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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host.

And I'm Melissa Block. To West Texas now and the story of a natural wonder that's been saved from encroaching development. NPR's Wade Goodwyn recently visited Palo Duro Canyon State Park when sprawl from nearby Amarillo threatened. The state and a private conservation group stepped in, preserving a unique piece of the Texas Panhandle.

WADE GOODWYN: When it comes to geography, West Texas doesn't exactly have the greatest reputation. From Mack Davis' song about how happiness is Lubbock in his rearview mirror to Larry McMurtry's novel "The Last Picture Show," the flat, treeless, endless landscape inspires feelings of windswept loneliness. There's just so much of it and so little of you. And that's why when one suddenly comes to the edge of this monotony and looks out over Palo Duro Canyon State Park - with its fork of the Red River meandering gently through the grass along the wide canyon floor - you almost sob with relief.

Superintendent RANDY FERRIS (Ranger, Palo Duro Canyon State Park): What we're looking at is the old riverbed that goes all the way back through, that actually cut the canyon about a million years ago.

GOODWYN: Superintendent Randy Ferris is in charge of Palo Duro Canyon. One hundred and twenty miles long and eight miles wide, Palo Duro lays claim as the second-largest canyon in the country. The Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River sustains a habitat that would have little chance on the open plains: big horn sheep, mule and white tail deer, coyotes, bobcats. Even a mountain lion recently took up residence. But it's the big birds that put on the real show.

Superintendent FERRIS: The real spectacular presence is the raptors. We have golden eagles, we have bald eagles. Normally during the spring and fall and summer, you'll see numbers of large birds soaring over the canyon.

GOODWYN: Now, imagine if instead of juniper and mesquite trees along the canyon rim, there were hundreds of luxury homes with swimming pools, BMWs, gas grills, wrought iron fences, and a championship golf course. For the last 20 years, development south of Amarillo has slowly been pushing toward the park. And last year, the owner of one large ranch that abuts the canyon decided to sell his 3,000 acres to developers.

Six miles of canyon rim overlooking the heart of Palo Duro Canyon would have been transformed into a high-end suburb. The park's charm - its feeling of exquisite isolation - would have been lost forever. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department sent out an alarm which was picked up by a San Francisco group called The Trust for Public Land.

Ms. NAN MCRAVEN (Director of the Texas State Office, The Trust for Public Land): You really have to go to the canyon to appreciate it and appreciate those views and understand why this particular viewshed, it was so important to the preservation of the park.

GOODWYN: Nan McRaven helped build a public-private coalition that raised $5.2 million. Last month, they deeded the ranch over to the park.

Ms. MCRAVEN: Part of our opportunity and challenges are, as we continue to populate, how do we make sure there is enough green space, open space, parks for people - for people to use?

GOODWYN: But most visitors have no idea about any of this. And that includes this family of four from Norman, Oklahoma. Stay-at-home mom Adriane Goche says they were astounded by what they found at the end of the rainbow.

Ms. ADRIANE GOCHE: I love it. I had no idea. We just moved to Norman in August, and I had no idea that something like this was this close to Norman. I was just expecting it to be flat and prairieland, but this is just a gem.

GOODWYN: Goche's sentiments have been shared by human beings for 12,000 years. The Indians' ancestors hunted mammoth between these walls. The Apache lived here, then the Comanche, Cheyenne, and Kiowa. The Indians were ambushed by the 4th Cavalry in 1874 and were quickly moved to reservations in Oklahoma. Within 10 years, the Palo Duro was developed into one of the largest ranches in the country, with more than 100,000 head of cattle and buffalo. It's the story of the Wild West in all its glory. Park ranger Randy Ferris says that during the summer they pack the natural amphitheater nightly to sing a tale of Texas.

Tell me where we're going?

Superintendent FERRIS: Right now we're walking to the backstage area of the Texas amphitheater. It's a pioneer amphitheater where we hold the play "Texas."

GOODWYN: You tell the horrible story of how the Comanche were slaughtered at Palo Duro?

Superintendent FERRIS: No, this is - this is a musical that has some elements of history. It's the battle between the farmers and the ranchers. There is a Native American presence. We do over 60,000 people in here a year.

GOODWYN: If the musical's narrative is a bit ethnically one-sided, the film at the visitors' center does a more thorough job. However history is told, the end of the story is that a small slice of the open West has been rescued for future generations. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.

BLOCK: Palo Duro Canyon State Park was built by the Civilian Conversation Corps back in the 1930s. You can see photos from that era at our website, npr.org.

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