Double Oops

Carrollton takes one step backward as it tries to make amends with Mother Nature

In the black pre-dawn of a 1998 summer morning, Carrollton resident Jack Laivins was munching on an apple and trying to find an early newscast on his car radio as he drove toward work along Keller Springs Road. At 4:30 a.m. on that July 23, the technical specialist for the American Honda Distribution Center had the neighborhood he had called home for the past 15 years all to himself. Or so he thought.

As he neared the Josey Ranch Sports Complex, a rambling park filled with athletic fields, bike trails, trees and a small lake, Laivins' attention was drawn to a sight he now remembers as surreal. Off to his left, strobe lights sitting atop a portable generator cast an eerie glow along one of his favorite jogging routes. Slowing, he could see the outline of a bulldozer and two large trucks. Several men mingled about. And in the sky above, in the dim outer limits of the artificial light, it appeared that a smoky white storm cloud was boiling.

It took him, he recalls, several seconds to realize that the movement in the sky was not a wind-whipped cloud but, instead, thousands of displaced birds, confused and frightened by the strange activity and their own poor night vision. That's when the passerby realized that a 30-year-old rookery, nesting home of egrets, herons and a variety of other migrating birds, was being razed. Pushing his foot to the accelerator, Laivins hurried on toward work. He had to get to a phone.

Thus began an environmental horror story that enraged many residents of this upscale Dallas suburb, resulted in the suspension of three city officials who planned and ordered the destruction, spawned an investigation by federal wildlife authorities and drained $126,000 from the city budget to pay for care and relocation of hundreds of injured birds. Add the fact that the early-morning bulldozing, labeled "Operation Remove Excrement," created a public relations nightmare for city fathers, and the episode qualified as a full-blown disaster--ecologically, politically and financially.

Reacting to complaints of some residents of the odor, noise and potential health hazard created by the nesting birds, city officials opted to remedy the problem with their pre-dawn bulldozing, ignoring the long-standing Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which makes it illegal to disturb migrating birds during their nesting season.

"The whole thing was heartbreaking," remembers Kathy Rogers, founder and director of the Rogers Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Hutchins. She had seen her share of avian disasters, working in rescue efforts after coastal oil spills, tornadoes and hail storms, but none compared to the tragedy she encountered that Thursday morning upon her arrival at the demolished Carrollton rookery. Dead birds were scattered about the barren ground while others, clearly injured, sat atop the broken remains of the trees where they had been nesting. Hundreds of others, adult birds and fledglings, had been buried in the rubble.

Bombarded by criticism from as far away as the editorial room of The New York Times and under investigation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Carrollton City Council immediately began seeking ways to heal the damage. It quickly agreed to a recommendation that a Wildlife Environmental Advisory Committee be formed, its members to serve as guardians and advisers on environmental matters. Additionally, it unanimously voted to fund and establish a wildlife sanctuary near the site of the destroyed rookery. The barren land would be topped with 9 inches of new soil and converted into a blackland prairie that would feature almost extinct vegetation once common to the region.

Sixteen-year-old Jeff Stone, son of advisory committee member Roz Stone, volunteered to take on the project to fulfill requirements for the Eagle Scout badge he was working toward.

Carrollton was clearly on its way to making amends. Assistant City Manager Marc Guy, acknowledging that the destruction of the rookery "brought a greater sense of understanding of and appreciation for habitat conservation," pointed out that "you will see greater incorporation of environmental elements in future [city] developments." Said then-Mayor Milburn Gravley, "Let everyone learn from the mistake that was made. We won't make that mistake again."

Or so they thought.

His project approved by Carrollton's supervisor of master planning and construction, his Boy Scouts district advancement adviser and his scoutmaster, Jeff Stone went to work, supervised by city arborist Bob Schantz and aided by volunteers who included Assistant City Manager Guy, three members of the City Council, local environmentalists and several fellow Scouts. Top soil was moved from another area of the park and carefully spread, 19 varieties of grasses, wildflowers and plants were purchased, and grids were carefully laid out so that the seeding and planting could be done in such a manner that the entire 47,783-square-foot area (a little more than an acre) would simulate the prairie land once common to the region.

On the day of the planting, a gentle rain began to fall soon after the work was done. "It was," Stone remembers, "a good sign."

Stone suggested that he be allowed to put a rustic fence around the prairie's perimeter and erect a sign that would explain the purpose of the newly established wildlife sanctuary, but city officials told him they would handle that chore.

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