Nature Center offers up-close glimpse of desert
FORT DAVIS — From a fast-moving car, the desert can look barren, with only the occasional skin-snagging cactus to break the monotony.
Take a nose-to-spine look at it, though, and you'll find an unexpected (and not always prickly) world packed with critters, plants and unusual geological formations.
One good place to get that up-close look? The Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center and Botanical Gardens outside of Fort Davis.
At the center, visitors can tromp through a box canyon, wet their toes in a spring that's flowing despite the drought or amble through a 1,400-square foot greenhouse bristling with 200 types of cacti.
We stopped by recently, spent a couple of hours hiking trails that crisscross the 507-acre property, watched from a ridge as a herd of more than 20 deer charged through a canyon far below and studied an excellent hilltop exhibit that explains the volcanic formation of surrounding mountains.
The Chihuahuan Desert, of which this area is part, encompasses 220,000 square miles and stretches from Albuquerque, N.M., to just north of Mexico City. It's the largest of four North American deserts, and with 3,000 species of plants, one of the most biologically diverse arid regions in the world. The nature center alone is home to 115 species of butterflies.
"When I moved out here, people said, 'But the desert is so ugly.' To me, the beauty is there. You just have to get out and walk through it and see it up close," says Cathryn Hoyt, executive director of the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute, which operates the nature center. "Our goal is to get people to look at the desert and appreciate it."
The last year has been a rough one for the institute, which was formed in 1974.
A wet 2010, followed by a hard freeze and then severe drought created acres of crisp, dry vegetation that served as fuel when fires flared in the spring. High winds pushed the blazes around the Fort Davis area, consuming hillsides and homes.
Most scientists agree that occasional fire is needed to keep grasslands healthy. They're less certain about the benefit of fire in semi-arid grasslands, especially when it's people-made.
"We don't have evidence here that fires were as important," says Hoyt, a paleoecologist whose specialty is studying climate and vegetation change over the past 40,000 years.
Interestingly, Hoyt had lobbied to conduct a controlled burn on part of the property to help study the effects of fire. A test burn hadn't been approved, but the wildfires that sprang up are giving Hoyt, whose home was destroyed, and others plenty to contemplate.
"I'm a true believer in miracles, because it burned exactly what we wanted to burn," she said. "It didn't burn buildings, the botanical gardens or hiking trails. It just burned grassland."
The contrast between burned and unburned swathes of land at the center is providing a good case study for researchers, who are interested in what life is coming back and how quickly.
Hoyt says it could take black grama grass 30 or more years to recover but that she's been heartened by how quickly some other plants are coming back.
Many visitors won't even notice which areas have burned, and there's still plenty to see.
We clambered over rock outcrops, gazed at mountains in the distance and wrapped up our visit with spin through the exhibits at the visitors center. (There's a nice gift shop packed with nature-themed items.)
I left with a new appreciation of life in the desert, beyond the cactus.