I-20 WILDLIFE PRESERVE
TEXAS ARCHITECT MAGAZINE
The semi-arid regional landscape of the Texas High Plains are home to a very significant and ephemeral phenomenon called ‘playa lakes’ or simply, ‘playas’. Playas are perennial lakes that are sustained by precipitation, have little, if any, outlet flow and lose their volume to evaporation and infiltration over the course of hot summers and prolonged drought. They are important sources of water and nutrients for wildlife, serving significant roles in sustaining the health and stamina of birds migrating through the Western Branch of the Central Flyway. Additionally playas are the primary source of recharge for the Ogallala Aquifer which spans from South Dakota to Texas. More than 60,000 playas exist in the Southwest region of the Unites States. Very few of these are publicly protected and conserved for wildlife and only two are under under municipal ownership. In Southwest Midland an 87-acre wildlife preserve surrounding a 26-acre playa lake abuts Interstate 20 and a collection of commercially zoned tracts of land. This parcel was donated to the City of Midland in the late 1960’s but was unable to accumulate the funding necessary to construct the park until recently. Over the past few decades a handful of local volunteers, in conjunction with The Midland Naturalists, have worked to maintain the park’s natural ecosystem while using the space as bird and wildlife viewing area.
Turning into the park, each visitor passes by the wonderfully detailed pair of plasma-cut, weathered steel gates and signage, emblazoned with the parks signature dragon-fly silhouette; a recurring theme seen throughout the park. Driving down a narrow dirt road toward the main building and parking area the passing landscape depicts a quintessential West Texas panorama, complete with sparsely littered low-lying shrubs and the occasional oil pump jack.
The main building, consisting of the entrance, information wall and two restrooms is a single low-slung shed roof structure set behind a strongly horizontal steel channel fence and sliding gate. The open gate and roof structure above perfectly frames a view of the lush greenery and the trail-head beyond, an incredibly inviting juxtaposition to the stark arid landscape of the surrounding area. The entrance introduces us to the extent of the man-made material palate (Ipe, weathered steel and galvanized steel) seen throughout the rest of the project, serving as a wonderfully tranquil encroachment to the natural setting of the preserve.
Shortly after setting off on the 1.25 mile path, the trail transitions from recycled road-base to ipe decking, moving out from under the shade of the mesquite tree’s canopy and into the marshland. Limiting human invasion and displacement to the natural ecosystem was an important part of the design team’s thesis, a fact evident in the construction of the boardwalk system. It is a simple but sophisticated modular system of prefabricated deck sections pinned together end to end. Each module utilizes adjustable galvanized steel legs set atop a 2’ square wood platform base, halting the need for intrusive concrete footings in the delicate marshland. In times of extreme flood the boardwalk is allowed to gently rise with the water level while held in place with intermittent steel cabling anchored to the ground. The boardwalk serves the experience of the preserve well by breaking past the outer fringe of the marsh, drawing visitors out to walk inches above the water bristling with all types of aquatic life.
The ipe walk quietly slips back to the recycled road base and the trail continues under the shade of the tree canopy above. At times dense clusters of native plants hug the edges of the trail so tight the adjacent wetland beyond seems to disappear and we are left only with the enduring sounds of the preserve around us. At prescribed intervals along the trail seven bird blinds are perched just on the rim of the wetland, giving the audience a perfect vantage point to inconspicuously observe the preserve’s primitive routine.
Each blind, a derivation of the same archetype, contains a similar pattern language while adjusting its dimensions, orientation and armature as needed by its own specific site requirements and limitations. A thin steel rectangular structure with ipe decking and wire mesh guard-railing serves as the walkway leading to the entrance of the blinds. Individual walkways adjusts to the conditions of the site, allowing for grade changes or additional ipe boards for camouflaging. The blinds are minimal, but elegant; consisting of horizontally oriented ipe facade attached to a thin weathered steel structure with a steel deck shed roof. The boards are spaced apart from each other, allowing for breezes and a fantastic pattern of light and shadow that slowly traces along the interior of the blinds with the movement of the sun across the sky. In a tremendous marriage between beauty and necessity the design team created a system of operable ipe boards across the length of the facade which flip up, allowing for an increased sight line of the marsh and wildlife beyond. The series of operable boards create a new layer of character and identity to each bird blind, diagramming the changing pattern of use throughout the days and months of the year.
In addition to the blinds, a tall Hawk viewing tower sprouts upward, hugging the more heavily forested area of the preserve. The ADA compliant ramp draws you slowly up with the occasional prescribed landing doubling as a viewing station along the way to the top. The tower’s weathered steel structure blends well with the landscape and even resembles an abstraction of the adjacent tree trunks. From the highest platform of the tower a spectacular view unfolds, and for the first time we are able to see the full extent of the playa.
Although the steady hum of tires over pavement blends well with the enduring cacophony of birds and cicadas it is hard to forget the proximity of the highway and industrialized areas just beyond the tree line. The delicate balance between the natural and manmade is pervasive but heightens the experience and permits a rousing appreciation of the years of hard work put into this preserve.