Great Trinity Forest to Change the Way We Regard Dallas

Nothing about urban life could be more wondrously incongruous than the cul-de-sac at the end of Bexar Street hard against the Trinity River levee in the even harder neighborhood near Rochester Park in southern Oak Cliff.

SAFE PASSAGE: The Great Trinity Forest will eventually be a destination in Dallas’ master trail plan, one of the most ambitious recreational trail systems ever devised.
NATURE LOVER: Groundwork Dallas Executive Director Ron Kovatis, at the overlook of the Gateway Trail, hopes public use will be a deterrent to illegal dumping.

Next to the cul-de-sac, a new informational kiosk and tin roof picnic shelter hewn by volunteers from a weed-covered clearing mark the entry of a primitive, 6-mile round-trip loop leading straight into the northern rim of our greatest natural treasure. The Texas Buckeye Trail, named for one of the many dozens of spectacular or rare flora found in the 6,000-acre Great Trinity Forest, the largest urban hardwood forest in America, winds down a small hill and over a wooden footbridge before disappearing over the levee and into a tree line that might as well be in deep East Texas. If you stand at the top of the levee and look back to the north and east, you can almost see the downtown skyline less than five miles away. You can easily see the more immediate, decidedly unnatural environs of habitat: beat-down homes, a smattering of storefront churches, sordid convenience stores, sidewalks filled with young men who seem to have little to do other than drink from brown paper bags or hang along the sidewalks waiting to make drug deals with the out-of-place late-model cars from nearby C.F. Hawn Freeway that constantly cruise past, seemingly oblivious to the community police station. I’m familiar with this part of Dallas, but still think twice about parking my car where the street ends and the forest begins. Here a great effort is unfolding to lure even more cars like mine, people like me. Because most Dallas residents don’t even know the Trinity forest exists.

Dropping down the river side of the levee into the forest, the Buckeye Trail is so unused that only a slender hint of trodden grass keeps a hiker from missing it altogether. At the treeline, a signpost announces the way, and a caution: “Warning. Snake Habitat. Please Stay on Trail.” Alas, the trail all but disappears again as the red oak, sycamore, cedar, hanging vines, and underbrush (including poison ivy) swallow up your senses so completely that you can’t imagine something like a Reunion Tower or W Hotel or McKinney Avenue could be on the same planet, let alone 10 minutes away. That’s the point. One of a trio of new or renovated trails into the northern end of the forest, the Buckeye is meant to open up the preserve for a population that will increasingly come to value its oasis-like quality. Then, the hope is, visitors will be drawn back again and again by the eventual implementation of the city’s Trinity River Corridor project, which, though thematically related, is not tied to the forest trail development. In time, the three starter trails will be linked to a spiderweb of other paths emanating from the new Audubon Center and the upcoming equestrian center in the forest’s southern half, matching up with extensive trails around the levees near Rochester Park, and ultimately with the city’s master trail plans that include such favorites as the Katy Trail network. When finally assembled, this may be one of the most ambitious naturalist and recreational trail systems devised by any city and will change the face of Dallas topography and social interaction.

The Trinity trails themselves are not costing the city much at all. Carved out, mapped, and planned by Groundwork Dallas, an affiliate of the national nonprofit Groundwork USA, the Buckeye and its sister trails—Gateway near Keeton Park Golf Course, and Sycamore-Dixon at the Larry Johnson Recreation Center—are essentially volunteer projects. They received start-up support from the National Park Service Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance program, and from a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency (as well as some city support through the Park and Recreation Department). The park service wants to help realize the potential of the forest, and the EPA sees it as part of related efforts to reclaim brownfields, or dumping sites, for public use. The state, through the Parks and Wildlife Department, is also kicking in about $88,000 for improvements along part of the overall system. Groundwork Dallas, under its new board president, Steve Smith, CEO of Smith Group Asset Management, is busy raising thousands of dollars from the city’s business and social elites to continue to carve out the first three trails and build and maintain the next wave. Eventually the city may provide for some maintenance of the network, but the idea is to keep that as minimal as possible to avoid the usual fights over city budget resources.

The Buckeye is by far the most primitive of Groundwork’s starter trails. I’m not long into following it before realizing it doesn’t even make a nod to the most rudimentary of markers. Some purists like it that way, arguing that it should be kept in as pristine form as possible. I agree. But that will limit access to exactly the kinds of city folk that the program hopes to attract. During the summer of heavy rains, much of the path is not only washed out but consistently flooded. Plodding my way through underbrush and spiderwebs, I have to be careful to mind my own detours so as not to lose the path on the other side of a rivulet, a downed tree, a thicket of thorns, or a shoe-sucking bog of mud. Eventually, if lost, I could probably make it to I-45, or Loop 12, or a train track, but then again I could just vanish and not be discovered for days.

Maybe a mile into the forest, the flooded declivities are so wide that it’s useless to try to get around them. My companions and I decide to turn back a little short of the end, but it’s been enough. We stop talking and just listen to the birds, the insects, the rush of wind through the branches. Off in the distance is a truck horn, which is good to hear, too. It’s a reminder that this isn’t really nature. It’s a protected part of nature. It could be lost. It could be a subdivision. The idea of Groundwork Dallas is that opening it up to the city, getting the city’s attention, is the best protection. “We’ve got the greatest piece of nature that any city in America has, and nobody knows about it,” says Smith, who offices in Crescent Court and observes that there are a lot of business people like himself who are passionate about conservation and the environment. “Our goal is to create awareness because I’m convinced that if people knew what’s down there, it would be very easy to get public support.”

 

You have to look hard into the trees around Keeton Park Golf Course on Jim Miller Road just south of Scyene Road to find one of the entry points for the Gateway Trail, which also has an access on the other side of the course where Renda Drive and Lacywood Lane meet at a broad meadow perhaps equally well-known among some urban parasites as an illegal dump site. Both trails, about 1 mile and 1.5 miles round-trip, respectively, ultimately will be linked somewhere along the DART rail line that runs between them. The Renda route leads to a limestone escarpment overlooking the vast canopy of a forest that, when enveloped by rain-filled cloud banks, can seem as magical as it is unknown.

Each Gateway path is far more novice-friendly than the Buckeye, thanks mostly to the efforts of volunteers and supervision by Groundwork Dallas executive director Ron Kovatis, who got involved with Groundwork about five years ago and has worked with other nonprofits, such as Shakespeare Dallas. A year ago, he coordinated trail-clearing with kids from AmeriCorps, the Eagle Scouts, and from neighborhood youth teams dubbed the Trail Rangers, who receive a small stipend for their help—in theory, creating an “ownership” interest in the neighborhoods near each trailhead. The greater idea is that as people from other parts of Dallas filter into the south, they will spend money and otherwise spur economic development—as will new plans for a DART station at Lawnview and the Inland International Port of Dallas.

The Keeton entry, about an 8-minute drive from City Hall, runs through a converted pecan grove that is particularly lush with rattan vines (the kind used in furniture). Also lots of poison ivy, mosquitoes, and more spiderwebs than you can possibly avoid. Two tips for beginners: bring DEET and wear long pants.

The Renda trailhead is not only the best of the current group of Groundwork trails but the most symbolic of a major affliction of the Trinity forest: illegal dumping. It has been in a chronic battle with environmental thugs. Both the meadow and parking lot at its starting point are routinely trashed with mounds of used tires, busted refrigerators, and moldy mattresses. Last year, an AmeriCorps team pulled 1,000 pounds of debris and garbage from the lot. This summer, the iron entry gate the city put up to keep dumpers out was busted open and broken. Kovatis hopes increased public use will be a deterrent. “When people use trails for the right reasons,” he says, “the people who use them for the wrong reasons sort of say, ‘I don’t want to be here.’ ” And then they go dump somewhere else illegally.

Today, the lot and meadow are clean, and I park next to a brand-new kiosk guide, waiting out a midday downpour. I set out when it stops, passing the scores of wildflowers and legions of fire ant mounds the size of Yugos. At the tree line leading into the winding trail to the escarpment, I pause at a split-rail cedar bench to scrape mud from my boots (waste of time), then hop across a small stream. Not far ahead, the path forks at a stone cairn. Be sure to turn right. Trust me.

After the cairn, the path curves and bends upward through cedar and hardwood. Surprisingly cool even on hot days. At a small switchback just before the summit, I encounter two large, loose hounds, one with a collar. I pick up a tree branch figuring it’s going to get toothy, but the dogs run off. They probably come from a neighborhood on Renda. At the trail’s end atop the escarpment, I jump atop a bench and listen to the silence. Clouds to the southwest drop rain over Duncanville and everything in sight seems slate gray or deep green. Veterans say it looks best at sundown, but this isn’t bad. A strong wind stirs the treetops as though they were waves on the ocean. I have no sense of being in the city. But on the way back down, I veer about 30 yards off trail and stand atop the frontage embankment of car-filled Scyene Road. Colonial Baptist Church and blocks of human houses are just on the other side. I duck back into the forest and none of that exists.

It’s not such a long walk across the athletic field from the Larry Johnson Recreation Center on Dixon Street in South Dallas to the Sycamore-Dixon trailhead. It just seems that way. The tree line ahead is stark and dark against the edge of the field, a slightly malevolent-looking natural proscenium arch or some skirmish line from which unseen infantry are about to charge. The spare apartment complex and tough neighborhood all around induce the same kind of worry about leaving your car as did Bexar Street. A needless worry in both instances, but one that the planners of Trinity forest venues wonder about, too. Just one carjacking and years’ worth of improvements could come to naught. Perhaps that’s why a boardwalk, funded by the $88,000 grant from the state, will soon lead from the parking area into the trees. At the least, it will look more inviting.

About two years old, this trail, about 1.5 miles leading to White Rock Creek, was initially a project of the White Rock Heritage District before Groundwork Dallas became the organizing umbrella group for the Trinity trail system. It’s more settled, better cleared, and better marked than the other trails, with information signs pointing out the sycamores, cottonwoods, grapevines—and poison ivy. It’s also prone to flooding and can become impressively muddy. I have to be careful not to pratfall. Crawfish holes have popped up everywhere. Paw prints from big dogs run in every direction. I pick up a thick branch for balance and protection.

The mosquitoes are so bad they’re attacking through my long-sleeve shirt, so I move on and they dissipate. As the trail gets closer to the creek, it passes a “storyteller circle” where in better weather (probably the fall), school kids and sponsors can gather on downed logs and spin yarns. Volunteers, mostly children, had built benches around the circle but recurrent floods washed everything away. At a shallow ravine, I cross Keandra’s Bridge, named for Keandra Hightower, who, before being killed in an auto accident at age 11, helped build the bridge and clear the trail. When I get within 30 or so yards of the creek, the trail almost loses itself in overgrowth—a sign of lack of use. I am, as usual, the only one on the path. The high mark of the flooding is delineated by plastic water jugs, soft drink cans, and garbage of every sort clinging to tree branches and broken limbs stuck in the creek bed. I wonder if it is the lot of nature in an urban setting to mirror the pig-manners of the people. If the Groundwork trails have any meaning, it is to alter that reflection. It is to make us better than we were. More precisely, it is to let nature do so.

Rod Davis ([email protected]), a former senior editor at D Magazine, is now the managing editor of the Teaching Tolerance project at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

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