Animal Welfare

Alligators Might Be Lurking in Wetlands Just Minutes Away from Downtown Dallas

Alligators have so far fallen fairly low on the county's list of priorities.
Alligators have so far fallen fairly low on the county's list of priorities. Aldric RIVAT on Unsplash
Alligators may be lurking in wetlands just minutes away from downtown.

Dallas County bought the 260-acre Palmetto/Alligator Slough Preserve near Seagoville in 1994. They spent $361,000 on it with hopes of developing it into another nature preserve for the county. There would’ve been elevated boardwalks, hiking trails and parking.

But, like many other park projects in the area, the Palmetto/Alligator Slough Preserve fell pretty low on the list of budget priorities in the southern part of the county.

"I would love to see the project done, but it's just not a priority," Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price told WFAA in 2009. "Given the economy, it's pretty far down the line."

You need a special permit to tour the preserve these days because it’s too dangerous to open to the public. After all, the place is home to bobcats, coyotes, diamondback water snakes, copperheads and other dangerous animals.

The preserve is about 20 miles southeast of downtown.

It’s bisected by Hickory Creek, which empties into Parsons Slough, which then empties into the Trinity River. The preserve also has a manmade lake, which used to be the site of a sand and gravel pit.

About 15 years ago, Ben Sandifer, a local environmentalist, tagged along a tour of several nature preserves in southeast Dallas County.

The tour encompassed Goat Island Preserve, Riverbend Preserve, the Palmetto Alligator Slough Preserve (now called the Mary Phinney Wetlands) and the Post Oak Preserve, which lies to the east.

“As the crow flies, they’re only a few miles apart but geographically, topographically and habitat-wise, they’re all unique,” Sandifer said. “They all have their own complexion and feel to it. One of the most interesting is the Alligator Palmetto Slough Preserve, or the Mary Phinney Wetlands as it’s now called.”

Around the time he went on the tour, the county was considering funding to build a boardwalk system that would allow for safe access to view some of the wetland areas at the preserve.

“The area currently is a matrix of old abandoned gravel pits that have real steep sides to them that are hazardous,” he said. “It’d be very dangerous to walk on or near because if you fell in it’d be really hard, even if you’re an adult, to get out of the water.”

Part of where the place got its original name is native palm trees that grow there, the sabal minor palm trees, or dwarf palmetto.

It’s bisected by Hickory Creek on the north side and Parsons Slough on the south side.

A portion of Hickory Creek was channelized sometime around the 1930s. But the old creek channel was left behind in several areas where large populations of palmetto flourished. Over the years, the land has been used for agriculture and gravel operations.

The Alligator Slough is located at the head of what used to be called Bois D'Arc Island, which was formed by a cutoff in the Parsons Slough and the Trinity River. “It created an island – a 22,000-acre island – that when the first European settlers came to this area was a place that was feared by everyone,” Sandifer said. “It was a wild place full of wolves, bears, mountain lions, wild turkey, and alligators.”

For a long time, certain sections of the island weren’t even mapped and people didn’t know how large it was. Sandifer said this is because it was so dense with “woods, ancient trees, swamps, creeks, streams, legends of Native Americans in that area, vast amounts of flora and fauna that have now been lost to contemporary Dallasites except for basically one area: that Palmetto Alligator Slough.”

About 180 years ago, a famous Dallas surveyor named Warren Ferris, surveyed the Alligator Slough property. He submitted his field observations to what was then the Republic of Texas.

He said there should still be alligators at the preserve. “From the road there, I’ve seen an alligator before,” Sandifer said. “In that vicinity there are a number of alligators that live in the Trinity River Bottoms there, in old gravel pits, swampy areas.”

One was inadvertently run over just a couple of miles to the west of the preserve. “There are alligators in that area, but they’re very secretive,” Sandifer said. “You only really see them around dawn or dusk and they don’t make themselves very evident.”

Sometimes, on the banks of the Trinity River, Sandifer said you can find alligator tracks. But, most of the alligators he’s seen in the area are only about three-four feet long. “So, unless you’re a fish or some sort of waterfowl, they’re not going to bother you,” Sandifer said.

There are also venomous snakes. “It’s a snakey, alligator-ey area,” Sandifer said.

Mia Brown, an administrator with the Dallas County Planning and Development Department, said they intend to update the Park and Open Space Plan in the next year or so. The last one was written in 1991.

"The updated plan will focus on incorporated and unincorporated parts of the county to identify and prioritize management best-practices, development needs, and balance equitable use and access with conservation,” Brown said.

So, maybe one day the public will have some sort of access to the Palmetto Preserve. But, before then, Sandifer said other investments are needed in the area. For example, Sandbranch, an unincorporated part of Dallas County, doesn’t have utilities or running water.

“In order to approach this question of opening up the Palmetto Alligator Slough Preserve, what needs to happen before we do that is address the needs of people who live in abject poverty across the street,” Sandifer said. “If people are going to put public money into something in that area, the first thing that needs to be on the punch list there needs to be coming up with a positive solution to the community of Sandbranch.”

But Sandifer said opening up the preserve could be a unique opportunity for people to connect with nature.
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Jacob Vaughn, a former Brookhaven College journalism student, has written for the Observer since 2018, first as clubs editor. More recently, he's been in the news section as a staff writer covering City Hall, the Dallas Police Department and whatever else editors throw his way.
Contact: Jacob Vaughn