Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine   


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Watery Wonderland


Aldo Leopold, the father of wildlife ecology, spelled out his land ethic in stark and simple terms. Land management is done right, he wrote, “when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty” of the land’s plants and animals. It is done wrong, he noted, “when it tends otherwise.”

The John Bunker Sands Wetland Center, 25 miles southeast of Dallas, embraces Leopold’s vision of what is right. The center’s healthy ecosystem supports vibrant populations of animals and plants, serves as a massive water filter and lifts the spirits of visitors who marvel at the diversity. 

The wetlands teem with life, providing a wildlife show for those strolling along the meandering boardwalk. More than 270 species of birds, including sandhill cranes and 21 species of ducks and geese, have been sighted here, along with river otters, bobcats, American minks and beavers. The surface of the water constantly ripples as tiny fish break the surface. Blanchard’s tree frogs, the size of a human fingernail, hop across algae mats and lily pads. Blue dragonflies (called Comanche skimmers) and green herons rest on the boardwalk’s handrails.

The sounds of aquatic animals — glugs and slaps — fill the air, as does the buzz of insects and the calls of egrets, herons and ducks flying overhead. Patches of animal scat from coyotes, fox, bobcat and other nocturnal visitors form curious deposits on the boardwalk.  

How these wetlands came to be, in an area drained long ago for farming and cattle grazing, is the story of the John Bunker Sands Wetland Center and the Rosewood Ranches, this year’s winner of Texas’ highest honor for private land conservation, the Leopold Conservation Award. The award, presented at a May banquet, is sponsored by the Sand County Foundation and the American Farmland Trust, in partnership with TPWD’s Lone Star Land Steward Awards program. Recognizing extraordinary achievement in voluntary conservation, the $10,000 award is given annually to private landowners in 24 states. It honors Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), considered the founder of wildlife ecology.

Leopold, a forester, hunter, educator, philosopher, writer and thoughtful observer of the natural world, was a visionary who recognized the devastation wrought on the natural world by “progress” and agriculture. On his 100-acre farm in Wisconsin, he observed the interactions of the plants and animals and worked to restore forests and grasslands, undoing the ecological harm of farming.

During this process, he penned a collection of essays that became A Sand County Almanac. In the book, Leopold shared his thoughts on the interconnectedness of people, plants and animals in a healthy ecosystem. He advocated for the adoption of a “land ethic” to restore ecological balance.

“A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land. … By land is meant all of the things on, over, or in the earth,” Leopold wrote.  


LIKE LEOPOLD, John Bunker Sands (1948-2003) was a visionary with a land ethic. He had an ecological conscience and shouldered responsibility for the health of his family’s land and its interdependency with the surrounding community. He was a director of his family’s multinational business, the Rosewood Corporation; the company’s Rosewood Ranches runs cattle-raising operations within the Trinity River basin in North Texas.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, Sands followed his vision and oversaw the re-creation of wetlands on the ranches. By creating levees, with gates that could be opened and closed to flood fields, Sands’ work grew into 2,100 acres of seasonal wetlands that provide habitat for migratory birds and high-quality grazing land for livestock.

Sands died young from cancer, but the wetlands he established morphed into a one-of-a-kind nonprofit through the subsequent creation of a unique public-private partnership between the North Texas Municipal Water District and the Rosewood Corporation. The John Bunker Sands Wetland Center provides “education, research and conservation opportunities pertaining to water reuse and supply, wetland systems and wildlife habitat.”

The East Fork Water Reuse Project, one of the largest constructed wetlands in the U.S., makes use of much of Sands’ wetlands, 1,840 acres. The project diverts treated wastewater from the East Fork of the Trinity River.

The wastewater enters the wetlands through an intake structure, where a pump station transfers it to three sedimentation basins. The water sits in these basins for 24 hours, allowing solids to settle out. The water then moves through a series of 24 cells — some opening by gravity and others by manual gates — over a period of up to 10 days so wetland plants can naturally filter or “polish” the water. This process reduces nitrate by about 65 percent, phosphate by about 60 percent and suspended solids by about 45 percent.

Finally, the water is pumped 43 miles through a huge pipe to Lake Lavon, where it blends with other water for further treatment and its ultimate use by 2 million Texans. Fifteen to 20 percent of the lake’s water comes from the project — the more than 102,000 acre-feet of water per year is enough to satisfy the needs of nearly a million people.

The native wetland vegetation — almost 2 million plants of 20 different species initially propagated onsite — includes squarestem spikerush, pickerelweed, water primrose and giant bulrush. The plants provide a refuge for wildlife but also perform their designated job of phytoremediation, a long name for cleaning the effluent-rich water pulled from the Trinity River.

“[People] really don’t do very well when there are nitrates and phosphates in the water,” said Carol Garrison, an educator at the center. “However, as far as the plants are concerned, that is a 24-hour-a-day, high-nutrition buffet because the main ingredients in plant fertilizer are nitrates and phosphates.”

At the ranch, a 1,200-acre flooded forest restoration area forms the Bunker Sands Mitigation Bank, used by developers to offset their environmental impact in the East Fork watershed. Ahead of his time, Sands conceived of this mitigation bank in 1992, before wetland mitigation became legally required by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the mid-’90s. Both the wetlands and forest provide valuable wildlife habitat and are home to a variety of aquatic and terrestrial species, including a pair of American bald eagles, which have been raising offspring there for 16 years.  



FROM A YOUNG age, Leopold was an observer of nature who journaled about what he witnessed.

“My earliest impressions of wildlife and its pursuit retain a vivid sharpness of form, color, and atmosphere that half a century of professional wildlife experience has failed to obliterate or improve upon,” he wrote in A Sand County Almanac.

The Wetland Center, which opened in 2010, honors Leopold’s early experiences by providing an environment that welcomes children. In this educational hub, more than 45,000 children and 29,000 adults have learned about the system’s hydrology and reveled in the watery environment.

Private- and public-school students, homeschoolers and scout groups come on day trips for hands-on lessons about wetland ecology and how these wetlands polish their water. Students scoop water out of the marsh, test its quality and learn to identify the macroinvertebrates in it. They practice bird and plant identification, too.

“[At first] they don't want to be here — they’re in the back, leaning back,” says Nicole Ujita, an education coordinator at the center. “Then, when we go and collect macroinvertebrates and ID them, they’re so into it. They get competitive about the number that they find or the different species. They’re taking pictures of the screen because I put macroinvertebrates in petri dishes and put it up on the screen [on the wall in the lab] and they get so proud of whatever they found and sampled.”

John DePhillipo, the center’s director, hopes students find inspiration when they come to the wetlands.

“I see the opportunity for middle school and high school students — and that’s the majority of the kids that come — to learn about careers in conservation,” he says. “They can learn about what it might be like to work in conservation itself and be inspired to create the next best solution.”

When Leopold wrote about “land,” he included water as part of it.

“When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love,” he wrote in A Sand County Almanac.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. has lost more than half of its wetlands in the past couple of centuries, with human activity being the major cause of this loss. Every day, water becomes more precious as we use it at increasingly unsustainable levels. By educating the public about where water comes from and what it takes to provide high-quality drinking water, the center is teaching its visitors to “use it with love.” Visitors, who may soon drink the water polished at the wetlands or wash their hands and brush their teeth with it, come to understand that water is part of their “community.”    



LEOPOLD BELIEVED that landowners should work not just in their own interest but in the public interest as well.

“Conservation will ultimately boil down to rewarding the private landowner who conserves the public interest,” he wrote in an essay.

Conserving the public interest is the reason the Wetland Center was selected for the Leopold Award, says Lance Irving, the director of the Sand County Foundation’s Leopold Conservation Program. The award didn’t just recognize the center and its wetlands but also the Rosewood Ranches, an integral part of the ecosystem.

“The really noticeable parts — the parts with the boardwalk that people see — don’t function without the input from the Rosewood Ranches, without the behind-the scenes, off-the-beaten-path parts of the property,” Irving says. “I look at it a little bit like a restaurant. You see this beautiful plate that’s in front of you, but you don't see all the prep work and the trial-and-error that goes on behind the scenes in the kitchen to bring you this beautiful, finished product.”

The “finished product” at the wetland center is quickly becoming a model for a world grappling with environmental challenges. DePhillipo recently traveled to Russia and the Philippines to share his knowledge about how water can be cleansed using wetlands created and operated by a public-private partnership.

“What gives me goosebumps is to think about what our organization inspires,” DePhillipo says. “I see an opportunity for replication. I see promise for the future as an example of a public-private partnership for energy, for electricity, for resources, for water, or even trash … ways that public-private partnerships can help our changing population to adapt.”  


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