet behind the Dogwood Canyon Audubon Center.

Hurt: “Off in the distance I hear two different, male, white-eyed vireos calling. It’s kind of late for these birds to be doing anything, but I guess this wonderful cool weather we’re having has brought out a burst of energy.”

The new Dogwood Canyon Audubon Center. Photo: Jerome Weeks

Hurt is the owner of the Park Cities franchise of Wildbirds Unlimited. When he and his wife Kim came to North Texas, they looked for a bit of wilderness to buy as a retreat. Fourteen years ago, they found 40 acres near the Boy Scouts’ Camp Wisdom.

Hurt: “I had always come across I-20 and noticed these hills. So I found the most remote place I could find in Dallas County.”

But the Hurts put off building a home here because they kept discovering rarities on hikes. Like the golden-cheeked warblers Hurt found in 2000 – birds that hadn’t been seen in the Dallas area for decades. Or the flowering dogwood trees more typically found in the acidic soils of East Texas — the stand Hurt discovered now give the canyon its name. In fact, the 300 acres of the canyon combine bits of ecosystems from East, West, North and Central Texas.

McGill: “Because Dogwood Canyon has been so lightly used over the years, it’s just this rare combination of plants and animals that we probably don’t really see anywhere else in Texas.”

Patty McGill is the director of the Dogwood Center. She says the canyon’s unique not simply because it was never bulldozed. It’s a bird migration corridor. It’s also one of the northernmost outcroppings of a limestone ridge called the Austin Chalk that extends up from Central Texas and brings some of that area’s vegetation with it.

In other words, it’s our little bit of the Hill Country. While the Trinity River Audubon Center highlights the flat, blackland prairie on one side, the Great Trinity Forest on the other, and in between, the river with its migrating water fowl, Dogwood Canyon is dry, full of tangled red oaks and ashe juniper trees with 300-foot drops, views that extend to Arlington and such oddities as the black-chinned hummingbird, which is normally found west of Tarrant County.

Here’s a sign of how unusual Dogwood Canyon is: We’re not even quite sure what animals and plants are in it.

McGill: “We are going to find that out. We’ll be getting going with some bird surveys that people can help us with seasonally. So, over time, we’ll build up a database about what really happens here in the canyon.”

Gary Cunningham is the founder of Cunningham Architects, the designers of two of the most remarkable buildings in North Texas, the Cistercian Chapel and the Addison Centre Theatre (aka the WaterTower Theatre). He designed the Dogwood visitors’ center as a dark, low-slung, V-shaped building pushed right up into the trees, while it stands, more or less, on concrete stilts to permit water drainage to pass under.

The building has 6,000 square feet with two classrooms, a shop, a community room, offices and a viewing room (left). Unlike Cunningham’s Cistercian or Addison buildings,  and unlike the striking Trinity River Center designed by Antone Predock, this facility is meant to disappear. It’s low-budget and low-key. The project, says Cunningham, was meant to emphasize the canyon wilderness, not the architecture.

Cunningham: “So everything about the building is background. The wood is a very simple wood; it’s called accoya. It’s stained a very dark color so the building recedes into the tree line.”

But there is one thing that’s impossible to overlook on the site: a massive, 40-foot concrete basin that originally housed a giant AT&T telecommunications satellite dish. As a cost-saving measure, the basin wasn’t dismantled. It’s now a sunken garden at the center’s entrance. At the moment, it still looks like a concrete crater, but when the trees grow around the wooden deck inside, it could prove to be a distinctive feature.

The Dogwood Canyon center wouldn’t be here if Hurt hadn’t heard John Flicker, the former president of the Audubon Society. He extolled the development of urban nature preserves as a way for city dwellers, especially children, to connect with nature. Hurt sold the national society on Dogwood Canyon as a site for one of its flagship centers, and they began piecing together different parcels of land and raising money for construction. The total price tag was $8 million.

One of the Dogwood Canyon trails is named for David and Kim Hurt.

Hurt (with dogwood, left): “My wife and I are just birdseed retailers. If we’re going to give the equivalent of half of our net worth away, it needs to have longevity. And the way of making this place have longevity is to have a building here that brings children out here and scout troops and community groups that connect this city back to the land.”

[bird calls]

Weeks: “What’s that?”

[bird calls]

Hurt: “There’s a Carolina chickadee calling right there … “

[bird calls]

Beginning Saturday, Dogwood Canyon Audubon Center holds a free, grand opening weekend.

  • Linda Cooke

    This is a nice piece on Dogwood Canyon, but there is an inaccurary in the name of the purchasers of the land. They are David and Kim Hurt, as in ouch. Not Hunt as in bang, lol!

  • Jerome Weeks

    You are right. My first, real, on-air embarrassment. We’ve corrected the online story, and I’m correcting the radio piece for this afternoon. Thanks.

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