Last Chance

Kill the river plan, save the river

Having a great time, wish you were here. I'm jostling down a dusty lane high on the ridge of the levee in a big white van with canoes on top, driven by a Hemingwayesque guide who has a great mustache, hair below his shoulders and a crumpled Aussie bush hat. We are up so high we look down on hawks patrolling a grassy plain. In the distance, cottonwoods drape pale-green branches that graze like backs of fingers on the shoulders of the river as it glides between burly, deep-cut banks.

This is the Trinity River floodplain right in the middle of downtown Dallas. But I see and hear nothing of the city in this place. If a herd of antelope came flying over the veldt pursued by cheetahs, I would be less surprised than when we make a sharp turn and suddenly I see traffic on Northwest Highway.

I'm astonished. All these years I have been a place snob. I knew about the deep wild forests farther down the river near McCommas Bluff. But the floodplain? Downtown? Nah. I just never thought of this as a serious place. You drive over it on the bridges, right? It's sort of pale green and brownish beneath you, a smudge of a place.

Today for the first time ever, the very first time since coming to Dallas almost a quarter century ago, I feel as if I finally understand the nature of this landscape. Before today, I have always understood the geography of Dallas in terms of what it is not.

Not quite as greeny and moisty as East Texas. Not as prickly and stony as the land just west of Fort Worth. Not quite as plainsish as up along the Red River nor as hilly as Central Texas. The Land of Not Quite.

But that's not what I see from the levee. Come out here on the floodplain with Charles Allen as your guide, and suddenly you see something else, something unique and strongly printed on the land, a quality I keep thinking of as African, based on what I don't know. Bogart movies, I guess. Of course, Charles Allen over there at the wheel has got me in a big Bogart mood, which could be part of it.

This is exciting, whatever it is. I feel as if I am discovering a lost land, but it is the land on which I have lived for 25 years. We buried it, cloaked it in concrete, shoved it into pipes and culverts, replaced its grass and trees with things from florist shops. Today I finally see the land.

Watch out. I'm about to start singing some really bad Arlo Guthrie.

If the Trinity River Plan that's before Congress right now dies, its death will provide us with our last opportunity to save what I am seeing today. We may have this one last window on the natural world where we dwell. This river.

To do what's right by the river, we would preserve it for just what it is today, and we would all come out here with Charles Allen and fall in love with it.

Dirty water? Yeah, there is dirty water through this stretch, although the Elm Fork, even more natural and unaltered than what we're looking at here, has quite clean water in it. But even dirty water is an eminently fixable issue. I remember as a very young reporter canoeing a stretch of the Detroit River in Michigan: Something in the water caused the plastic logo on the outer hull of my aluminum canoe to shrivel up like a dried apple. You see something like that, you're going to keep your pinkies dry.

That was way long ago. Since then, the Detroit River has been the beneficiary of an enormous cleanup, and it's now a premier sport-fishing venue where you can catch just about anything you want from brook trout to tubenose goby.

Joanne Hill, an environmental activist and a critic of the highway-building aspects of the river plan, pointed out to me last week that my blanket condemnations of the entire plan as a plot from Satan may be oversimplified. Hill said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which I vilify for a living, has actually offered what she thinks are some smart ways to redeem the river where it flows through Dallas.

"I think the Corps has a very good restoration plan that is not attached to this [highway building] plan at all, in which they would work with the city to make the floodplain a recreation area and a wildlife refuge."

That's the point, really: If the plan as it is presently designed gets killed in Washington this week, and it might, then we have an opportunity to refashion it. Today, that's exactly what Charles Allen is telling me he wishes could be done--something to protect the river the way it is instead of turning it into something else.

He sees coyote out here, fox, bobcat, raccoon, possum, all manner of water fowl and birds of prey, an ocean of wildflowers in season. He's been coming out to the floodplain for 20 years, beginning back when you could still shoot out here. His dad brought him to target-shoot with black powder pistols.

We are driving by an entire little Mexican rodeo, hidden out here in the cottonwoods in a corner of the levee. This scene is straight out of Lonesome Dove. I hope this isn't where Laura Miller wants to put the Ann Taylor shop.

Shouting over the wind buffeting through the open vent windows, Allen says: "A lot of people look out here at the river with an idea of what we can make it into. To me, it starts with the river itself being an elemental force of nature."

Unfortunately, the narrow set of interests who have hijacked the river plan in recent years have a very different view. They want to cram an eight-lane expressway right along the banks of the river, turning most of the expanse we are looking at today into a roaring, exhaust-spewing urban nightmare.

Maybe you think we need the traffic relief downtown. We probably do. But their proposed road won't do it. In fact, the road they have in mind can't generate the traffic volumes needed to qualify for normal federal highway support. That's why it would have to be a toll road. It's a road from nowhere to nowhere.

Well, more precisely, it's a road that leads from a bunch of empty land in the southeast corner of the county, blocked up in recent years by some of the big real estate speculators, up into the area just above Fort Worth where the Perots have their private freight airport. This is a speculative road-building venture designed to spur a bunch of throwback, 1970s-style, raw-land, real estate action in the farthest reaches of the new suburbs--to create traffic, not relieve it.

In the process, we would decimate a vast natural area and squander an irreplaceable asset for the future. This bad idea comes generally from the same array of real estate players who want to gut the West End and downtown Dallas in order to boost the development of a suburban mall-style area around the new arena. These are basically anti-urban people--people who don't get and don't love either cities or natural areas. They think if they're good, when they die they'll go to a mall. (I think they're partially right: They're going to a mall.)

The U.S. Office of Management and Budget, in a recent report to the secretary of the Army, lambasted the Trinity River Plan as deceptive and ineffective even for the goals it sets for itself. The reaction of Mayor Ron Kirk and the river-plan boosters has been to dismiss the OMB report as meaningless and to use sleazy Washington insider politics to try to trick the river plan through Congress in spite of the OMB criticism.

They may succeed. As far as I can tell by talking to various environmental lobbyists in Washington, the battle in D.C. is turning entirely on Beltway issues--whether the appropriations committees can override the authorizing committees and on the relative clout or un-clout of U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Dallas) and U.S. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Dallas), both of whom are lobbying hard for the plan. The best hope of the foes, as far as I can tell, is an attempt to show that Senator Hutchison has a conflict of interest because her husband, Ray Hutchison, is the bond lawyer on the river deal.

He may have a technical conflict. His legal fees with the city are tied to the sale of bonds, so he makes money if this plan stays alive. But even if it's a conflict, most people here are going to view it as merely technical. Nobody is going to believe the Hutchisons are pushing this plan as a way to help them earn legal fees. This is a much bigger play than that.

The real corruption here is the basic view of the land expressed in the existing Trinity River Plan--the land as dirt, the river as a sewer, the future as a cash cow, life as shopping.

I normally don't do free ads for people, but I do wish everybody would call Charles Allen and take a Trinity River tour with him, by van or canoe or on foot. His company, Trinity River Expeditions, can be reached at 214-941-1757.

At this moment, he is showing me a little wetland area midway between the levee and the river. "It's a seasonal wetland, a lot like a playa lake, with no channel to the river. It's about 2 feet deep during the wet season."

He shakes his head admiringly. "It's a bubbling little cauldron of life."

Our life. The lives of generations to come.

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