Just south of the Trinity River Audubon Center, across a footbridge and down a concrete trail that snakes along an east-west jaunt of the river, you'll come to what was once one of Steve Smith's favorite spots in the Great Trinity Forest. "Go into the [Google Earth] aerial photos from 10 years ago, what you'll see is a beautiful row of pecan trees and a lawn there," he says. On foot, the scene was even more majestic, a little sylvan paradise right in the middle of Dallas.
The scene is different now. The pecan trees are still there, but they're obscured by a dense thicket of ash trees and other plants. "What's happened is, the floods that we have had have brought in some species and trees and other things like that that really should not be there," Smith says. Passing by on the trail, you can no longer see the trees for the forest.
Smith, a 69-year-old money manager, wants desperately for others to experience the sense of wonder he found in the pecan grove years ago, but even if they know it's there, the density of the surrounding foliage makes it hard to reach, "unless," Smith says, "you're really brave like I am."
Smith has been down in the forest often recently. "I need to have a way to get people into the forest there," he says. "I was trying to figure out how to do that in the right way." He was also trying to get it done quickly. The Trinity Forest Golf Club will open in a few months and he wants to be sure that visiting golfers will have an opportunity to take in the natural beauty. But poring over city codes, he found he "could not find a pathway to get it done in the right amount of time."
"I thought, well, if this is going to be a 2016 thing, I just need to go ahead and build a path in there. So I did."
The rumors that quickly spread through the tight-knit community of environmentalists that bird-dog the Great Trinity Forest had Smith out there with a chainsaw clearing a huge swath of trees, a description Smith contests. He wasn't using a chainsaw but a battery-powered limb-trimmer that happened to be equipped with a chain. As far as he can see, the damage, which extends over 100 yards, is minimal. "The 'trees' that were taken out are 1, 2 inches in diameter. The vast majority I cut with a lopper."
Not everyone shares that view. "Poppycock, or should I say, Balderdash!" Jim Flood, a master naturalist who has spent years studying the ecology of the Great Trinity Forest, writes in an email. Ash trees are natives and coexist just fine with statelier trees like pecans, which, Flood writes, "can take care of themselves." Smith "was also cutting up bois d'arc and whacking at a 'GTF champion' red mulberry along the river."
Smith's work was discovered by a couple of employees with the city's parks department who were on a routine hike-and-bike trail inspection, says Oscar Carmona, the department's assistant director. Then, since the damage did not occur on parks department property, the employees alerted the relevant arm of city government. "That property pretty much falls under the supervision of Trinity Watershed Management," Carmona says.
In an email on Tuesday, Paul White, Trinity Watershed Management's senior environmental coordinator, described the tree-clearing as "unauthorized and currently under investigation."
Smith met with Trinity Watershed staff on Wednesday afternoon to survey the damage. According to Smith, they told him he needed to get clearance from the city if he wanted to build anymore trails and briefed him on the procedure for doing so. He asked if he was going to be cited for violating the city's tree-protection ordinance. "They said they'd talk about it."
Smith is willing to take his licks and pay a fine if it comes to it. Afterward, he plans to "take that small trail that I've started and extend it — in authorized fashion — to this beautiful pecan grove. ... I think everyone in Dallas will be astounded."
People degrade the Great Trinity Forest with regularity. They dump dead dogs and old tires. They tear through the woods on ATVs. They cook meth.
Smith is different from those people. For one, regardless of whether one agrees with his methods, he is motivated by a genuine belief in the nobility of his enterprise. Two, few of the dog dumpers or meth cooks have established nonprofits focused on conservation of the Great Trinity Forest.
Smith is 69 with a hearty gray beard and bushy eyebrows. His living comes from running Smith Group Asset Management, an Uptown investment firm with some $3.6 billion in assets, but the outdoors are his passion. He's been hiking and mountain-biking through the Great Trinity Forest for two decades. More recently, beginning in 2005, he became involved with outdoorsy nonprofits. He spent several years as president of Groundwork Dallas, which builds and maintains soft-surface hiking trails, and is currently the vice president of the Friends of Reverchon Park.
For years, the Friends of Reverchon Park has been working with the city and other nonprofits on a plan to link the Katy Trail with the Trinity Strand Trail in the Design District. They settled on a plan for an elaborate system of ramps and bridges that would snake over and through the tangle of freeways and rail lines. The main hurdle was cost: upward of $20 million to bridge a gap of a third of a mile as the crow flies.
Recognizing that the project would take years, if not decades, the Reverchon board began contemplating an alternative. If the trail went under the freeways instead of above, mostly using existing drainage culverts, the connection could be made cheaply and quickly.
Smith was particularly eager to get the project done. With the Katy-Trinity Strand connection in place, all that remained was to extend the Trinity Skyline Trail, which runs between the levees, further along the river. The vision "will allow people to go from the Katy Trail up at SMU all the way down to the Trinity Forest on a 12-foot concrete bike trail," Smith says. Combine it with the planned trail linking White Rock Lake with Interstate 20 and Dallas will have a massive, triangular loop with corners at White Rock Lake, the Design District and the Great Trinity Forest. With the concrete in place, it would be simple to link them with a network of soft-surface horse paths and hike-and-bike trails.
Again, the stumbling block was capital. The city certainly didn't have the money to carry out the vision anytime soon, and Smith found that would-be donors were reluctant to entrust their money to the city for fear that it would be wasted or they would be blamed if something went wrong. (Smith does not share this opinion; the city strikes him as a wonderful steward of donors' money.) Reverchon Park's board was working on funding the trail connection, but its interests didn't logically extend too far beyond the park's borders. Groundwork Dallas might have been a candidate for trail funding, but they had shifted their efforts upstream in recent years, away from the forest.
What was needed, Smith decided, was an organization that combined trail-building expertise, an intimate familiarity with the Great Trinity Forest, the ability to collaborate with the city on major projects, and, importantly, the ability to raise money. Ideally, it would be in place for the projected fall opening of the Trinity Forest Golf Club, when golfers from Highland Park visiting the forest for the first time might be persuaded to chip in for a trail system.
With that, the Trinity Recreation Conservancy was born.
The nonprofit's vision is bold. It wants to rebrand the Great Trinity Forest (itself a late-'80s rebrand of "anonymous swath of woods off I-45") as the "Trinity Recreation Area" and perhaps, someday, hand over management to the National Park Service.
For now, however, operations are just beginning to ramp up. It's hired an executive director, architect and real estate developer, Deric Salser, and appointed an eight-person board of directors, half of whom also serve on the Friends of Reverchon board, according to a roster posted to the conservancy's website, which has been taken down but remains in Google's cache. It's met once so far and has a second meeting scheduled for next week. The most significant step the organization has taken is to hire what Smith describes as a "world-class landscape architecture company" to create a master plan for the trails the group hopes to build in the forest.
Steve Houser, an arborist who serves as chairman emeritus of Dallas' Urban Forest Advisory Committee, served with Smith on both the Groundwork Dallas and Reverchon Park boards. He shares Smith's vision of making the Great Trinity Forest accessible to more people. "The general idea is to create some fun down there and excitement, and get people to reconnect with that forest," Houser says. That means balancing the plants and animals with the need to promote what Smith describes as "environmentally sensitive economic activity in the southern sector."
Houser thinks the group will go on to do great things for the city, but you could almost hear him wince through the phone when he was asked about the tree-cutting incident. "I’m aware of it. I don’t know much about the facts. I can say anything that he is doing down there isn’t something that’s related to any of these groups. It's something that he must be doing as a private citizen." And it's something he probably shouldn't have done. "He’s not an arborist. He’s not a forester. He does not know anything about trees to my knowledge."
Even before he went down to the woods with his limb trimmer, Dallas’ community of Great Trinity Forest watchdogs had heard rumors about Smith and his nascent organization and were suspicious. And naturally so. There’s a constellation of Trinity-related nonprofits, all with lovely sounding missions, but for most, money and politics override ecological concerns.
The tree-clearing, which echoes a string of recent misadventures borne of the city’s efforts to turn the forest into a recreational amenity (e.g., a drained pond, clear-cut trees, an almost-paved natural spring, more cleared trees), turned vague suspicions into clamoring alarm bells.
“The Great Trinity Forest is losing a lot of trees weakened by the 2011 drought and the heavy flooding of 2015 that drowned many trees,” Ben Sandifer, perhaps the forest’s most dogged watchdog, wrote in an email. “Seems that cutting them down for vanity, simply because one cannot see the forest through the trees, is a fairly shortsighted argument.”
But Smith and Sandifer are on opposite sides of a deep, philosophical divide.
“They’re motivated in the right way, and they’re good people,” Smith says of Sandifer’s camp. "The problem that they have with their philosophy is that they do not own this forest — the city of Dallas owns this forest. The city of Dallas has put a lot of money, decades of work, creating a natural environment down there that will be an asset to the city. ... I think the city has done a great job of achieving that.”
Sandifer’s camp feels that the forest should be managed as lightly as possible. If projects and amenities are to be built, that should be done only after careful planning and forethought and only if they are consistent with the Great Trinity Forest continuing to function as a forest.
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That gap will be hard to bridge. Smith says he might reach out to Sandifer to open a line of communication between the two camps. But he did this just after calling the Great Trinity Forest’s cadre of environmentalists (Sandifer excluded) “environmental extremists” and “eco-bullies.”
“The fear that they put into anybody who goes into the forest!” Smith says. “They’re going to do everything they can to trash their reputation, and the people in the city government just take it because they don’t have any choice.” He adds, “Now they’re doing it to me, and I’m not going to take it.”
Since news of the tree-cutting began to get out, Smith says friends and associates, “very high-level, conservation-oriented people,” have called him to relay reports being spread by environmentalists. Smith describes himself as a firm believer in the First Amendment but says that the First Amendment stops at libel and slander, a line he believes has been crossed. He couldn’t cite a specific instance but said that the grapevine is laden with “bold-faced lies.”
He offers a warning: “The one message that I hope to get to these folks is they need to be very careful about what they say about people.”