In the far northeastern corner of Flag Pole Hill Park, just shy of where the open space surrounding White Rock Lake gives way to the ranch-style homes of Lake Highland, a dirt footpath snakes for about three-quarters of a mile along a thicket of trees. Ken Coutant, a tax accountant who lives in White Rock Valley neighborhood immediately north of the park, thought it would be nice to extend the trail through some of the surrounding trees, providing walkers, joggers, and cyclists with a shady alternative to the neighborhood's sidewalk-less streets.
In March of last year, he contacted Dallas' park department to ask about blazing a path. "No trees would be harmed, and we would only be clearing out undergrowth and privet and cutting a 6-inch tread into the ground," he wrote. The city need not lift a finger, either for construction of upkeep. In fact, it could even save the city work. "As far as maintenance goes there is probably already a mile of trail there already and there is no maintenance required. If a tree fall[s] across the trail, you push it out of the way. They brush hog a lot of that area already but it really isn't required. In fact, the plants and wildflowers would benefit greatly if they would stop cutting it."
The folks in the park department seemed amenable to the idea, if preoccupied with bureaucratic concerns. For the next 12 months, Coutant went back and forth with the city as they negotiated the details of a usage agreement: trail routes, maintenance responsibilities, insurance requirements. "At the time I didn't realize [the truth of] the old adage that it's easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission," he says.
Coutant also didn't fully appreciate the unique sensitivity of the White Rock Lake ecosystem, both in terms of the flora and fauna that inhabit and pass through the area and in terms of the human naturalists who swarm to fight off disturbances both great (e.g. a parking lot on Winfrey Point) and small. Both played a role in the letter unexpectedly received from Oscar Carmona, an upper-level park department staffer, in March, almost a year to the day after his first contact with the city, informing him that the city was killing the project.
"An environmental assessment determined that the proposed expansion would negatively impact a great portion of this environmentally sensitive area including habitat reduction, wildlife disturbance and soil erosion," Carmona wrote. "We acknowledge the support for this development by the neighborhood [editor's note: not everyone], but must also take into consideration the potentially significant adverse impacts to the biological resources along the development's footprint."
The environmental assessment was performed a few weeks earlier by Becky Rader, a naturalist instrumental in the fight to save Winfrey Point. She found that the trail could potentially disturb nesting and denning sites of red-tailed hawks, turkey vultures, coyotes and a dozen other wildlife species, as well as sensitive trees, grasses and vegetation. Coutant, however, suspects a different motive. A week or two earlier, he and a friend had bushwhacked their way through the brush to stake out the preferred trail route for review by the city, Coutant says. After a while, they were approached by a couple of women on horseback. One of the woman recounted the ensuring encounter in an email to Park Director Willis Winters carrying the subject line "Busted: Two Men with Machetes with Large Loose Dog Destroying habitat."
[O]n Sunday I came upon two men with machetes and a big, unleashed dog while patrolling VIP on my horse along with two other riding companions. We could hear them hacking hacking through the habitat from the horse trails. I called to them to show themselves adn they did. Of course, they had no permit and no permission (even you agreed) to be doing what they were doing. What th were doing, however, was destroying established and endangered habitat, so they could put in a bunch of trails back there. Since we have plenty of walking trails already, I questioned them if they realized the cost to the habitat would be devastating, and is their leashless dog that kept messing with our horses. Of course, it just had been running through the woods chasing the critters. They had not EVEN thought about ti. That's right, they never do. They actually got so beligerant (sic), and coming at me with their machetes in hand, I had to call the police to get them removed.
Coutant recalls things differently. "It's accurate in that we had machetes, but the only reason we had machetes is that if you go back in there it's an absolute jungle. ... Really, all we were doing was putting surveyor tape on branches and limbs where we thought the trail would go." The part about the women calling the cops is also accurate, though he insists that it was the women, not him, who were belligerent. After finishing marking the trail, Coutant and his friend were greeted at their car by several police officers who advised them to notify the police beforehand the next time they went to mark trail with their machetes. Coutant says the whole thing was blown way out of proportion. "There are these horse people that think they pretty much run things up there," he says. "I made the mistake of explaining what I was doing. You would've thought I was in there with a chainsaw clear-cutting the forest."
Regardless of whether the park department's decision was spurred more by concerns about the environmental impact or concerns about dudes with machetes, the net effect was the same. As of March 5, Coutant's trail plan was dead.
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Now fast-forward two months. On Wednesday afternoon, the park department sent out an email update to Coutant and other Flag Pole Hill stakeholders. "Following preliminary assessment of an area of existing pathways [the department] has determined there is a need to address maintenance of this long-neglected natural asset" — including "upgrading and/or creating soft-surface paths in shaded areas." In English: Not only is the city letting Coutant resuscitate his plan, it's doing it for him.
The mysterious reversal (or re-reversal?) becomes less mysterious when you review the 438 pages of emails noted White Rock guardians the Barker brothers churned up through an open records request. Shortly after a lower-rung park staffer emails Coutant with the department's no-trail decision — 48 minutes to be exact — outgoing Flag Pole Hill-area City Council member Jerry Allen sends an email to said lower-level parks staffer: "Can you meet in my office tomorrow at 1:00 to help me understand the rational [sic] behind this response?" That meeting didn't happen, but Allen and his Park Board member, Robin Norcross, did secure a meeting with Winters, the parks director, who reports in an April 30 email that "[we] are now proceeding with [Allen and Norcross]'s concurrence and support."
There's room for debate on whether the benefits of a dirt trail at Flag Pole Hill trump the damage to the natural environment, which is considerably less than paving over several acres of grassland but significantly greater than just letting nature be nature. Ditto for how and why such a decision should be made. Nevertheless, there is one clear-cut lesson that can be gleaned from Coutant's quest: Don't even think about crossing the horsewomen of Flag Pole Hill, even if you have a machete.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.