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On the flat West Texas horizon, a stone’s throw from the towering buildings of Midland, you might be surprised to find an urban playa lake. The 86-acre lake is the heart of the I-20 Wildlife Preserve and Jenna Welch Nature Study Center, which has almost 14 additional acres for exploration. The preserve opened in 2013 and now annually welcomes more than 24,000 visitors looking for a place to hike, bird or breathe fresh air and reconnect with nature.
In a land known for its abundance of oil and shortage of water, the preserve underscores the importance of water conservation and playa lakes, which are shallow wetlands that experience frequent, unpredictable wet-dry cycles. Playas are a vital part of the region’s ecosystem, as they recharge the Ogallala Aquifer, the main water supply for residents of the High Plains (which runs through eight states), and support nearly one-fifth of the country’s cattle, corn, cotton and wheat.
“Visitors walk in, and they’re all so shocked it’s here,” says Elaine Magruder, board president and co-founder of the preserve. “It really is a jewel. We call it Midland’s best-kept secret.”
As you walk among the large cottonwoods, bigtooth maples, black willows and western soapberry trees, you forget you’re so close to Interstate 20. Traffic is no longer audible, and the desert landscape vanishes, replaced by a peaceful oasis. Ducks dive underwater. Butterflies flutter from flower to flower, and a mockingbird sings.
Visitors can hike more than 3 miles of trails and boardwalk, of which nearly half is wheelchair accessible, bird-watch at seven observation blinds or from the two-story deck, and watch butterflies in the butterfly garden. The preserve teems with life, including coyotes, foxes, porcupines and raccoons. Guests also are encouraged to keep an eye out for the resident bobcat.
Each season brings something new. In the spring, wildflowers appear, and hummingbirds flit through. In the summer and fall, several species of migratory birds such as egrets, ibis and Mississippi kites stop over. In winter, an array of ducks makes the preserve their home.
The original 86 acres were donated to the City of Midland in the late 1960s to become a park. At that time, the city was unable to budget for the park, and so for more than 30 years the Midland Naturalists volunteered to care for the land. Birding enthusiast Jenna Welch, mother of former first lady Laura Bush, was one of those volunteers. In 2006, a three-phase master plan for the preserve was developed and approved by the city. The I-20 Wildlife Preserve became a nonprofit in 2007 and later purchased additional acreage surrounding the playa as a buffer zone.
During the second phase of the plan, the preserve received a matching grant of $1 million from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and these funds helped build the observation deck, boardwalk and trails. Now in phase three, the preserve’s board of directors has begun to raise money to build the Jenna Welch Nature Study Center, which is planned to house a visitors center.
“The Jenna Welch Nature Study Center will provide educational opportunities for children all across the Permian Basin and will give a great place for children to be able to see what the natural wildlife is here in our part of the state,” Bush says. “That is my hope for every child, that they will come to know the simple pleasures of the natural world.”
The I-20 Wildlife Preserve maintains a natural connection with early inhabitants of the area. Black willows often were planted near playas by Native Americans for the medicinal uses of its inner bark. The preserve’s logo is a dragonfly because Native Americans regarded dragonflies as a sign that water was near.
Next time you’re driving down I-20 on a quest for the great outdoors, stop by the I-20 Wildlife Preserve, where you can slow down and listen to nature.
Brenda Kissko is a member of South Plains EC. Visit her website at brendakissko.com.