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Is Dallas Really Building ‘The Nation’s Largest Nature Park’?

A recent spate of misguided news stories reveal the pitfalls of Trinity River optimism.

Did you hear the news? Dallas is building the nation’s largest nature park. Don’t take my word for it. I read it Wednesday, clear as day, in a news story that popped up in my Facebook feed. The New York-based design news website Inhabitat had the story first. Then it was picked up by other internet outlets.

“Dallas Is Building a 10,000-Acre Urban Park,” reads the headline on Seeker, which followed in its subhead: “The green space would be 12 times the size of New York’s Central Park and includes a thousand-acre hardwood forest.”

I was shocked.

The day before this story came to light, Tim and I spent three hours at the Trinity Trust learning about the new park plans as we prepare an article for the March edition. We sat with some of the people who know more than anyone about the history and current status of the Trinity River Park, and we left with the general impression that the entire thing still stood more or less where it has always stood: there’s a promising new vision on the table, but also the need for hundreds of millions of dollars and still unsettled questions about flood control, hydrology, and the utility of a north-south road built-out within the levees of the floodplain.

But then, there it was, in digital ink. The Trinity River Project, the latest incarnation of a 100-year-old civic effort to reimagine Dallas’ relationship with the river, was a done deal. It’s happening. Forget the decades of debate, the questions about funding, the wrangling over the toll road, the long federal approval processes, and the latest renderings of new visions and meandering roads. According to the aggregator news sites, the Trinity River is finally a settled matter. It’s happening. The only thing left to do is share the news on social media.

A testament to how battle-worn my mind is when it comes to Trinity matters, after reading the stories, I immediately thought I smelled conspiracy. These news stories must be part of a broader misinformation campaign. After all, last month the mayor announced a new $50 million pledged donation towards realizing the new plan for the Michael van Valkenburg revision of the park plan. The first $10 million of that donation has already been handed over. Perhaps some of that cash was being spent on a top-notch PR firm.

But, as we have all learned too well over the past year, the internet doesn’t need conspiracies to promulgate truthiness or fake news. In fact, rather than PR firms working behind the scenes, I managed to track back the aggregated stories to a single source: an op-ed in the Dallas Morning News by Steve Smith that appeared, rather quietly, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.

Close followers of the Trinity River Project will recognize Smith’s name. Last spring, the Dallas Observer wrote a lengthy piece on the man’s effort to launch a non-profit organization that would serve as a protector and promoter of the Trinity Forest — think the Lorax with a board of directors. Smith’s personal involvement in the forest stretches back decades, and he has worked with groups like Groundwork Dallas to promote the building of trails both in the forest as well as connecting the Katy Trail and Trinity Strand Trail in the Dallas Design District. Smith also generated some controversy earlier this year when he took it on himself to cut down a few trees in order to blaze a new trail through the forest. Smith said it was an effort to open up access to a particularly lovely grove of pecan trees. Master naturalist Jim Flood called that “balderdash” in the Observer.

Regardless, since receiving 501(c)3 status last fall, Smith’s Trinity Recreation Conservancy has been active in trying to promote a rethink of the Trinity River. That’s what Smith says prompted his op-ed in the Dallas Morning News. After the announcement of the $50 million gift, Smith says he starting thinking of all the various components of the Trinity River plan that were either already built-out or well on their way. He’s a member of the new Trinity River golf course, he rides his bike on the 12-foot-wide concrete trail winding past the wetlands near Joppa that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently completed. He thought of the new park as a potential capstone to a Trinity River Project that, when viewed through a certain lens, is already happening. All that was missing, he says, was a broad awareness that it all kind of fits together.

“I can ride my bike form the Audubon Center to the levees,” Smith says. “Then the golf course opened up and now the Simmons grant. It is not finished, but the plan is coming together.”

That, more or less, is what Smith wrote in his post, plus some questionable comparisons between the wetlands and White Rock Lake. However, it wasn’t long before longtime Trinity River watchdogs stepped in to point out where Smith’s vision and optimism ran aground of the truth.

Former Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt pointed out on Facebook that there were multiple misstatements in the op-ed, including the figures Smith used to estimate the total cost of the planned park between the levees and the timeline within which the park could be built. In a comment to the post, Dallas political gadfly Wylie H. Dallas points out that the $50 million that has been raised for the park doesn’t come close to the estimates of $500 million needed to build-out the van Valkenburgh Trinity design (which is perhaps still understated), and the word is still out on how complicated it will be — or how long it will take — to turn van Valkenburgh’s vision into a concrete design plan that will fit within the flood control parameters of the federally approved Trinity Environmental Impact Statement. After these objections were raised, the DMN ran a correction on Smith’s op-ed.

Smith says he didn’t intend to imply that the park was fully funded, or that there weren’t hurdles left to clear before the full vision of the future Trinity can be realized. He just wanted to shine light on the fact that there are a lot of pieces of the project that are happening or could happen, even if the organizations behind those pieces of the puzzle don’t talk to each other or market themselves very well, and so the general public may not be aware of them.

I can certainly sympathize with Smith’s sentiment. There is, today, some great stuff to explore in the Trinity River floodway. That said, I also think there is a danger in his brand of optimism. We’ve seen this kind of wishful thinking before. In fact, this magazine dedicated an entire issue to it back in 2003, when the watercolors developed around the Balanced Vision Plan were sold to the public as the final say on the long, decades-old project that, now that the conceptual ducks were aligned, was finally going to happen.

And then it didn’t.

In fact, one of the problems that has long dogged the Trinity River is that each time one of the nine plans that have been developed for the floodplain over the past 40-odd years hits the public consciousness, the public celebrates and then turns its attention away. Then the complications kick in. This is no different today.

The latest vision, the van Valkenburgh plan, is perhaps the closest plan we have to date that reimagines the floodway in a manner that respects the river’s natural ecology. But then there are still many questions about its feasibility and appropriateness, both from the value return on the mammoth cost of the vision to the potential hydrological issues, the lingering presence of the toll road, the potential environmental impact of turning up hundreds of cubic acres of riverbed silted with decades-worth of hazardous waste deposits, and more. To say this is a done deal, which then prompts the uninformed national outlets to take a cursory glance and amplify that message, is to ignore the underlying realities that have always shaped the progress on the Trinity. The Trinity’s problems have never been about the visions; they have always been about the politics.

Smith’s very presence within the Trinity River conversation, however well meaning, points to part of the problem. Eighteen months ago, there was no Trinity Recreation Conservancy and Steven Smith was an asset manager who loved the outdoors and had explored more of the Trinity River forest than most Dallasites. Naturally, he wanted to get involved, and he astutely recognized that the Trinity River Forest lacked an official Lorax. He got together some friends (some of whom, like Carol Nichols, who also sits on the Texas Horse Park board, were already involved in other aspects of the Trinity), and created a nonprofit with a vague mission of helping to fill that gap — to protect the forest and create greater awareness of its hidden beauties and delights.

When it launched, Smith’s group joined a rag-tag collection of organizations, nonprofits, governmental departments and boards, as well as many dedicated individuals — the naturalists, bird watchers, canoe pilots, E. coli testers, environmental activists, artists, volunteers, etc. — who all have their hands in some piece of the Trinity pie. Smith is right about this much in his op-ed: “The Trinity is happening with little public awareness because the projects are being conducted independently, managed by different parts of the government whose communications with each other are usually sparse.”

Smith’s op-ed is an attempt to breach this organizational impasse via good marketing. If we start talking about the river as one big project, the thinking goes, it suddenly looks like a lot more is going on than people realize. But what this attitude misses is the fact that what is stifling progress of the Trinity is not the awareness of disparate and un-unified efforts to improve the Trinity, it is the fact that the existence of these disparate and un-unified efforts are indicative of a completely breakdown in any effort to comprehensibly manage the Trinity River.

For example, while Smith is bullish about the Trinity golf course, the environmental impact of the course — from its excavated pits to its wildlife fences — are a menace to the ecological life of the forest he promotes. Similarly, construction of the concrete trail to the wetlands also created the destruction of some the adjoining natural areas. Much of this, as well as other environmental devastations in the Trinity, have happened because there isn’t uniform oversight of the Trinity River Floodway. The Corps of Engineers, two city departments, and a rag-tag collection of non-profits all claim some jurisdiction over the managing of the river and forest and steering the vision for its future. But in the gaps between those orgs, bad stuff happens.

That’s a problem that marketing and awareness won’t fix. The only way to fix it and to ensure that is to completely rethink how we manage the floodway and what protections and oversight we put in place to make sure that all the non-profits and other organizations are being held to the principles at the heart of the conservation, preservation, and respect for the natural wildness of the Trinity River.

Perhaps, this is what is intended with the proposed renaming of the Trinity Trust to the Trinity River Conservancy, which, during the announcement of that $50 million donation, Mayor Mike Rawlings said would take over management of the new Simmons-funded park. The Trust is currently looking at organizational models to follow in its proposed takeover of the Trinity, but we don’t know yet what kind of structure, oversight protections, public involvement, or municipal, state, or federal oversight such an entity would entail. We also don’t know how wide their jurisdiction would extend if the city council approved the takeover.

Would the new group manage the floodway downtown or the entire length of the river within the city limits? How would that jurisdiction correspond with the other non-profits managing portions of the river, like the Audubon Center and the Horse Park? Would it be responsible for maintenance of the trails in the Great Trinity Forest, or just managing the stretch of park planned for the floodway between the bridges downtown? And if the city ceded management of the river plain to a nonprofit, how would that nonprofit interact with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is also charged with ensuring the maintenance and safety of the floodway?

The Trinity Trust says it is working on figuring out answers to many of these questions. In others words, like always with the Trinity, we are still in a “trust us, wait and see” phase. Meanwhile, while we wait, there is plenty of time to look back on decades of broken promises, botched plans, and political obfuscation that offer little reason to trust anyone who has had their hands dipped in the Trinity so far.

Smith admits it is easy to be pessimistic about the Trinity, but he says he is encouraged by recent comments by the mayor and by news that the NTTA may be backing off the road.

“I think things are moving in a more positive direction than negative,” Smith says.

But I tend to think we haven’t quite seen much real movement at all. Yes, there is a promising new plan and a large donation pledged for it. But we are still operating within the same old conceptual framework: pay for a fancy plan from a well-respected designer, spend years raising money for that plan, and hope that all the political, environmental, and engineering uncertainties fix themselves once the money arrives.

What I believe we are still lacking is momentum towards a vision not of a new Trinity River Park, but of a new way of managing the entirety of the Trinity river floodway. The lack of communication Smith points out is not merely an inhibition of public awareness, it is the fundamental problem at the heart of the long stalling of the Trinity River. Until we can find some way to unify the management of the river under some authority that can steward its vision forward, we’ll keep running into the same old issues.

Nonprofits like the Audubon have proven effective at managing discrete sections of the park, but I don’t think handing over the entirety of the floodway to a nonprofit will resolve the kind of management issues that have snagged the Trinity. What’s needed is something that has more governmental heft and public oversight, something with governmental jurisdiction that supersedes the various city departments that currently mismanage the Trinity and can work hand-in-hand with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Smith’s best idea to date doesn’t appear in his op-ed, but shows up in that Observer article from last spring.

“[Smith’s] nonprofit’s vision is bold,” the Observer reported. “It wants to rebrand the Great Trinity Forest (itself a late-’80s rebrand of “anonymous swath of woods off I-45”) as the ‘Trinity Recreation Area’ and perhaps, someday, hand over management to the National Park Service.”

Wait a second. Hand over the entire river floodway to the National Park Service? Now that sounds like something worth getting excited about.

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