Our History

Riverbottom Trail by Hillwood Middle School, Keller ISD

Our Story Continues

Since 1974, the Friends of the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge has existed to support the Nature Center. From developing educational programs to caring for the bison herd and other wildlife ambassadors to providing ongoing financial support, the organization has grown to more than 1,300 members and funded millions of dollars in improvements over its nearly 50-year history. Learn more about our rich history and our vision for the future.

A few Audubon members started the Nature Center, which is the largest city-owned nature center in the United States. But it couldn’t function very well without all of the Friends who support it.

Greer Island from Canyon Ridge Trail by FWNC&R Staff

Our Past Informs Our Future

A Common Goal

The Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge can trace its origins to the Fort Worth chapter of the Audubon Society. In January 1964, the local chapter formed a committee to seek a sanctuary near Fort Worth that would help assure the best chance of survival for the wildlife and plant species that are found in the area. On February 12, 1964, the Fort Worth Park Board designated a 381-acre location on upper Lake Worth as a “wildlife sanctuary and nature preserve” and gave the Fort Worth Audubon Society the responsibility for developing it.

Earliest Beginnings

When was the Nature Center’s true beginning, however? A great Fort Worth fire, albeit so very important to the life cycle of prairies, was one of the driving forces that resulted in the impoundment of Lake Worth in 1914. Designed not only to serve as a source of drinking water to the thirsty town, the lake also was designated as a resource for better control of potentially devastating fires in a town whose buildings were then constructed largely of combustible wood. Much of what makes the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge special is its serendipitous geographic relationship to upper Lake Worth, which is nearly completely contained within the Nature Center.

In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) chose the area to construct one of its camps and create a state park, ST-31-T, or State Park No. 31, Texas. About 200 members and staff personnel of CCC Camp No. 1816 were located south of the Nature Center across the Jacksboro Highway on the shore of Lake Worth near Sunset Park. While a state park did not materialize, ample evidence remains today of the CCC work completed at the Nature Center. The rock steps of the Caprock and Canyon Ridge trails are still solidly in place. The remnants of the rock shelters that the CCC built are still at Lone Point, Rest-A-While, and Broadview, along with stone and concrete picnic tables and restroom facilities encountered on the Canyon Ridge Trail and elsewhere.

In 1958, Liberty Mission leased 109 acres for the purpose of forming the Fort Worth Rehabilitation Farm, which remained in operation until 1984. Several facilities were built to house and feed the inhabitants of the farm. After remodeling, one of those structures became the Nature Center’s service center in 1993. Another structure is currently used as open storage for various items.

Establishing a Nature Preserve

In 1964, the Fort Worth Audubon Society submitted its formal request to the City to create a nature sanctuary. Little could Fort Worth Audubon member and nature activist Margaret Parker and her Audubon Society member friends have begun to imagine what would ultimately evolve from their activist response to a reduction of bird habitat at what was then one of their favorite birding spots in the southern area of the Fort Worth Botanic Garden. They realized then that a dedicated nature refuge was needed for birding enthusiasts and other nature-loving residents of Fort Worth to be able to appreciate and learn the lessons the natural world had to teach them. Fort Worth Audubon Society President John Wilson and Field Trip Chair Margaret Parker initially brought their concerns to the City’s Park Board in the spring of 1963. At a repeat presentation on January 8, 1964, to Park and Recreation Department Director Charles B. Campbell Jr. and the department’s board, Audubon Conservation Committee Co-Chair Mrs. Robert E. Hardwicke re-expressed concerns and made a request for “assistance of the park board in locating…a plot of undeveloped land — say a minimum of 50 acres” to establish a “Community Nature Center.”

The geographic area for the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge’s ancestral entity, the Greer Island Nature Center and Wildlife Refuge, was designated by resolution of the Park Board on February 17, 1964, as a wildlife sanctuary and nature preserve. The area consisted of Greer Island plus the surrounding water and shoreline, encompassing approximately 380 acres in all.

The Audubon Society lost little time in preparing Greer Island for its future. The land was offered to the Children’s Museum on February 4, 1964, for use as an outdoor laboratory, extending its “nature service.” Through supervised use by the general public for nature study, the Nature Center would soon begin to provide positive benefits from outdoor educational programs. After careful consideration, the Children’s Museum accepted the offer to undertake initial management and development of programs at the Greer Island Nature Center and Wildlife Refuge.

On March 10, 1964, Margaret Parker accompanied renowned birder (author of the 1961 Birds of Tarrant County) and University of Dallas science professor Warren Pulich to the newly formed Nature Center to mark the first trail on Greer Island. It was that trail that would earn the Nature Center its first national recognition in 1971. The first of 8,300 feet of trails was cut on March 11, 1964. The Audubon Society met on Greer Island on Saturday, April 4, 1964, for island cleanup and a picnic lunch. Following election of officers for 1964 to 1965, the rest of the day was spent hiking the new trails to explore the island and observe its diverse flora and fauna. Margaret Parker recalled that “one of the first activities was nailing up signs on trees: ‘Do not enter with guns, dogs, or ax.’” The Greer Island Nature Center’s first tour was, according to Margaret Parker, two busloads of preschool children on what turned out to be a cold and windy March day.

Audubon’s retiring president, John Wilson, lauded its Special Conservation Committee’s work to establish the Nature Center and the Park Board for its “splendid consideration” and cooperation in helping develop the area. The need for a refuge naturalist soon became evident, and Texas A&M graduate William “Bill” Spalsbury was hired by the City on June 17, 1964. He remained in that position until April 1967. Hired in September 1968, Rick Pratt was noted for having provided “excellent training sessions for docents at the shelter on Greer Island.” Early docents were drawn from Audubon Society members, teacher’s aides, and Junior League of Fort Worth members, including Midge Randolph, Katie Casstevens, Knowla Morran, the Bill Barneys, and the Joe Lowes.

During the first few years, 150 species of birds were identified, including phalaropes; herons; reddish, great, and snowy egrets; bitterns; geese; and 18 species of ducks. In addition, 35 species of trees and shrubs and 36 species of wildflowers were listed.

Growth Over the Years

The City of Fort Worth expanded the Nature Center to 3,000 acres in 1967 on the recommendation of the Fort Worth Conservation Council. In 1971, a $70,000 interpretive center was built on the site chosen by Nature Center naturalist Rick Pratt on the newly available land. The building was funded in part by a $40,000 federal grant from the Land and Water Conservation Fund for the Nature Center’s development; the City provided the remainder. The completed building was named the Robert E. Hardwicke Interpretive Center at the recommendation of Mrs. John G. (Ginny) Richards. Hardwicke was considered one of the most effective advocates of conservation in Tarrant County and the state of Texas. He and Mrs. Hardwicke were very influential in acquiring Greer Island for the City of Fort Worth as a nature center and refuge.

The dedication ceremony for the Interpretive Center and recognition of the Greer Island National Recreation Trail, the state’s first, was held in 1971 on Greer Island. In attendance were U.S. Bureau of Outdoor Recreation Regional Director Maurice D. Arnold of Denver, Nature Center staff, and an audience of more than 50 men and women interested in and dedicated to the cause. Arnold presented certificates and signs from the Department of the Interior to Park Board Chairman Charles A. Ringler and Park and Recreation Director Charles Campbell designating the trail as part of the national system created by Congress in 1968. Arnold had special praise for “the city fathers who recognize that a hostile environment helps create hostile people. Cities with good park and recreation programs have better kids, better payrolls, less hostility, and fewer problems.”

Around this time, an advisory board was formed to assist with input from various interested groups in planning for future development.

In January 1971, the Nature Center took its first steps toward fencing the Refuge to prevent vandalism and dumping. As a result of efforts by the Meadowbrook Garden Club, Junior League of Fort Worth, and a gift from Mrs. Harry Wallengburg, the Boardwalk over the Lotus Marsh opened in 1974. In 1975, the name Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge was formally adopted.

In 1977, the first prairie dog town opened to visitors, and in 1978, the road around Lake Worth closed at Greer Island to control vandalism and dumping. By 1980, the Nature Center had outgrown the Interpretive Center, so construction for an additional auditorium, library, and offices commenced, opening in February 1981. In 1985, Women in Construction renovated an old homesite, complete with a windmill, as a shelter house for programs and groups. Today, the facility is known as the Alice Ashley Shelter.

The Friends Organize

On June 1, 1974, at a meeting on Greer Island, 40 members of the founding group dedicated to the creation of the Nature Center decided to form a nonprofit group, the Friends of the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge, to advocate for its continued development and ongoing financial support. The group elected Margaret Parker as its first president. By September 10, 1974, membership had grown to 112 members. On June 1, 1975, the group held its first annual meeting on the Refuge with a covered dish supper. The 40 members present elected Mrs. Foster Clayton as the new president. By the January 12, 1976, meeting of the Friends board, the Friends of the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge had officially incorporated.

In 2004, Fort Worth conservationist and philanthropist Marty Leonard founded the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge Conservancy to advocate for capital improvements at the Nature Center. She served as the Conservancy’s president until 2011. At that time, the group merged with the Friends of the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge Inc. She became president-elect of the newly merged organization and served as its president from 2014 to 2016.

Since the beginning, the Friends have been instrumental in developing numerous programs at the Nature Center, from JoAnn Karges and her butterfly expertise to Marsha McLaughlin and Canoe Fest, B.J. Collins and Buffalo Boogie, Jackie DeMarais and the Haunted Trails, Dora Sylvester’s wildflowers and herbarium, guided tours by the Junior League, bluebird houses built by Mabry Wray, purchase of an aquarium, installation of cedar paneling, and numerous other projects.

Today, with more than 1,300 members, the Friends have evolved into an award-winning organization whose sole purpose is to financially support the Nature Center, providing more than $3 million in funding since 2017. Projects such as the completion of the first phase of the rehabilitation of the Lotus Marsh Boardwalk to implementation of major improvements at the Greer Island trailhead, research studies to provide valuable insight into natural resources best management practices, final completion of the Marty Leonard Lotus Marsh Boardwalk rehabilitation (which will include replacing the original collapsed boardwalk), and other important services such as care of the bison herd and other wildlife ambassadors are just a few of our successes.

Celebrating our Future

From its earliest history, who would have guessed that 50 years after the great fire of 1914, the high ground that would become closely related sister islands as the new Lake Worth filled to its capacity would become the Greer Island Nature Center and Wildlife Refuge, Fort Worth’s “Community Nature Center”? Now, more than 50 years later and after many thousands of excited, bright-eyed school children and their equally enthralled parents have learned many of the lessons nature has to teach us by visiting our Nature Center, we can celebrate what is arguably one of the best, earliest, and largest urban nature parks in the U.S.

Old 1964 group photo of Audubon members on a field trip to Greer Island at the Fort Worth Nature Center
1964 Audubon Field Trip to Greer Island by FWNC&R Archives
Old 1964 photo of Audubon group at Greer Island at the Fort Worth Nature Center
1964 Audubon Field Trip to Greer Island by FWNC&R Archives
Old 1964 photo of Margaret Parker drinking coffee at Greer Island at the Fort Worth Nature Center
Margaret Parker, 1964 Audubon Field Trip to Greer Island by FWNC&R Archives
Old 1964 map hand-drawn by Warren Pulich of the original trails at Greer Island at the Fort Worth Nature Center
1964 Trail Map of Greer Island Drawn by Warren Pulich by FWNC&R Archives
Old 1964 plan hand-drawn by Warren Pulich of the original trails, levee, and parking lot at Greer Island at the Fort Worth Nature Center
1964 Trail Map of Greer Island With Plans for Trails, Levee, and Parking Drawn by Warren Pulich by FWNC&R Archives
Old 1965 Fort Worth Star-Telegram map of the new Fort Worth Nature Center
1965 Fort Worth Star-Telegram Map of New Nature Center by FWNC&R Archives
Old 1960s photo of a tour of young kids at Greer Island at the Fort Worth Nature Center
1960s Greer Island Tour by FWNC&R Archives
Old 1960s photo of a staff member giving a tour at Greer Island at the Fort Worth Nature Center
1960s Greer Island Tour by FWNC&R Archives
Old 1960s photo of a staff member giving a tour from a parking lot at Greer Island at the Fort Worth Nature Center
1960s Greer Island Tour by FWNC&R Archives
Old 1973 photo of the original Boardwalk bridge under construction at the Fort Worth Nature Center
Phase I of the New Boardwalk in 1973 by FWNC&R Archives
Old 1972 photo of Jessie Maye Smith, Margaret Parker, Harold Arnold, and Ted Hofsiss at the Fort Worth Nature Center
At the Nature Center in 1972, (L to R) Jessie Maye Smith, Margaret Parker, Harold Arnold, and Ted Hofsiss by FWNC&R Archives
Old 1976 photo of the original Lotus Marsh Boardwalk sign at the Fort Worth Nature Center
Boardwalk Sign in 1976 by FWNC&R Archives
Old 1980 photo of young men constructing the original Boardwalk at the Fort Worth Nature Center
Boardwalk Construction in 1980 by FWNC&R Archives
Old 1980 photo of the completed original Boardwalk at the Fort Worth Nature Center
Completed Boardwalk in 1980 by FWNC&R Archives
Man and woman on Boardwalk at Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge
At the Boardwalk in 1999, (L to R) Retired Nature Center Director Wayne Clark and JoAnn Karges by FWNC&R Archives

Want To Learn More?

For a quick historical overview, you can view the 50th anniversary commemorative video or download the 50th anniversary publication.