Once Upon a Time, Chopping Down Wasn't Part of Trinity Forest Golf Course Plan

A contractor's excavator, fresh off razing hundreds of trees to make way for a game fence around the Trinity Forest Golf Club, sits parked beside the AT&T Trail.
A contractor's excavator, fresh off razing hundreds of trees to make way for a game fence around the Trinity Forest Golf Club, sits parked beside the AT&T Trail.
Ben Sandifer

For most of the aughts, Bryan Kilburn was the city's Great Trinity Forest guy. He counted trees in the 6,000-acre woods and, as the forest's senior program manager, spoke on the forest's behalf at City Council and community meetings. He was instrumental in creating the city's plan for preserving the haven of green, wild nature on Dallas' southern doorstep.

He left his city job in 2009 and is in Oregon now, but he still watches the news from Dallas' woods, and the news lately has not been good. It's been so bad, he chimed in with a comment recently about his part in developing City Hall's plan: "I feel like I was part of a giant con, and I'm truly sorry for the part I played," he wrote on Facebook.

After earning his forestry degree at Stephen F. Austin University in 1999, Kilburn began working for the city translating reams of data into maps while completing his master's degree at the University of Texas at Dallas, which involved conducting an inventory of species that compose the canopy of the forest. He parlayed the experience into a job working on the Trinity River Corridor Project, the enormous package of recreation/flood control/toll road projects voters had approved a couple of years earlier, and continued his investigation of the forest.

"Between 2002 and 2005 I spent 60 percent of my time out in the woods," he says. Much of that was doing "ground truthing," i.e., going on foot to identify species that couldn't be gleaned from grainy satellite imagery, but he came to view himself almost as a caretaker for the forest. He kept an eye out for illegal dumpers and policed Rochester Park for astonishing prolific tree thieves of Rochester Park. "They were going in and hand-digging grown pecans, live oaks, anything they could," he says. His experience, both studying the trees and observing the humans who defiled them, eventually crystallized into a conservation philosophy that balanced preservation of nature with expanded opportunities for recreation. "Basically, the more people who were there, the more people would feel like they had an investment in the forest and the more people would stop people from dumping truckloads of refrigerators," Kilburn says.

In 2005 he was named the Great Trinity Forest's senior program manager, which basically meant that whenever there was a community meeting or City Council briefing to discuss the forest, Kilburn did the talking. In this role, he began laying the groundwork for a 100-year forest management plan. In June 2007 the Dallas City Council cut a half-million dollar check to fund the plan, which was put together by SFA forestry professors.

The final plan ran to thousands of pages and included a detailed blueprint spelling out year-by-year for the next quarter-century what the city needed to do and how much it needed to spend in order to properly manage the forest. "There were significant portions of Trinity Forest that we were never going to manage," Kilburn says. The woods around the Trinity River Audubon Center, for example, have remained basically intact for generations and need little intervention, and some of the wetlands were too frequently inundated to make management practicable. But other portions of the forest are newer and more chaotic, having sprung up haphazardly on abandoned farmland. Some species would have to be culled, others encouraged.

The plan was controversial. Not everyone thought that injecting trees with lethal doses of Roundup to clear the way for preferred species was wise, just as not everyone thought that a campground with dozens of RV hookups and miles of concrete trails wide enough to land a plane on were the right recreational option for the Trinity Forest. Jim Flood, a master naturalist and one of the most prominent authorities on the ecology of the Great Trinity Forest, says the plan was half-baked. "It has been a few years since I’ve looked in detail at the plan, but from my perspective it was heavily 'cut and paste' stuff from the Internet," he wrote in an email.

Whatever its flaws, Kilburn's plan was real and it provided the city with its first framework for dealing with the forest it was increasingly touting as a prized natural asset. With a unanimous council vote, the GTF Management Plan became official city policy on October 8, 2008.

The Great Trinity Forest Management Plan was promptly stuck on a shelf. Its most productive use has been to provide the Trinity River Corridor Project's website with cheerful PR copy promising that it will help "ensure this forest will offer future generations of outdoor sportsmen and nature enthusiasts environmental abundance and recreational quality."

In the absence of an overarching vision, the city's management of the forest has been guided by convenience, particularly when it comes to building the exclusive Trinity Forest Golf Club, future home to the Byron Nelson golf tournament. Despite rock-solid assurances from city officials to the contrary, work on the golf course has caused tremendous environmental damage. (City Manager Mary Suhm promised in 2012 that the golf course developers “won’t be doing things in the forest. No taking down trees. They will be planting trees.") Just recently, a golf course contractor knocked down hundreds of trees to make way for a game fence aimed at keeping feral hogs off the greens and fairways. It also threatens to wall off the so-called "secret bird pond," a favorite of both endangered wading birds and Dallas' best nature photographer.

In an email responding to concerns about the fence raised by Trinity Forest activist Hal Barker, Assistant City Manager Mark McDaniel deflected blame from Trinity Watershed Management, the author of most of the city's environmental screw-ups in the Great Trinity Forest over the past several years. He wrote:

The Fence was approved and permitted by many entities, but not the Trinity Watershed Management Department. It is being constructed by the Trinity Forest Golf Club in accordance with:

· Lease agreement between the City of Dallas and Trinity Forest Golf Club, dated May 15, 2013

· Golf Course Fenceline Easement dated March 15,2013

· Planned Development 883 dated April 24, 2013

· 404 Nationwide Permit, as issued by the US Army Corps of Engineers, dated September 29, 2015

· Fence permit as issued by the Sustainable Development Services Department, Building Inspection Division, dated September 29, 2015

· TPDES General Construction Permit, as issued by the TCEQ, and provided to the TWM – Stormwater Permit Compliance Division on August 25, 2015.

Not that it's always easy to tell where TWM's responsibility ends and the private Trinity Forest Golf Club begins. It was, after all, TWM assistant director Sue Alvarez who sent in the application for federal Clean Water Act permit for the fence with a promise that the project had been designed to "avoid large trees and minimize impacts to wetland areas."

Kilburn has been observing developments from afar. He left City Hall not long after the management plan was approved, partly because he was told that implementation wouldn't begin for at least five years, partly because he was terrible at internal City Hall politics. He won few fans, for example, when his wife sued the city over a shattered collarbone she suffered while riding her bike on the Katy Trail. He now works for a forestry company in Portland, Oregon, though he still regrets how the city has approached the management of the forest. Last week, he took to Councilman Philip Kingston's Facebook page to vent about the damage caused by the golf course fence project and apologize if his management plan gave anyone the impression that City Hall actually cares about the Great Trinity Forest:

When I started working on the GTF for my master's at the ripe age of 22, I was afraid the entire purpose of the Trinity Project was the construction of a toll road and the destruction of the forest. I was convinced, after being given the opportunity to put all of the science together for this management plan, that the negative aspects of the Trinity Project would be outweighed by the crown jewel of the GTF. I set out and convinced a good number of the environmentalists in Dallas that the future GTF would be a place for all of Dallas to enjoy and would be protected from development and degradation. Mayor Miller even gave me a dozen yellow roses for helping convince Don Henley to stop funding a lawsuit that would have forced the USACE [Corps of Engineers] to reopen the EIS [environmental impact study] for the Trinity...[and] probably would have put a stop to all of this nonsense a decade ago. Don't let anyone say there's no plan for the forest because they "don't know enough about it" or whatever spin they're using. The truth is, the Trinity project was always more about the toll road and the money it would bring to a select few Dallasites through development. At this point you're entirely dependent on that road being built (or not) to even start construction on the levees that would give South Dallas equal flood protection all the while developers are remaking South Dallas in their image until there's nothing but high end apartments named Bonton and anyone who lived there before has been displaced, forced further out on the fringe of "afforable" and separated from their community. I feel like I was part of a giant con and I'm truly sorry for the part I played.

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