"There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root." - Thoreau

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Right Frame of Mind

I've been struggling with a few demons the past few weeks regarding the Dallas urban forest, and trees in general.  Attempting to wrangle tree removal and protection issues is a complex task under the best conditions, but I feel I've been coming to gain more clarity of the challenges that are looming as we begin to consider possible code amendments.

Trees are living entities that share space within our communities.  But their importance, and value, to each of us is a matter of perspective, and how we deal with them can be contentious.  The point of an ordinance to protect trees, or to regulate them in any fashion, comes down to a sense of values, or maybe even an ethic, upon which a community resides.  What is your purpose for protecting a tree?  Or do we ask, what is your purpose in protecting any life other than a human one?   Ultimately, our decisions is more about ourselves than it is about the actual value of the tree to us.  It's also important to distinguish our self from ourselves.  Is the community going to be a gathering of selves, or are we going to be a self with many other selves just filling the space around us?  How we look at ourselves is also a critical test of how we will look to our urban trees.  

We are an ignorant lot when it comes to understanding our surrounding biological community of which we are a part.  Our city is not just an infrastructure of streets, homes, utilities and people.  It's also the infrastructure of trees and other vegetation, the animals, bacteria, insects, and all other living things that surround us, but also being the things upon which we place no financial value.   We walk blindly in - and over - an environment of vast richness we rarely allow ourselves to fully contemplate.

So, how do we initiate a conversation about this living infrastructure that is as important as any other part of the sustainable balance of elements within our community?   Do you know how a tree functions, or what it needs to survive?  Do you understand how each person who owns property in the city is a land steward - a manager - who helps protect and preserve the stability of the common whole?  Sure, everyone loves trees.  But is it only the existence of the tree that gives you shade and air, or do you respect its place in our society to give it a right to exist to full maturity and beyond?   In order to help us find our goals and ethic regarding our trees, and our entirety of a living urban forest, we need to be able to start answering some basic fundamental questions for ourselves.  Then we can enter the discussion on the fate of those trees in Dallas.

I will be looking to introduce the science and essence of our trees and how they are fundamental to the quality of life in our city.  I apparently have not done a good job of this up to now.  I need to help discuss how we need to manage our existing trees, remove the declining and dead ones, and help sustain our new ones.  Over the past century and a half, the Dallas urban forest grew from community efforts where people decided to bring trees with them, but also grew from a natural pioneering process where lands were left without management.  We need to learn to distinguish the trees, and also recognize their importance to sustaining the wildlife around us as well.  As these trees mature, many have aged to their conclusion.  We need to recognize when to remove them as practical matters for the protection of all.  There is much each of us need to learn and explore together.

The age of a tree is not all we must consider, but also look to the health and place of the tree in the environment.  We should regard the trees as living infrastructure for air and water quality, and even for their impact on us in crime prevention and peace of mind.  

As we look to new development and growth, we need to recognize in our sustainable and economic development plans where our trees of greatest value and importance to us need to be preserved, and also identify how we can better balance mature trees with new healthy landscaping in our living environments.  How can people, pavement, and mature tree canopies occupy the same spaces without any being heavily compromised?  We need to discuss the newer technologies, science and engineering of implementing best practices for development.  

Tree Space Design

As we look to new ideas, we have to recognize the impact to our natural community.  If a roadway is built along the Trinity River, will this force floodway mitigation by the removal of additional acres of woodland in the Trinity Forest to make way for new wetlands?  As we build south or east, will the community lose too much of its value and character to gains that are only economic?  What are we trading and for how long?   As we build infills in the city core, how do we adapt our walkways to provide trees that will be able to reach their mature potential?  As old neighborhoods are rebuilt one lot at a time, how do we retain the natural character and quality of life in these places by keeping many mature trees?   How do we maintain city utilities without interfering with growing trees?

It's easy to speak about ordinances.  It's a much greater challenge to navigate through the ethics on which we build that ordinance.  We have some soul searching to do.

Friday, September 19, 2014

What I Could Have Said

Yesterday, I had one of those 'yes, but' moments you run across at the worst possible time.  You want to go back and clarify things, but you just can't.  The moment is past and you just keep second guessing yourself.  I can get that way sometimes and those times usually just roll off my shoulder. 

Not this time.

This time, I left myself exposed and it didn't feel comfortable.  What is it I could have said?

The topic was the Great Trinity Forest.  I don't need to go to greater detail on any particulars, because the forest as a whole is of tremendous importance.  If I am asked to distinguish one part of the forest against the other, I should never state that one part of the forest rates above the other.  But I left it open.  The Forest is the forest. It is not for me to provide value to parts of the forest, personally, when I am not the direct beneficiary of that part.  I cannot speak for the flora and fauna, both now and in the future, that would find value in that land.  I respect the land and its inhabitants as part of our community.  I respect not only what is at this moment, but what it is growing to be in the future. I must not get lost in the very human tendency to find a financial, or personal aesthetic, value for that land and tree stand that is not agreed upon universally.  This is where I went for that one moment.

For those who are not aware, the Great Trinity Forest is among the largest urban bottomland hardwood forests in the world.  It is a rather young forest where much of the land had been cultivated, mined, or otherwise disturbed over the roughly 150 year history of Dallas County colonization.  There are some pockets of tall, mature trees while you also have open ranges where pioneer tree species have started to establish themselves over the past half century.  There are broad acreages of young ash and elm stands across the floodplain which encompasses most of the forest.  

The Great Trinity Forest is mostly in 100-year flood plain, by FEMA designation, while it has some areas that are not. It's these elevated pockets of 'developable' land where new projects are being encouraged as part of a recreation and economic growth value to the forest.  Much of the impact to the forest will occur there, but some of the area that is no longer in floodplain was taken out by the placement of illegal landfills decades ago.  The landfills are now being used for the construction of high quality championship golf courses.  In the process, we still lose more forest area to support the projects. 

So, I could have said that one stand of trees, as grand as a tall graceful stand of mature pecan and oak, has no greater importance to me than a larger population of younger and smaller mixed species of trees, scattered across an old range.  One has to see both with the eyes of a land ethic that values both for their selected benefits. I'm not only looking at the forest of today, but I am looking into a time capsule of an ever-growing and changing dynamic.  It's one moment in time. What I may value aesthetically may not provide much benefit to a box turtle or a sandpiper or a beaver in their day-to-day activities.  God help me when I put my urban blinders on to look at our beloved forest.  I lose vision quickly.

The key point to understand, perhaps, is that all the changes and 'improvements' we engineer in this Great Trinity Forest will age and decay - even faster than we will.  The forest, for what we allow to remain, will continue to grow, thrive, die, grow again, and continually renew into a engine of growth.  It can be managed for our purposes, but it will always be the forest that will take all we throw at it and be great regardless of our input.  

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Preserving Remnants Of The Past For Our Future

An effort is underway in Richardson to try to preserve tall grass blackland prairie and spring habitat within the city.  A growing group of advocates have stepped up to challenge the development's rezoning plan heading to the City Council. This is always a particularly challenging effort whenever such development proposals reach the level of the City Plan Commission on its way up.  As for the commission, their mission is clear as set in the local regulations and by the state.  As much as the land conservation advocates must work feverishly to challenge to protect this area, the final appeal can really only come down to the determination of a land owner.  How does this company, or individual, resolve the dilemma of an economic gain with an environmental and cultural loss to the community?  Does it matter to them? The questions regarding the outcome of the land always comes down to the land ethic of the land owner(s).  The community's efforts too often come out on the short end of these late appeals.  

But I had to ask myself, why is this now becoming an issue for this community?  Why is it only when the prairie land, or the rare or significant stand of trees, are under threat of destruction, do we come out vocally and aggressively and challenge these development initiatives?  I'm sure someone knew this land was here in the middle of a sprawling, expansive and infilling city. They knew it was always at risk. The conversations about these lands end up around restaurant tables and informally in conservation group meeting halls. Why were none of these comments in front of local representatives?  I understand it when it is land already under city protection.  You shouldn't have to fight to protect what is already protected to save it from our own grand visions of every square feet of city being developed. We live in a city where the small pockets of old growth forest and blackland prairie habitat remain there year after year until someone comes along and decides to buy it from a person very willing to sell for a profit.  Ultimately, it becomes more valuable to have it built. Where is the advocacy when these places are not challenged for its existence?  

Why are you not out there finding these places?  Why are you not talking to the landowners to give them options which they may have never considered?  Let's talk about conservation easements and development right transfers.  Let's talk about fundraising to protect something of value for the community. Are you afraid that knowledge of these locations will only spur someone to develop it?  This living in fear of development must end.  We must face the development specter head on and scout the trails before the development ever senses an opportunity.  Why are you not talking to your park boards to urge them to acquire these properties?  It may take years to convince a city to invest in it, or to raise the private funds to purchase it, but if this land is so critical, isn't it worth the long hard effort to do this before someone decides to build 14 houses on it or build a retail shopping center with massive parking lots?

We blame our city governments for being reactive.  But I find we citizens do this by our very nature as well.  We are far too timid when faced with a ravenous economy devouring land at a massive scale.  These places are out there now waiting discovery.  

Let's consider another idea.  We need to find solutions as part of the economic development program for the city to protect these places so we will be able to say we did our best to protect what had to be protected for the generations to come. Why isn't the preservation of our most critical areas an equal part with economic growth in the sustainability equation for the city?  Preservation is one part, development is another. Between them, we hold to and comprehend standards of conservation for the entire community that benefit everyone. And, who knows, maybe the development interests in your community will also help you find these places to protect so they will not have to face these challenges from you in the future.  It begins with communication and coming together to reach the same objectives.  We won't get all we want, but it's a start.

These most important and special places do not protect themselves, and city ordinances will not protect them for you.  It's you or the developer who steps up first, and it's best to have this determined long before it becomes a contest placed before a City Council.

Save Beck's Creek Tall Grass Blackland Prairie and Spring  Facebook page

Save Pemberton's Big Spring - Trinity Forest Facebook page

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Heritage Trees

Pecan tree at Beckley.
1930 Beckley and Commerce - SMU Dallas Historic Aerial Photographs
A survivor.

In a sense, any old tree could be casually considered to be a "heritage" tree.  They are born in the distant past from our relative point in time and can represent to some a living marker of the history of our community, or it may be a unique representative of a ecological system that may no longer locally exist.  Some trees have a specific emotional relevance to a single person who may regard it as priceless. But there can be difficulties when we are trying to measure 'old' for a tree.  For certain trees, old may mean just a few decades of life.  But for others, the age of a tree can be expressed in centuries, and this is even true in North Texas.  So when we try to identify a tree as a Heritage Tree, we need to be careful to be able to define it for more than just its current age, but also for its particular value to its place in our history as a city, its particular physical condition and location, its species and size, for its history as it relates its particular biotic community, and, perhaps most importantly, for what it means for us to lose it.

I am not discussing the status of a "historic" tree which I would consider to be a specific heritage tree designated with a significant cultural importance to the community.  That's a topic for another time.

A Heritage Tree is only as valuable to our community as how we choose to define it.  For better or worse, we determine the extent of the value of any thing, and, all too often, any person.  All too often we are determined to base it solely on economics. But our humanity, for us to live up to the best of ourselves as people, must look beyond the simple minded monetary bias by which we are programmed. How you expand your mind on this is determined by your land ethic.  Is the tree a part of your community or not? Do we grant it a right to exist or not?  You must consider the rarity of the tree in its current location, and its inherent value to you, your property, and the community around you.  It's true that a tree has a different value to different people, and this simple scale of perception, and the following directed actions taken by a whim, will often be the sole decider of a tree's fate.  Humans have the rare position on this planet to make conscious decisions to determine the fate of other living organisms (our self-imposed right) which may be based on no other idea than to make the land visible for land speculators.  Our ability to decide is a gift, and a responsibility, we as a species fail to use properly. Ours is not always an instinctive decision, but when not done as an act of survival, our action can often be a foolish and short-sighted one.  Any way we look at it, we change the course of nature by our combined efforts and, in so doing, change entire ecosystems, and, as it continues to be shown, even a global climate system.  
1930 Turtle Creek and surrounding community - SMU Dallas Historic Aerial Photographs
Searching for the heritage trees in our community often requires research to discover where forest remnants may have remained throughout city expansion.  
Over the past two centuries and before, man has been altering the ecological conditions of the Dallas area and North Texas, from the use of fire to manage an abundant game, to the introduction of the plow for agriculture, and for the construction of cities.  Trees and lush wild grassland prairies that had been surviving for centuries endured (and thrived with) these fires. Then land clearing for cattle and agriculture spread until their time was cut short when the human community found other uses for that land.  Wildlife was forced to the creeks and rivers and remaining pockets of open range while their populations diminished.  Trees were selectively removed as each new farm began production or each new town and roadway expanded across the open prairie.  Today, a very few of these large old giants and unspoiled soil plots remain to mark the passing of decades of human invasion on the land.  We are simply failing to recognize these rare specimens that remain in the path of further development.  These trees are the legacy left for us of the natural world that once was and can no longer be in the great expanse.  The passing of these trees and grasslands will leave us in a position where we will never see their like again even with our best intent and purpose of planting and re-planting and manufactured irrigation.  We are clumsy oafs who try to duplicate a world that we can never re-create. We decide where the trees will grow but fail to provide what is necessary for them.  Our landscapes are poor monuments for ourselves and with no regard to the life of the tree. As with all other things, we create our natural environment in our own image and to our purpose and advantage.  Fortunately, across Texas, there are many who have recognized these losses of community and ceded land for the preservation of these systems and there are people who have taken on the charge of being their stewards.  But, for the city, there is very little remaining.  It is for these last remaining pockets of ancient biological and cultural history that many others are taking the charge of attempting to protect a few places and trees within the inner city.  

If the loss of the old sentinels is acceptable to you at face value, then there really is nothing more to say.  It is the price of being a city dweller. The Dallas ordinance has a very significant purpose stated for the preservation of large trees.  This was determined two decades ago, but how quickly we can forget how and why these goals were established. A generation recognized we were losing critical members of our natural community to unrelenting expansion. But even in our best conservation efforts, we are losing our most significant trees to our expansion on these lands where these last remnants of the past age survive within the city.  Our designs for 'progress' do not take into account the locations of the rare old trees, but all things in the path of economic growth are susceptible to loss.  We, without proper and guided vision, set our pathways, our parking lots, and our desire to continually grow into the direction of these quiet giants. Our line of site sees only points A and B. The path between is a circumstance of cost and ownership.

We owe it to future generations to preserve a part of this legacy within the city in places other than cemeteries or old school campuses. These stands do not regenerate but can only be overtaken by mismanagement or clearing. Time will take these trees eventually, but perhaps Nature should decide this on its terms, not ours.  We need to remember these locations and protect them by selecting them ahead of new development.  We have no choice or they will be selected for us.  A tree that has endured here for multiple centuries has much more value than a Reforestation check or a newly planted parking lot tree, or square feet of a new tower.  It is far greater value to this planet than a car wash.  It should be respected and honored for the long life it has endured and the enormous benefits it continues to provide us.  It deserves far better than being considered a mere obstacle to development.  There are other trees that may rate lesser to us and will allow to be dismissed because we must.  But our few heritage trees are our defining natural emblems that should be able to live for the fullness of their lives.  In the city, this has been earned for those that have survived to this day. We owe it to ourselves as well to take the high road and find a path around the rare gem.

What are the heritage trees?  These are not defined, and perhaps may not become defined.  But in my mind they are trees like the post oak, the bur oak, the eastern redcedar, red oak, large elms, pecan (our State tree), the bois d'arc, and several others.  At what size should we consider them?  This can vary, but I once estimated the age of a 10-inch diameter post oak tree by its tree rings to the early European settlements of Dallas County.  These trees can grow much larger (and quite slowly) and extend in life for centuries.  

Who decides the value of our heritage trees?  It's not me.  Not alone.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Setting Objectives

Sometimes you CAN bend for something of greater value than your convenience.
The Dallas landscape and tree ordinance seems to be on many minds these days. But I am cautious to not allow myself to be removed from an objective position where I cannot view the entire universe of topics. Some are guided by a single initiative while I must view the Dallas forest infrastructure holistically - inside and outside of ordinance. The list of forestry issues we need to consider beyond a tree ordinance is extensive which makes me very grateful Dallas also has a city forester.  As I've indicated before, a city ordinance only gives you certain rules for certain standards and for certain conditions.  It sets parameters for development, one lot at a time, and then you live up to them or you don't.  The forest community is MUCH more complex than buildings and streets.  Ordinances need to keep the perspective of the urban landscape for future generations, and not just be simplified for the instant gratification of a beautiful landscaped oasis during the ribbon cutting.

Landscaping and tree protection problems are often left as trivial in the scope of all other things related to development.  Landscaping for many projects is the first thing to get squashed in a budget, and land and tree conservation is the last thing contemplated in design of the development.  There are individuals who do see the whole picture (and if we're fortunate, it's the owner), but sometimes the development team may not fully understand the objective of any landscape application, or where it may fall short.  Buildings and infrastructure age but are designed to not physically change in scale or function over the decades.  Trees stymie engineers because they don't follow straight lines and they don't obey boundaries, in the air or underground.  This is why large trees in landscape beds next to buildings is a bad idea.  Trees are alive and need to thrive.

Landscape ordinances are designed primarily with the focus on new construction.  The best of them may address some day to day management of the existing urban forest in general.  But the ordinances are mere tools to establish a direction for development to be completed like a puzzle of a larger system that is in place to meet the purpose, or objectives, laid out for the city.  These ordinance objectives are defined by the citizens, or more directly by their representatives.  The Article X (10) ordinance has a purpose section where all but one of the listed objectives were created with the original landscape ordinance of 1986.  Only one was initiated with the 1994 creation of the Tree Preservation, Removal, and Replacement regulations.  The purposes are listed below.  We can look to these objectives and ask if they meet all of our objectives today.

These objectives (or purpose) do not help us deal with the specifics for pro-active forest management.  They do not set into motion an aggressive effort to locate specific forested areas and trees we desire to preserve from development and place them into preservation, or conservation, areas.  The objectives do not help us regulate extremely poor tree maintenance and cutting practices which should be more regulated for the protection of the workers and the homeowners.  Since there are standards nationally recognized by the professional tree services in how to conduct proper tree care, why would you not require these standards on your property, or on city property? These existing objectives do not help us provide better information on planting trees correctly or provide adequate planting space and soil volume in city streets.  The objectives do not give us a tree inventory or direct us to forge a city-wide forest management plan.  How do we manage trees in alleyways, and around public utilities, or navigate through conflicts with our neighbors over a shared tree?  A tree dies on a vacated lot next to your home.  How is this addressed?  The sidewalk is buckling with the massive mature tree lifting slabs and pushing curbs.  Must you remove the tree?  There are answers to these problems but each situation is different and answers should be consistent.  But they are not found in this ordinance.

The urban forest community has many stories and there needs to be direction for the citizens of how to address them.  An ordinance will not provide all of these answers, but it can help establish parameters, benchmarks, and performance levels that everyone should follow, including - and especially - the City of Dallas.  Should we also pursue a Urban Forest Management Plan for the city?  This is an idea that has moved forward in many cities, including Austin, and will likely be discussed here for some time to come.

The door is open for discussion.  It is a moment to be positive and to seek creative answers to help the city move forward and prosper.  

Dallas Trees Library
The process of development with its alteration of the natural topography, vegetation, and creation of impervious cover can have a negative effect on the ecological balance of an area by causing increases in air temperatures and accelerating the processes of runoff, erosion, and sedimentation.  The economic base of the city can and should be protected through the preservation and enhancement of the unique natural beauty, environment, and vegetative space in this area.  Recognizing that the general objectives of this article are to promote and protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public, the city council further declares that this article is adopted for the following specific purposes:

          (1)     To aid in stabilizing the environment's ecological balance by contributing to the processes of air purification, oxygen regeneration, ground-water recharge, and storm water runoff retardation, while at the same time aiding in noise, glare, wind, and heat abatement.

          (2)     To provide visual buffering between land uses of differing character to alleviate the harshness of urban life.

          (3)     To enhance the beautification of the city.

          (4)     To safeguard and enhance property values and to protect public and private investment.

          (5)     To conserve energy.

          (6)     To provide habitat for wildlife.

          (7)     To encourage the preservation of large trees which, once removed, can be replaced only after generations.