Sean Fitzgerald hated working for a big law firm. After moving to a small firm, he discovered that he hated that, too. “I finally realized I need to be out, I need to be moving, I need to be touching earth and touching sky or I’ll be suffocated.” And so, about 15 years ago, Fitzgerald quit the small firm and became a professional nature photographer.
Fitzgerald's work has taken him to wildernesses all over the world in search of the just-right convergence of time, place and subject — a solitary bison trudging through the Yellowstone snow, a forlorn dog resting on a bed of dead Monarch butterflies in Mexico — but the public lands and sprawling ranches of Texas have always been his main inspiration. Sometimes he shoots for magazines, sometimes for private patrons, sometimes for himself. "A lot of the greatest privately owned properties in Texas, I've had the keys to the gate," he says.
He didn't waste much time taking pictures of Dallas. Like most natives, he learned growing up that the city just isn't a natural kind of place. If it once had something resembling nature, Fitzgerald assumed, it had long since been paved over.
It wasn't until about 2009, not quite a decade into his photography career, that Fitzgerald began to question this assumption. He was driving on Interstate 45, returning from a South Texas photography expedition, when, about eight miles shy of downtown Dallas, he looked out across the the thick forest that spread out in either direction. He'd taken note of the landscape on previous trips down I-45, musing idly about how many dead bodies must have been dumped there, but he'd never given serious consideration to what else — what plants, what wildlife, what hidden vistas — the dense canopy of trees might conceal.
Camera in tow, Fitzgerald began to explore the Great Trinity Forest, some 7,000 acres of wetland forest and prairie that hugs the Trinity River along much of its course through southern Dallas. It has been spared from development by a tangle of natural, political and historical barriers. City officials often tout it as the country's largest urban hardwood forest, though it wasn't until a couple of decades ago, when Dallas was laying the groundwork for the Trinity River Corridor Project, a behemoth public-works initiative that mixed improvements to flood control and recreation with an enormous riverside toll road, that this giant swath of untouched land was given a name and marketed as a premier natural asset.
As Fitzgerald prodded deeper, he was astounded. "This is wilderness," he says. "You can stand there in a lot of parts of the forest, and you can't see the hand of man. You can't see a power line, can't hear the highway ... We're talking six, eight miles from downtown Dallas."
The ponds in particular teem with activity. "There's tons of these hidden lakes and hidden ponds that are hidden within the forest. What I've found is some of them have incredible biodiversity." They can be hard to locate on foot, though they show up pretty well on Google Earth. Fitzgerald has visited many of them over the years. His favorite — what he calls the "secret bird pond" — is located not far from the Trinity River Audubon Center. He learned of it a few years ago while working on a project with the center's staff, who mentioned a nearby pond that birds seemed to flock to.
The pond itself isn't terribly impressive. It's shallow and ephemeral, filling to a depth of perhaps six inches during heavy rains or when the Trinity spills over its banks, then slowly drying up over the following weeks or months. Glimpsed through the trees, it sometimes looks like a big, muddy puddle. But the same factors that make the pond seem so unremarkable are part of what makes it so special to Fitzgerald. Fish carried by the Trinity become trapped in the pond when the floodwaters recede, which makes an easy meal for the migratory wading birds that flock there. "This pond is one of the best in the forest in terms of sheltering and providing the kind of food and opportunity for those kinds of birds in particular," he says. He's seen dozens of species, including "hundreds and hundreds of egrets standing in this pond all at once," as well as wood storks — an endangered species — wading "by the dozens and dozens."
On the Sunday before Christmas, Ben Sandifer, Fitzgerald's fellow Great Trinity Forest adventurer and an accomplished photographer in his own right, rode his mountain bike down to Pleasant Grove and steered down the access road for the Trinity River Audubon Center. Past a fence to the right, the Trinity Forest Golf Club, future home of the AT&T Byron Nelson golf tournament, was taking shape. Where a few months before there were only shapeless mounds of dirt, there are now the glistening outlines of greens and rolling fairways. After a couple of hundred yards he reached the AT&T Trail, a fresh concrete road of four miles and change. Next to the trail stood an unmanned excavator, which marked the head of another trail of sorts: a broad set of industrial-scale tread tracks gouged into the moist earth of the wetland.
Sandifer, who on more occasions than he would care to recount has caught the city bungling its stewardship of the forest, felt a familiar knot developing in his stomach as he followed the path into the trees. At first the tracks were merely soggy, though they became swampy and waterlogged a few yards into the forest, and he was soon picking his way amidst ankle-deep pockets of mud. He was aghast at the destruction. To clear a path, the excavator had snapped off dozens, probably hundreds of trees at their roots — mature cedar elms, oaks, ashes and willows, among other species. A minority had trunks larger than eight inches, which is the diameter where the protections of Dallas' tree ordinance kick in, but all were woven into the wetland ecosystem as was the native swamp privet, sedge, and other components of the understory that the excavator also steamrolled. He didn't find the end of the gash, which continued through the forest for at least half a mile, probably further, but he made it far enough to note that the path came within a few yards of Fitzgerald's secret bird pond, and that felled trees had been left clogging its outlet. He took a brief video of the destruction, which he posted to YouTube:
In Sandifer's opinion, City Hall should know better than to steamroll through virgin hardwood forest with enormous construction equipment. Even if it didn't fully appreciate the delicacy of the forest ecosystem when it embarked on the Trinity River Corridor Project, the series of damaging and embarrassing blunders Sandifer helped expose provided ample opportunity for learning. In 2014, the city clear-cut trees and destroyed a wetland prairie to mine dirt for the Trinity Forest Golf Club. Nearby, a contractor working for the city drained a federally protected pond, not too different from Fitzgerald's secret bird pond, in order to cut down on dust kicked up by the lumbering dump trucks brought in to transport the freshly mined dirt. Last month, it was revealed that the city built the AT&T Trail through wetlands without obtaining the required federal permits. Even more recently, the city acknowledged that the giant pit left by the dirt excavation had filled with water during recent flooding and developed a "breach" where the bank was eroding, threatening to cut a channel through the forest to link up with the Trinity River a few hundred yards away. The excavator told Sandifer that the city has learned nothing.
That afternoon, Sandifer addressed a letter to various city of Dallas officials involved in overseeing work in the Trinity Forest. After an opening "Seasons Greetings," Sandifer gets to the point:
Allow me to express my extreme displeasure that this event is underway next to the marquee destination in the Great Trinity Forest, the Trinity River Audubon Center. The path of the work in this area will greatly retard the recreational opportunities for the Dallas residents to enjoy the Great Trinity Forest.
Pond Tango, the Secret Bird Pond serves as a nursery and rearing habitat for countless animal species seen at the Trinity River Audubon Center. Home to owls, otters, beavers and migratory birds of every shape and color. It also serves as habitat for threatened and endangered birds in the summer dispersal migration from the interior of Mexico to the Trinity Basin.
Protecting this habitat is not just vital to the survival of animal life but survival of the Trinity River Audubon Center as a going concern.
The city has deflected responsibility for the latest episode of destruction. I visited the site last Monday and followed the trail about a third of a mile in, turning back when it became too swampy to traverse in running shoes. As I emerged from the woods, I encountered a trio of staffers from the city's Trinity Watershed Management department who had arrived to survey the damage. Paul White, the department's senior environmental coordinator, said the excavator belongs to Oncore, the contractor hired to build the Trinity Forest Golf Club (not to be confused with Oncor, the local power-line operator), which is currently in the process of building a perimeter fence around the golf course, primarily to keep out feral hogs. Though the course is on city property, it is being built and managed by the Company of Trinity Forest Golfers, a private corporation formed by local financier Jonas Woods, retired PGA golfer Harrison Frazar and AT&T executive VP Ronald Spears. The golf course folks hired Oncore, White said, not the city. (Oncore did not respond to a request for comment; representatives of the Company of Trinity Forest Golfers couldn't be reached.)
White said Oncore has obtained all necessary permissions for the fence construction, including an OK from the city's building inspection department and a Section 404 permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — i.e., the same type of permit the city neglected to obtain for the AT&T Trail. He did, however, say that the city's Stormwater Management Team had beat Sandifer to the site by a day and issued a notice of violation for unspecified "deficiencies" with construction. The team was scheduled to return on Monday to see if the deficiencies had been corrected. Sandifer returned to the site the weekend following Christmas. The excavator had been removed, and someone had sprinkled a layer of straw over about a hundred yards of the muddy gash. In the weekend rains, much of the straw was washed into the secret bird pond, where it is currently floating.
To Sandifer, the fact that the golf course folks were ostensibly in charge was a distinction without a difference. The golf course is a city project, and a heavily touted one at that, so the city is where responsibility ultimately lies. He also couldn't believe that the Corps' rules would permit such careless destruction of the wetland. The rulebook for the Section 404 permit Oncore obtained includes multiple provisions the excavator work appeared to violate, such as:
4. Migratory Bird Breeding Areas. Activities in waters of the United States that serve as breeding areas for migratory birds must be avoided to the maximum extent practicable.
11. Equipment. Heavy equipment working in wetlands or mudflats must be placed on mats, or other measures must be taken to minimize soil disturbance.
12. Soil Erosion and Sediment Controls. Appropriate soil erosion and sediment controls must be used and maintained in effective operating condition during construction, and all exposed soil and other fills, as well as any work below the ordinary high water mark or high tide line, must be permanently stabilized at the earliest practicable date.
There's also a stipulation that most work in wetlands "shall not be permitted if there is a practicable alternative that would have less adverse impact on the aquatic ecosystem."
The fence itself — six-plus feet with apertures too small for Sandifer to get his balled fist through — was also troublesome. He's encountered an already-built section along an Oncor right-of-way and surmised that, while it might do a fine job of keeping out unwanted deer and hogs, it would also wall off beavers, turtles, otters and other animals accustomed to moving freely between the Trinity River and wetland ponds. Walled off from the rest of the forest, it seemed likely that wildlife in the secret bird pond would become much less abundant.
David Madden, the chief of compliance and enforcement for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, doesn't disagree with much of Sandifer's assessment. The path blazed by the excavator did indeed cause considerable damage to vegetation in a wetland overseen by the Corps; the fence does appear to be constructed in a way that could impede the free flow of wildlife. But Madden says those matters lay outside of the Corps' purview when under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.
The key concept here is "discharge of fill material." When it happens, the Corps regulatory apparatus kicks into action. Otherwise, the Corps stands aside. Madden offers the example of a developer clearing a plot of land with a bulldozer to build a shopping mall in a wetland (i.e., "Those areas that are inundated or saturated by surface or ground water at a frequency and duration sufficient to support, and that under normal circumstances do support, a prevalence of vegetation typically adapted for life in saturated soil conditions"). The dirt pushed by the bulldozer blade, as well as any clods kicked up by uprooted vegetation, counts as discharged fill material, meaning the work requires a Section 404 permit. Same thing for a backhoe scooping up dirt and dumping it in a stream. But if instead of a bulldozer on the shopping mall project the developer cut down trees with a chainsaw, or if the backhoe was scooping dirt out of the stream rather than putting it in, then no permit would be needed. Madden has looked at the video Sandifer posted on YouTube showing the excavator's path and seen nothing that would have triggered regulation under the Clean Water Act. "That really is not a discharge of fill material. That's just chopping down trees," he says.
For the fence itself, Madden says the Corps' authority is similarly circumscribed. Here, the only discharge subject to regulation is the tiny bit of earth and concrete being used to hold the fence posts in the ground. Beyond that, the Corps doesn't have much to say over the design of the fence. "If this was putting a fence through a creek where it would keep fish and aquatic life from moving up and down the stream, yes, we would be very concerned with that," he says. But the golf course fence isn't running through a creek but an occasionally inundated wetland, and the animals whose movement might be impeded aren't "aquatic species" but reptiles and mammals. "I hate to be thinking about this narrow-mindedly, but it is the Clean Water Act, so those upland species of animal [aren't protected by its provisions]," Madden says.
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With this case, as with the other environmental screw-ups in the Great Trinity Forest, there are plenty of places to spread the blame: an overzealous contractor, a careless city bureaucracy, a federal regulator too timid or impotent to provide meaningful oversight, most of which has its roots in the city's breathless rush to build a world-class golf course. Unlike many of his fellow Great Trinity Forest advocates, who perform painstaking postmortems of each screw-up in the hope — a vain one so far — that the knowledge will catalyze reform, Fitzgerald doesn't spend much time assigning blame. He prefers to contribute to the movement with his pictures. Besides, the end result is the same, no matter the author. Piece by piece, the forest is disappearing.
His immediate worry is that the work on the golf course and the fence will impact the secret bird pond. "My concern in part is when you put too much human activity around it, it's hard to say how much that's going to push it away. The birds might fly over it the next time." For threatened and endangered species like the wood storks, already squeezed for habitat, the loss of the secret bird pond would be an unconscionable blow.
Bigger picture, he's worried that the talk about the forest as an irreplaceable jewel that so often gets repeated by Mayor Mike Rawlings and other officials is just empty rhetoric. The city doesn't need to scrap plans for the golf course or horse park or walking trails. It just needs to be more mindful of the impact of those projects (perhaps a nice dirt path would do as well as the concrete highways the city is fond of building) and much, much more careful about minimizing instances of wanton destruction. "It's frightening," Fitzgerald says. "You don't know if anyone's thinking these things through and making sure we don't destroy the Great Trinity Forest at the same time that we make it more accessible."
Even if they care nothing for nature, Fitzgerald hopes that the city's decision makers can see that the Great Trinity Forest is an economic asset that other cities would kill for. It's a place of natural beauty and solitude 10 minutes from a major urban downtown. A premiere natural area could be a lure to companies and workers who might otherwise bypass Dallas as a concrete wasteland. And the allure of untouched nature will be far more enduring than any man-made development. "If we screw it up, we've sinned again against the future of this city," Fitzgerald says. "We have destroyed a resource that we can never get back. And that's heartbreaking."