On Saturday morning, Richard Grayson and a crew of his fellow master naturalists parked off Pemberton Hill Road and hiked across a meadow to the mighty bur oak that stretches over Dallas' historic Big Spring. They had planted milkweed there the previous fall, sustenance for the clouds of monarch butterflies who pass through the Great Trinity Forest on their annual migration, and the crew returned every so often to clear out invasive weeds and maintain the plantings.
There was an odd clamor coming from the Texas Horse Park, which occupies a rise several hundred yards to the south. Further investigation revealed that the racket was being made by several hundred half-naked weekend warriors clambering over military-style obstacles and hurling themselves into pits of mud, urged on by the amplified voices of announcers and a DJ.
Banners and racing bibs identified the competition as BattleFrog, a prominent mud-running series.
Grayson found the commotion Saturday "kind of annoying," but he wasn't overly exercised by the event itself. He isn't one to second-guess how people choose to spend their free time, and the participants, no matter how hopped up on testosterone they may have been, didn't pose a threat to the spring. He was, however, troubled by the location of a wall that had been erected on the open ground beneath Oncor's power lines.
For the past three years, Grayson has been among the small but dedicated cadre of conservationists lobbying the city to protect Big Spring, which is unique both for its history (various Native American artifacts have been unearthed there, and Dallas founder John Neeley Bryan used to live at the site) as well as the fact that it hasn't been paved over.
Although the city, in its haste to open the Great Trinity Forest to the masses, has frequently degraded the natural environment without really seeming to care, everyone agreed that Big Spring had to be spared. "It's wonderful," Mayor Mike Rawlings proclaimed when city officials toured the site in 2014. "You can't imagine you're in Dallas "
In February, after years of haggling over details between activists and city staff in the bowels of City Hall, the city's Landmark Commission voted unanimously to designate the spring as a historic landmark. The City Plan Commission, also in a unanimous vote, followed suit in March. The City Council hasn't yet considered the landmark designation but is scheduled to do so next week; there is no indication that the vote will be anything other than unanimous. Again, everyone thinks Dallas should protect Big Spring.
Which brings us back to BattleFrog. The historic designation everyone agrees is such a fabulous idea is centered on Big Spring itself, but a segment also juts south past the Oncor right-of-way to protect an archaeological site, 41DL72, where excavations have turned up a multitude of stone tools, ceramics and animal bones, some dating back 2,500 years. The historic overlay prohibits new construction.
The attached vegetation management plan says that all access must be cleared in advance with the city, which will allow "[p]artial or limited foot-access in small groups, primarily for educational purposes."
On a map, the overlay looks like the number 4. The Oncor easement is the horizontal band that runs below the numeral's top section.So while Grayson didn't particularly mind that half-naked people were hurling themselves into mud pits, he was troubled by hordes of people pouring over a wall that had been constructed in the middle of the historic overlay he'd spent multiple years and dozens, if not hundreds, of hours fighting to have set aside.
"You know, I guess that [people] is OK. It's in the Oncor right-of-way, and I guess with permission from Oncor, I guess they can do that. What bothered me about it is they ... put that climbing wall right in the footprint of that 4."
River Ranch Educational Charities, which runs the Texas Horse Park, appears to be responsible for bringing BattleFrog the the Great Trinity Forest. ("River Ranch is bringing the Texas Horse Park & the Trinity Forest to life with positive activities for folks outside," the horse park's Facebook page boasts.) But the buck stops with the city, which not only owns the horse park's land and buildings but is responsible for giving a sweetheart lease to an entity run by Wayne Kirk, whose business history is checkered, to say the least.
For the record, Oncor says that it had no advance knowledge of the race. Spokesman Kris Spears said a normal foot race would have posed few safety concerns but that erecting walls beneath Oncor's power lines was a different matter. Spears said he didn't want to go into whether any formal rules were broken but said it would have been nice had Oncor been consulted.
The city of Dallas did have advance notice. The city's special events confirmed that the event had a permit but declined to provide a copy or provide any details. "Unfortunately, it's not something I can distribute to a third party," Sarah Ausherman, the city's special events manager, said. Why? Because there's a "formal process through the city of Dallas" for releasing public information. (We've submitted an open records request, which means we should receive the information in two or three weeks. Unless, of course, the city decides to stall.)
Even without the specifics of the permit, there's plenty of room for educated speculation. Once an entity applies for a special events permit, the special events office forwards the application to impacted city departments for review and approval. Trinity Watershed Management is responsible for managing the Trinity River floodplain, which includes the horse park and surrounding areas, and so almost certainly would have been consulted.
Trinity Watershed Management, whose representatives haven't responded to phone calls or emails, was heavily involved in crafting the Big Spring historic overlay and so presumably knew of its existence. Perhaps whoever signed off wasn't aware that the route would include a wall planted in the middle of the protected area. Maybe they assumed that wouldn't matter.
The city's historic preservation office, which administers the Big Spring historic overlay, was not notified of the race in advance, though historic preservation officer Mark Doty says that might not have been required by city code. "The overlay doesn’t regulate uses or events per se," he wrote in an email. "We’d only have been notified if a permit was required for something being constructed. The installation of the temporary obstacle may not have triggered a permit, since it wasn’t permanent."
Doty wrote that, in the future, his office will work with Trinity Watershed Management "to ensure that proper paperwork is submitted for review and/or making the determination if approval is even required."
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But arcane debates about whether a temporary obstacle qualifies as "new construction" (as in "No new construction is allowed.") or maybe as a fence (as in "Interior fences may not exceed three feet in height.") miss the heart of the question, which is whether the city can be trusted to take care of its natural assets. No one's suggesting that the city shouldn't host mud runs, just that it not host mud runs that cut through an area everyone agrees should be sacrosanct.
"I'm disappointed and not hopeful for the long term of the Big Spring conservation area, because they keep doing this stuff," Grayson said.
Ben Sandifer, Grayson's fellow Trinity watchdog, was also down by Big Spring on Sunday. When he saw the climbing wall, he tried to file a police report with a Dallas police sergeant manning the event, as Trinity Watershed Management encourages conservationists to do whenever they spot illegal activity in the forest, but the sergeant demurred, saying it sounded like a civil matter.
"It kind of tarnishes the spirit of the whole landmark process," Sandifer said, adding, "I thought everyone was pretty damn clear."