Photography by Scot Miller

Dallas Hates Trees

The city has always made it easy to knock down trees in North Dallas. Now that the only land left lies to the south, the rules could change. What’s at stake? Just an urban canopy worth $9 billion.

Heart of Oak: The city might not have many employees looking out for trees. But at least it has Karen Woodward. Photography by Billy Surface
Photography by Billy Surface
Less than 100 years ago, a report on the urban forest could have been done in an afternoon. Most of the trees Grubisich and his team looked at weren’t here then and shouldn’t be here at all.

Dallas’ origin story—short version: it had no real reason to exist and was only brought to life through the steely-eyed determination of its business and civic leaders—has long been considered self-aggrandizing hogwash. But it’s not entirely untrue. It does help explain how a city built on a flat and treeless expanse at the bottom of the Great Plains now has 14.7 million trees.

There are more trees in Dallas than in Toronto, which has a similar land mass. There are more trees here than in New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., combined. Even out of context, that is a large number and certainly an unexpected one, given that the city is normally associated—if not synonymous—with concrete and steel and various other impervious surfaces.

Before Europeans arrived in North America and for centuries after, much of the land within the current city limits—especially north of the Trinity River—was blackland prairie. Wildfires and hungry herds of bison ensured it remained that way, promoting the growth of soft-stemmed herbaceous plants over anything with woody tissue. Trees did grow around the Trinity, mostly to the south, where spring floods and the deep alluvial soil deposited by the river nourished a hardwood forest of elm, hackberry, oak, and ash. But the fertile ground that kept that hardwood forest well fed also made it ideal for cotton and sorghum and just about anything else that could be cultivated. After John Neely Bryan came here from Arkansas in the 1840s, much of the forest was clear-cut and divided into farms.

Given all that, how did the city get a tree canopy four times the size of the one in Calgary? It happened relatively recently. You could say Dallas’ trees are part of the baby-boom generation.

Trees grew south of downtown after the farms were abandoned in the 1940s. Nature reclaimed the land through benign neglect, as seeds were washed into the river, floated south, and formed what we know as the Great Trinity Forest—less a sequel than a reboot of the original. It is now touted as the largest urban hardwood forest in the country, just one modifying word short of being suspect. It is a product of the way nature has always produced forests. Trees drop seeds, the seeds become other trees that grow, live, die, and finally break down and provide nutrients for their replacements.

But there is nothing natural about the tree growth north of downtown. It began around the same time as the river-bottom forest began to return, as new highways and the postwar population boom expanded the city’s reach. Blackland prairie is fine for grazing bison but less desired by homebuyers, so trees were planted. While commercial development is often an adversary of trees, residential development—in Dallas, anyway—is practically Johnny Appleseed. Grubisich of the Texas Trees Foundation says that roughly 90 percent of the trees in the northern half of the city were planted. 

“You can track what was popular during a particular time in the nursery trade if you know when a house was built,” he says. Most of those trees were planted postwar, which means some of them are nearing the end of their life spans. 

Yet it’s still a young forest. And maybe that’s the answer. Maybe Dallas has never made protecting trees a priority because it is still getting used to having trees to protect. 

Article X was added to the city development code in 1994 for that purpose. It is an expanded version of the city’s original landscape zoning ordinance, which was enacted in 1986. Four years later, the City Council resolved “to support the protection and preservation of trees across the city.” That, after the usual round of negotiations and committee meetings, led to Article X. But the ordinance—from the very beginning—has had fewer teeth than a toddler, and it doesn’t have much to do with preservation, even though that word is in its title. Despite what they are called, the Landscape and Tree Preservation Regulations mostly deal with mitigation, with what a developer has to do when he decides it’s not worth the time or money to save a tree. 

For almost the entire existence of Article X, people have tried to change it. Yet nothing of any substance has ever been done, other than an amendment in 2003 to protect fewer trees. (Eastern red cedars and mesquites are now only subject to mitigation if their trunks are 12 inches in diameter or greater; before it was 8 inches.) Former Mayor Laura Miller established the Dallas Urban Forest Advisory Committee in 2005 when she was still in office, but the group’s recommendations have yet to reach the full City Council.

Steve Houser, the committee’s chairman emeritus, recently gave me a 20-minute disquisition on the recent, very complicated history of Article X. Houser was expanding on an op-ed piece he wrote for the Dallas Morning News in late January, where he fumed, “Trees are lower on the Dallas list of priorities than plastic bags.”

“That really kind of steamed a few people,” he says, laughing. “But that’s okay. When a plastic bag ordinance flies through, and yet [an ordinance concerning] the trees that clean our air, our water, and our soil sits for four years, something is wrong.”

Article X is with the City Plan Commission’s Zoning and Ordinance Committee, and from there—after input from environmental groups, developers, average citizens—whatever is left will be taken to the full commission, and then the City Council. No one I talked to has much hope that what finally emerges will be much stronger. That means more situations like the one still unfolding near Uptown.

On February 1, the old Xerox building off Central Expressway just north of Haskell Avenue was imploded to make way for a controversial Sam’s Club. You would be forgiven if you thought any nearby trees would have been obliterated in the process. Considering that, it seems like a miracle—given recent history—that a grove of 100-year-old live oaks on the site is still standing. 

But just because they remain there doesn’t mean they are safe. According to Article X, if Sam’s Club ultimately decides to remove them, all it will be required to do is pay into the reforestation fund (a few thousand per tree, chump change for a multimillion-dollar deal) or plant enough 2-inch saplings somewhere in the city to equal the total size of the trees removed. Doing that is like putting a quarter into the bank and waiting for the interest to turn it into a dollar.

Either way, it would take decades to recover from the loss of just one of the mature oaks on the Sam’s Club site, much less several of them. In aesthetic terms, of course, but also in the loss of potential carbon storage, oxygen production, pollution removal, and avoided runoff—a large bur oak, for example, can intercept 2,000 gallons of water in a year. Live oaks only make up 2 percent of the tree canopy but account for 10 percent of all tree benefits. Trees raise property values and reduce heat, and studies have tied them to lower crime rates. A big-box store with a massive parking lot could use all of that. It may lower construction costs to remove the trees now, but it could end up costing just as much in other ways.  

At the Sam’s Club site, the cost will be comparatively minimal. But south of I-30, it could be astronomical. The Glen Oaks Crossing development already took down a huge swath of oaks to make way for a Walmart and QuikTrip and a dozen other stores. That’s not a cautionary tale in the southern sector. That is the ideal model.

“You’re not going to grow south until you knock some of those trees down,” Mayor Pro Tem Tennell Atkins told the City Council’s Quality of Life Committee last February. 

You can’t blame Atkins or Caraway or anyone else for bristling at the notion that now Dallas should make it more difficult to remove trees, since most of the northern half of the city is already built out. Sure, yeah, change the rules after the other team has already won the game. They’d get rid of the entire preservation ordinance if they could, if it meant revitalizing the economy in their part of town. It shouldn’t have had to come to this. The city failed trees, and it failed South Dallas. 

You might think Caraway and Atkins are wrong. But they’re wrong for the right reasons.

•••

If I didn’t know what Karen Woodard did for a living, if I just walked up to her table at the Cafe Brazil on Davis Street on a dreary, drizzly March morning and started talking to her, I might guess she is a schoolteacher. She speaks in a gentle tone and frequently ends her sentences with an encouraging “right?” Like she’s pulling a roomful of kids along with her toward the right answer. 

Bois D'Arc Photography by Dave Shafer
Photography by Dave Shafer
But I don’t have to guess. Even if I hadn’t invited her to meet me for a cup of coffee and talk about trees, I’d know that Woodard is a forester for the city of Dallas. It says so in blue script on her white cardigan, right below her name. What her sweater doesn’t say is that she is not just a forester for the city of Dallas. She is the forester.

“I’m the only one,” Woodard says, laughing, not long after I sit down.  

She wasn’t the city’s first urban forester. That was Walter Passmore, who was hired in August 2006, after the Dallas Urban Forestry Advisory Committee lobbied for the position and the Texas Forest Service pitched in with a four-year, $100,000 grant. But Passmore left for Austin after a year, and, in September 2008, Woodard was hired as his replacement. She was hired with the intention that she would head up an entire forestry division. Almost seven years later, it’s still just her.

Woodard works for the Park Department, which, with its 381 parks, would be a big enough job on its own. But she also is available to the other city departments and every council district. She looks at master plans and works with developers to fulfill their obligations under Article X. She leads tree planting efforts and attends community events. If it has anything to do with trees in the city, Woodard is likely involved. And she knows what she is up against. The city is just hanging on, barely, to what it has, instead of getting ahead of the curve. 

“It’s not a program,” Woodard says. “There’s not an inventory of trees. There’s been people here and there who say, ‘This is what we need.’ And I say, ‘No, you don’t do an inventory, because with an inventory you should have a management plan, right? What are you gonna do if you don’t have the resources to enact that management plan?’ They don’t understand the difference—because we’re just maintaining as best we can, we’re not managing—between those two words. You’d need a structured program.”

When Woodard came aboard, the city did have a structured program, or it almost did. Dallas had recently adopted a management plan for the Great Trinity Forest formulated by Stephen F. Austin University’s Department of Forestry Sciences. “Well, the economy tanked, like January,” she says. “Through that kind of stall-out and now rebuilding, it’s just—” She trails off. But she doesn’t have to finish her thought: there is no management plan.

Which is why, she explains, the process that built the Great Trinity Forest is slowly ruining it. Benign neglect brought a hardwood forest of red oaks, bur oaks, chinquapin oaks, and American elms, as seeds drifted down the creeks and river, and civilization, for the most part, stayed out of the way. But civilization has crept closer, and those trees are being choked out by what’s coming from upriver now: invasive species such as Chinese privet, nandinas, Chinese tallow. The latter turn a beautiful yellow and red in the fall, but they grow so fast that they shade everything else. Those young oaks and elms never get enough sunlight to stand a chance.

If the city had a forestry division, it could handle this—cutting back the invasive species, opening plots of green space so the forest can take care of itself, reseeding, fighting, living, dying, starting over again. Fort Worth could handle this. It has 21 people working for city forester Melinda Adams. They devote resources to it. They are managing, not just maintaining. 

“My goal is to—gosh, you hate to say it—be like Fort Worth in that sense,” says Michael Hellmann, the assistant parks director who hired Woodard. 

It could be worse. After a few years on the job, Woodard was able to get designated crews she could train and call on for each park district. It’s still a big job—there are more than 60 parks for each district—but it helps. She also has a volunteer group of citizen foresters that helps lead tree plantings (what she calls “woo-woos,” because they get all the attention as far as trees go) and pruning. Because of liability issues, volunteers can’t climb ladders, but “as long as both feet are on the ground, they can prune,” she says. They do a lot of work at Main Street Garden, using pole saws to take the weight off the end, just like Woodard showed them.

“Right now, I’m at 87 citizen foresters,” she says. “Now, not all of them are active. I never made it strict. My thought is, we have classes every fall. If they go through the classes and they never volunteer, I at least have one more person out there that knows this much more, that talks to their neighbors and family about proper pruning and proper planting. Right?”

She smiles. She does that a lot when she’s talking about trees, and her love for them is infectious. And maybe that’s where it starts changing. Dallas may not have a forestry division, or a management plan for the Great Trinity Forest, or a strong enough preservation ordinance. It may still lose trees that it shouldn’t. But maybe Woodard is the oak tree the city needs, seeding the city with knowledge and love one citizen forester at a time.

“I wish I could do more with them,” she says. “I wish I could do more, period. It’s only me.” She laughs. “I have no life as it is. I’m pretty much 24-7.”

Emerald City

To determine where Dallas’ tree canopy was the most at risk, Texas Trees Foundation—in collaboration with Azavea, a spatial analysis firm—studied where development was most likely to happen. They located vacant, privately held parcels of land, then compared those with various city-led initiatives (such as Mayor Rawlings’ Grow South plan), transportation corridors, TIF boundaries, and anything else that might impact standing trees. Once they identified the number of trees in danger, they were able to calculate how much it would cost each council district, in terms of lost benefits. (Note: because the study began before the districts were redrawn in 2013, the map reflects the old boundaries.)

Map illustrated by Peter and Maria Hoey
Map illustrated by Peter and Maria Hoey

District 1: $5.5 million
District 2: $9 million
District 3: $64.6 million
District 4: $17.1 million
District 5: $23.9 million
District 6: $18.1 million
District 7: $19.9 million
District 8: $72.1 million
District 9: $10.1 million
District 10: $10 million
District 11: $8.8 million
District 12: $6.8 million
District 13: $9.6 million
District 14: $5.6 million

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