Last week's big battle over a plan to use parkland by White Rock lake as overflow car-parking for the Dallas Arboretum sort of came out of nowhere. I'm sure somebody out there had to be thinking, "What's an arboretum?"
Please. You don't have to put your hands up.
But there was a long back story leading up to this fight, going back more than a decade or maybe a couple million years, depending on how you measure. And that story is way more interesting than the fight itself.
First of all, we have no idea what kind of place this was when Europeans first began to settle. This was prairie. Vast prairie.
Last week, Becky Rader, a naturalist and teacher-historian, read me passages from letters a young man wrote to his parents back east, describing early Dallas. The first letter was dated April 21, 1872:
"Look with me across southward to the river and see the beautiful river bridge spanning the Trinity," he writes in his letter home, "and the long causeway leading to the forest on the other side. Then look with me to the east far up Commerce and Main Street, and they stretch out through the little cottage groves, cedar forests et cetera to the prairie, away yonder, then see the flowers everywhere, the beautiful sandy roads."
In a letter dated May 12, 1872, he writes, "I would have been delighted to have had you along to have shown you the thousands of acres of wildflowers blooming over the lovely rolling prairie."
She cited earlier accounts reporting that when the buffalo arrived here on their annual migrations it took the herd three days to pass through Dallas. That's millions and millions of animals. She told me about teaching kids that lesson.
"Their eyes just get huge," she said. "They think, 'Herds of bison here?'"
The patch of land at White Rock Lake that city officials want to turn into a parking lot is a tiny window on that enormous past. She explains to her students that the name of the lake means something. It isn't just a real-estate name.
White Rock refers to the white rock escarpment, a chalky substrate that rises up within a few feet of the surface, making the area right around the lake worthless for deep-plow farming. That's why it was grazed instead of plowed and why the original soil is still intact today.
In 1939 the Dallas Park Department adopted a formal policy by which White Rock Lake was to be kept natural. The city abandoned an earlier plan for real-estate development around the lake. It bought out and knocked down private cabins and boat houses.
In the late 1990s Rader, who had returned to Dallas after living in Europe, saw city tractors mowing the wildflowers at Winfrey Point, a hilly peninsula that juts out into the east side of the lake near one end of what is now the Dallas Arboretum. She helped assemble a team of experts who persuaded the city that Winfrey Point needed to be managed as natural prairie, not lawn.
"We had ornithologists come in, entomologists, soil people, insect people, plant people, prairie people. They all came in and taught us about the different ecosystems of our area."
Rader says park department field staff, once on board with the native prairie concept, became skilled, diligent allies in the fight to protect Winfrey point from various urban depredations.
Almost as soon as the native plants were allowed to flourish and bloom, wildlife began coming back in the area around the lake. "It just kept going on from there," she says. "It's been fabulous. It's amazing. Cooper's hawks are now nesting again at the lake. Barn owls are now nesting again. We have grass sparrows that come in and winter in the prairie areas."
Rader still prowls the lake — she grew up near its shores — and sometimes buttonholes the runners, walkers, cyclists and picnickers to ask them how they feel about the unmowed prairie areas by the lake. "They tell me, 'That's why I come out here,'" she says.
Small wonder, then, that the appearance of red plastic survey flags in the grass at Winfrey Point about a year ago sent chills up the spine of Hal Barker, who lives right across the road and acts as a kind of unofficial guardian of the prairie. Barker, a research historian with a background in construction, immediately recognized the pattern set out by the survey flags.
"It was a road cut," he says.
Somebody wanted to put a road into Winfrey Point. He got on the phone immediately to City Hall, where officials, he says, told him they had no idea whose flags they were.
"I said, 'Oh, don't give me that bullshit.'"
He filed a demand for information under the Texas Public Information Act and eventually unearthed plans showing that the park department was looking at a proposal to build a parking structure on Winfrey Point for the Dallas Arboretum.
The arboretum is on land at the southern end of the lake off Garland Road, originally two grand estates deeded to the city long ago and chosen 35 years ago as the site for a municipal botanical garden. In the early 1980s the land was turned over to the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Society, a private entity.
In the '80s and '90s, the DABS arboretum raised a ton of money from philanthropists and also began achieving success with huge public plant shows, ticket-selling bonanzas that helped fund ever greater expansion.
In a city where we sometimes complain there's little to do outdoors, the arboretum has become a rare treasure. It's the place where tens of thousands of citizens go every year because they yearn to pause, hand in hand, to smell the flowers. Zillions of flowers.
Its appeal is that simple, that good. But it is a showplace, not a natural place. And the showplace needs parking.
There was a way to do that, says Richard Cohen, an attorney who filed suit on behalf of a neighbor of Barker. Cohen was successful in persuading a judge last week to bar the parking structure plan, even though the judge gave the city permission to mow the prairie and build a road entrance into it for cars.
Cohen, who does this kind of law every day, says the sneaky way the arboretum and park department were proceeding, until Barker caught them, flew in the face of normal practice and policy. In fact, he says he's at a loss to understand why the arboretum's parking plans weren't handled in the way called for by the city's own policies and regulations.
"Before we submit a plan to the city for one of these uses," he says, "we have to submit a master plan showing where the parking is going to be and how it will handle the density and everything else. Why this is any different from every other project I've ever been involved in is beyond me. This does not take rocket science."
I called to talk to arboretum director Mary Brinegar for her side of it. A spokesperson said she was unavailable.
From the moment the arboretum first ran into resistance, its own internal culture was on high display. It dug in its spiked heels and lifted its bejeweled fists.
The arboretum hired a naturalist with absurdly exaggerated credentials, and he cranked out a report for them saying that Winfrey Point was a piece-of-crap vacant lot choked with weeds — an argument repeated on television by Dallas Park Board chair Joan Walne.
To the defenders of Winfrey Point, the most appalling thing about the response of the arboretum and park board was that it meant they knew nothing of the decades of research and activism that had gone into safeguarding Winfrey Point as a natural treasure.
The Dallas Arboretum, this supposed temple of botanical wonders, did not know and did not care that entire teams of experts and dedicated citizens had fought for decades to preserve Winfrey Point.
Some of the most dedicated of those defenders think it's a diversion and sort of trick anyway for the arboretum to try to turn the conversation into an argument over Winfrey Point's scientific value as virgin prairie. Matt White, who teaches American history at Paris Junior College, was the author of a book published in 2006 by Texas A&M Press called Prairie Time: A Blackland Portrait. He said to me last week that losing Winfrey Point would be tragic whether it's absolutely pristine unplowed prairie or not.
"I think the issue is being too narrowly attacked," he says. "It's parkland that is being taken away. It's city property that has been given to the citizens of Dallas to use freely. It's being taken away for a private enterprise."
He sees the arboretum as the bastion of an invading concept. The new idea would turn back all those years of preservation and flip aside the 1939 concept of a natural setting.
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"White Rock Lake is Dallas' Central Park," he says. "They're trying to say this is going to be Dallas' Disneyland or Six Flags or whatever. ... For the elected officials who are willing to give that away, I think it's a violation of the public trust."
When he said, "Dallas' Central Park," I got goosebumps for two reasons. First, he's right. It really is our Central Park — the one lovely peaceful place on any given Sunday afternoon where everybody in the city feels welcome, everybody gets along and nobody has to buy a ticket.
But secondly, I'm afraid I've heard the same people who wanted a new arboretum and all new museums and bridges for Dallas talking about this issue, too. I believe they also want a new central park. The one we've already got is all ... you know ... old and stuff.
Saints preserve us. Saints preserve Winfrey Point.