Environmentalists Say Dallas Is Trampling Nature to Build its Horse Park and Golf Course

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There's a fundamental tension baked into Dallas' plans for the Trinity River corridor. On the one hand, it wants to open the vast, unconcreted lands of the Great Trinity Forest for people to enjoy -- average folks, too, not just the naturalists and horsemen and gonzo hikers hearty enough to bushwhack. At the same time, it wants to preserve relatively intact the delicate ecology and natural beauty the city always touts when selling the Great Trinity Forest

Here's the contradiction: You can't do both. The city can only do its best to minimize the impact of the former on the latter. At the Texas Horse Park, set to open this fall near Loop 12 and CF Hawn freeway in Pleasant Grove, environmental advocates say the city is doing an abysmal job.

They -- brothers Ted and Hal Barker and an assemblage of master naturalists, former engineers, and weekend warriors -- have been watching the project closely since the construction contract was signed last spring. A few days later they found stakes demarcating future barns and an arena just a few dozen feet from the head of Big Spring, a gurgle of water that trickles into White Rock Creek that is impressive only insofar as it hasn't been paved over and slaked the thirst of Sam Houston, John Neely Bryan and an untold number of Native Americans who trod the land before them. The Barker Bros. were the ones who raised the alarm and successfully petitioned the city to alter construction plans and propose designating the site as a historic landmark.

See also: Preservationists Want to Stop the City from Building the Texas Horse Park Over Historic Spring

Their attention now has migrated a few acres south, next to where a dirt road doglegs off Elam Road to give construction trucks access to the main Texas Horse Park site. There, a couple of weeks ago, they noticed the city had clear-cut a swath of trees that, according to all the plans they checked, weren't supposed to be disturbed. Doubly concerning, once construction equipment began scraping the soil, was the realization that the city might be trampling an archaeology site: the coordinates matched exactly an archaeological survey conducted in 1940 by artist and Dallas Archaeological Society co-founder Forrest Kirkland, who found a collection of tools -- arrowheads, scrapers, blades, and the like -- suggesting an extensively-used campsite.

I visited the site last Monday with Sarah Standifer, an assistant director with the city's Trinity Watershed Management division. The land was now a deep pit, a couple of hundred feed in diameter. The city, she explained, was using the excavated material as fill for the Trinity Forest Golf Course being built on the old landfill across Loop 12. If there were any Native American artifacts, they would thus have the honor of helping support the turf of a PGA-caliber course. But Standifer was pretty sure nothing of archaeological significance had been trucked away.

The city had jumped through all the necessary legal hoops with the Texas Historic Commission to ensure they were disturbing nothing of archaeological significance, Standifer said. (For the city's archeological permit and related correspondence, see Save Pemberton's Big Spring website). To prove the city's commitment to preserving the past, Standifer introduced me to a pair of archeologists with Geo-Marine, the firm that conducted the original archaeological survey. They, too, assured me there was little chance of Native American artifacts being scooped up for the golf course. Kirkland, working in a time before archaeology had become professionalized, was an amateur, they reminded me. Probably he had gone to one of the gravel mines operating on the site at the time and asked the workers if they'd found any artifacts. In any case, the area has been intensively gravel-mined in the 74 years since, meaning that any archaeological site would have been destroyed.

I asked Standifer if Geo-Marine had been monitoring the excavation since it began a week or so before. Monday, she told me, was the first day on the site. The city had heard the complaints and just wanted to be proactive.

Standifer didn't mention it at the time, but the clear-cutting that preceded the excavation? That was a whoops. On Friday, Assistant City Manger Jill Jordan wrote in an email to the Barkers and a couple dozen fellow activists that "it was discovered that a development plan submittal was apparently needed to address tree removal in the area being excavated at the Southwest corner of the Horsepark."

That, however, was just a footnote to Jordan's main apology. A few days after noticing the excavation, the activists discovered a wetland pond next to the Trinity that had been drained almost to its lake bed. They took pictures, including several showing federally protected wood storks splashing in the shallow pool that remained.

Jordan explained that, during the bidding process, several contractors asked permission to be allowed to use ponds in the area for dust control. "During construction, the contractors did request use of the pond in question for the dust control. The City granted this request knowing it was not Waters of the US [i.e. under the control of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers] but also never realizing the contractor would be so insensitive as to attempt to drain an entire pond."

Pumping has now stopped. The contractor is buying drinking water from the city for dust control, and Jordan promises that the pond will be restored to its original condition. Not that the mea culpa has restored activists' faith in the city as environmental steward.

"Dewatering of ponds that are seasonal in nature and allowing heavy equipment in the area to do that work seems to contravene the concept of habitat conservation and preservation," Ted Barker wrote to Jordan. "The vast body of nature photography by many noted photographers will show even the most jaded urban inhabitant that there is great beauty in this area."

Rest assured that, as the city continues to develop the Trinity corridor into a recreational attraction, building parks and running concrete bike paths into the forest, the Barkers and the rest will be watching.

Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.

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