Two Fort Worth nonprofits are working to save one of the oldest and endangered ecosystems in North America: the Fort Worth prairie.
The Great Plains Restoration Council’s social justice program, Restoration Not Incarceration, aims to preserve and restore the natural prairie in Texas and provides rehabilitation opportunities for young adults and youth.
This past spring, the council enlisted help from youth at the Tarrant County branch of Youth Advocate Programs Inc. They removed overgrown brush that threatened the health and biodiversity of Fort Worth’s natural prairie ecosystem. In turn, they were paid for their work and learned about ecological health.
“The youth learn about ecological health: taking care of our own mental, physical and spiritual health by taking care of the earth,” said Jarid Manos, the founder of the Great Plains Restoration Council.
Youth Advocate Programs Inc. is a national nonprofit that is located in 33 states and the District of Columbia. It works with high-risk youth and offers community-based alternatives to detention and state incarceration.
What are community-based alternatives?
Community-based alternatives are programs designed to keep youth from reentering the juvenile justice system. The programs are alternatives to incarceration or detention such as probation, restorative community programs and treatment programs, according to the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.
“We partner with Tarrant County and serve youth that come from youth justice facilities when they are released,” said Sonny Chapa, Tarrant County Youth Advocate Programs Inc. program director. “They are assigned a community-based program based on their interests to participate in.”
Everything the organization does is in the community, said Alex Alvear, assistant director of Tarrant County Youth Advocate Program Inc. While the young people are on probation, the group’s goal is to get them off probation and fully out of the system, Alvear added.
Tarrant County Youth Advocate Programs Inc. works directly with youth between the ages of 10 and 19. The youth are expected to complete 10 service hours per week for between three and four months, with about 65 young people participating at one time, Chapa said.
The Restoration Not Incarceration program works with teenagers between the ages of 16 and 18, Manos said.
“We deliver some serious conservation outcomes – I’m right there with them, and we work hard – they know I got their backs,” Manos said.
Five youth were selected to participate in Fort Worth Prairie Park work week this spring to clear overgrown brush harming the native prairie on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land near Benbrook Lake.
“These kids are out of their element – working in the prairie means they’re seeing things they wouldn’t normally see in their city,” Alvear said. “They learned real life skills, teamwork and about the importance of finishing school.”
Shane, a participant in the prairie park project, said he had a fun experience working alongside Manos. Tarrant Youth Advocate Program Inc. declined to share last names of participants, citing privacy concerns.
“He taught me a lot about myself,” Shane told the Report. “It was a good feeling – I can’t really explain. I learned about teamwork and coming together to make something happen. I know I’m going to have a good future.”
At Youth Advocate Program Inc., it is the norm for youth to be paid for their work, and it gives them a chance to see they are employable, build work skills and community connections, Alvear said.
Restoration Not Incarceration has been working with Tarrant County’s Youth Advocate Programs Inc. for two years and plans to continue the partnership in the future.
The program currently does not have a set schedule. Ideally, trips to the prairie would happen once or twice a month on weekends during the school year, Manos said.
When a restoration event is taking place, Manos lets the Youth Advocate Program know in advance so they can get involved, Chapa said. Some participants, including Shane, will head back to the prairie over the weekend of Sept. 10.
The Great Plains Restoration Council and Restoration Not Incarceration also work with partners in West Atlanta’s old growth forest and South Florida’s shark and mangrove ecosystems. Now, their efforts are headed to a new region of Texas.
The council is working with Caprock Canyons State Park in West Texas to tackle bison conservation and create a standalone preservation to support the bison population at the park.
“The next project initiative will launch Oct. 1-7 and young adults from West Atlanta will join me in a weeklong, hands-on intensive prairie restoration at the park,” Manos said.
The bison located in Caprock Canyons State Park are genetically unique – no other animals have the specific genetics of the herd in the state park, said Donald Beard, Caprock Canyons State Park Superintendent and bison conservationist.
Genetic testing conducted by Texas Parks & Wildlife discovered a rare genetic marker revealing that the herd was perhaps the last remaining group of southern plains bison, according to the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. The state park has expanded the herd’s range and, as of 2014, the herd has about 11,000 acres to roam, Beard said.
“But for the herd to be considered ‘successful,’ we need a minimum of 1,000 effective population members, meaning 1,000 breeding individuals, and the park can’t support that,” Beard said. “We don’t have the means to purchase new property, so when Jarid reached out to me with the same idea to start a standalone preservation, we’ve been progressing in the right direction.”
The preservation, if completed, places the bison back into the plains and provides genetic and physical protection for the longevity of the herd. After the council graduates a group of Fort Worth participants, Manos plans to bring a second group of teenagers to West Texas to help restore wildlife in the area.
Buffalo preservation is the ultimate goal of the Great Plains Restoration Council since its inception 12 years ago, Manos said.
“Ultimately, we are trying to create a culture of caring for the prairie in all we do and we are trying to reacquaint people with this landscape,” Manos said. “What people assume is just flyover country is so full of life – and we are going to take care of it.”
Izzy Acheson is a reporting fellow at the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.