Double Oops

In the black pre-dawn of a 1998 summer morning, Carrollton resident Jack Laivins was munching on an apple and trying to find an early newscast on his car radio as he drove toward work along Keller Springs Road. At 4:30 a.m. on that July 23, the technical specialist for the American Honda Distribution Center had the neighborhood he had called home for the past 15 years all to himself. Or so he thought.

As he neared the Josey Ranch Sports Complex, a rambling park filled with athletic fields, bike trails, trees and a small lake, Laivins' attention was drawn to a sight he now remembers as surreal. Off to his left, strobe lights sitting atop a portable generator cast an eerie glow along one of his favorite jogging routes. Slowing, he could see the outline of a bulldozer and two large trucks. Several men mingled about. And in the sky above, in the dim outer limits of the artificial light, it appeared that a smoky white storm cloud was boiling.

It took him, he recalls, several seconds to realize that the movement in the sky was not a wind-whipped cloud but, instead, thousands of displaced birds, confused and frightened by the strange activity and their own poor night vision. That's when the passerby realized that a 30-year-old rookery, nesting home of egrets, herons and a variety of other migrating birds, was being razed. Pushing his foot to the accelerator, Laivins hurried on toward work. He had to get to a phone.

Thus began an environmental horror story that enraged many residents of this upscale Dallas suburb, resulted in the suspension of three city officials who planned and ordered the destruction, spawned an investigation by federal wildlife authorities and drained $126,000 from the city budget to pay for care and relocation of hundreds of injured birds. Add the fact that the early-morning bulldozing, labeled "Operation Remove Excrement," created a public relations nightmare for city fathers, and the episode qualified as a full-blown disaster--ecologically, politically and financially.

Reacting to complaints of some residents of the odor, noise and potential health hazard created by the nesting birds, city officials opted to remedy the problem with their pre-dawn bulldozing, ignoring the long-standing Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which makes it illegal to disturb migrating birds during their nesting season.

"The whole thing was heartbreaking," remembers Kathy Rogers, founder and director of the Rogers Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Hutchins. She had seen her share of avian disasters, working in rescue efforts after coastal oil spills, tornadoes and hail storms, but none compared to the tragedy she encountered that Thursday morning upon her arrival at the demolished Carrollton rookery. Dead birds were scattered about the barren ground while others, clearly injured, sat atop the broken remains of the trees where they had been nesting. Hundreds of others, adult birds and fledglings, had been buried in the rubble.

Bombarded by criticism from as far away as the editorial room of The New York Times and under investigation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Carrollton City Council immediately began seeking ways to heal the damage. It quickly agreed to a recommendation that a Wildlife Environmental Advisory Committee be formed, its members to serve as guardians and advisers on environmental matters. Additionally, it unanimously voted to fund and establish a wildlife sanctuary near the site of the destroyed rookery. The barren land would be topped with 9 inches of new soil and converted into a blackland prairie that would feature almost extinct vegetation once common to the region.

Sixteen-year-old Jeff Stone, son of advisory committee member Roz Stone, volunteered to take on the project to fulfill requirements for the Eagle Scout badge he was working toward.

Carrollton was clearly on its way to making amends. Assistant City Manager Marc Guy, acknowledging that the destruction of the rookery "brought a greater sense of understanding of and appreciation for habitat conservation," pointed out that "you will see greater incorporation of environmental elements in future [city] developments." Said then-Mayor Milburn Gravley, "Let everyone learn from the mistake that was made. We won't make that mistake again."

Or so they thought.

His project approved by Carrollton's supervisor of master planning and construction, his Boy Scouts district advancement adviser and his scoutmaster, Jeff Stone went to work, supervised by city arborist Bob Schantz and aided by volunteers who included Assistant City Manager Guy, three members of the City Council, local environmentalists and several fellow Scouts. Top soil was moved from another area of the park and carefully spread, 19 varieties of grasses, wildflowers and plants were purchased, and grids were carefully laid out so that the seeding and planting could be done in such a manner that the entire 47,783-square-foot area (a little more than an acre) would simulate the prairie land once common to the region.

On the day of the planting, a gentle rain began to fall soon after the work was done. "It was," Stone remembers, "a good sign."

Stone suggested that he be allowed to put a rustic fence around the prairie's perimeter and erect a sign that would explain the purpose of the newly established wildlife sanctuary, but city officials told him they would handle that chore.

And so, the blackland prairie grew while the controversy faded.

Move forward, now, to a day in October when Roz Stone was driving along Keller Springs Road, looking forward, as always, to the sight of her son's environmental handiwork. Instead of the waist-high grasses and nodding sunflowers, she saw mounds of dirt excavated from where a new sewer system was being installed. Trucks and bulldozers had traveled across the area where the prairie once stood, pounding it into a hardened roadway. Just as Jack Laivins had done on that summer morning years earlier, Roz Stone quickly searched for a phone.

Aware that the city was planning a major construction project in the park--rebuilding of the dam and spillway that supported the lake, installing a new sewer system and, eventually, erecting a combination library and senior citizens center--Stone and fellow wildlife task force members had been assured that the prairie would not be disturbed. Though no fence had ever been erected, the architect, they were assured, would outline the area on the blueprints provided to the construction company.

Acknowledging that the prairie was not included on the original blueprints, Scott Whitaker, director of the Parks and Recreation Department, says that stakes were placed at the corners of the prairie to indicate its boundaries before the work began.

Freeman Adams, superintendent for the Hunt Construction Group that is doing the park work, remembers getting a call from someone representing the city, belatedly advising him that the prairie was off-limits. "At first I didn't know what they were talking about," he says, "since there was nothing on the plans we'd been given that indicated the blackland prairie was there. I'm sure not going to say we didn't run over it, but I had no idea what it was."

Adams urged the city to immediately come to the park and mark off the area he and his workers were to avoid. By the time a makeshift fence was erected around the area, however, it was little more than barren, hard-packed dirt.

Jeff Stone remembers going out to the site after learning what his mother had seen. "It was a strange feeling," he says. "There was all this machinery and piles of dirt where we'd planted everything. Everything was just gone, killed."

He hasn't been back to the park since.

And the city of Carrollton was back in the doghouse of some of its residents.

In recent weeks, Stone and fellow Wildlife Environmental Advisory Committee members have been asking for explanations. Assistant City Manager Guy says he's tried to assure them that there was no malicious intent on the city's part and that whatever damage has occurred will be repaired. "At the very worst," he says, "all this is the result of an unfortunate lack of communication. I'm comfortable that in a number of meetings which took place before the beginning of work out at the park that we [city officials] made it clear [to the construction company] that the prairie area was not to be disturbed. In retrospect, however, some of us should have gone out to the site to make sure the area was not only staked off but fenced."

Guy says he first became aware of the problem one Saturday as he drove past the construction site and saw a parked backhoe and mounds of dirt piled on the blackland prairie. "I immediately got on the phone to the parks department," he says, "and told them to get out there and get the area cleaned up and fenced off."

And now, he says, there is a plan for reseeding the prairie as soon as work on the dam is completed in March. "Our parks department," he says, "will re-establish it in the spring. In fact, we're already talking about bringing in specialists to assist in the process." Additionally, some kind of improved watering system will go on the drawing board since the past summer droughts have caused considerable damage to the plants in the original area. The project, Guy says, will be funded by the city.

Still, there is concern by those who remain upset over recent events.

"We had meetings on the construction plans," remembers Bob Lanier, a Jesuit High teacher and chairman of the advisory committee, "and the existence and location of the prairie was made clear. I'm surprised that the diagrams provided to the construction company showed nothing. All this had been very disappointing because the city has been very sensitive to environmental matters since the rookery incident."

No doubt, he and fellow advisory committee members would be even more surprised to see that blueprints viewed by the Dallas Observer indicate that once the construction project is completed, a parking lot drawn adjacent to the planned library-senior center apparently covers much of the area where the "permanent" blackland prairie was originally planted.

"That," Guy assures, "will not be the case. There will be nothing in that area but the rebuilt blackland prairie." Acknowledging that preliminary blueprints do indicate the encroachment of a driveway on the corner of the prairie area, he says, "This encroachment will be eliminated when the final architectural plans are completed."

Scott Whitaker and Bob Schantz will oversee the spring replanting and coordinate with Bill Neiman, a prairie restoration expert with the Native American Seed Co. The results, Whitaker says, should be visible by midsummer.

"Even before all this happened," he says, "it was our intent to make some improvements to the prairie. Because of the recent droughts, some of the vegetation had done better than others and had begun to take over the area. As soon as the construction is completed, we're going to do some things that we believe will make the blackland prairie even better than it originally was."

And that, he hopes, will put an end to any concerns. "We're going to do the right thing," he says.

Some of the city's environmentalists, now feeling twice betrayed, hope so. "The thing that still troubles me," Roz Stone says, "is that it would have made so much more sense to have protected the prairie in the first place.

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Carlton Stowers
Contact: Carlton Stowers

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