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

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Conservation And Forest Quality Rises Above Our Minimum Standards

I'm preparing for the first full session of formal discussions into the City of Dallas' landscape and tree ordinance amendments.  In some ways, this seems it will be a daunting and formidable task that will lead me and my associates down a trail of exhaustion.  But I am all the more relieved that, after many years of frustration of a number of well-intended people who have debated and walked through this ordinance while waiting for official action, their long patience is being rewarded.  

People in both the general conservation and development communities have all recognized some flaws in the existing codes.  But it was from the earliest discussions of 2007 through 2010 where there were real serious efforts between those two general communities to find common ground.  For the most part, they were successful in agreement that conservation is not synonymous with preservation, and construction is not synonymous with destruction.  There is a place where the two historical and natural adversaries can meet - and so do people.  Conservation and development should equal sustainable development.  It cannot all just be one hand forsaking the other.  That kind of one-sided ultimate equation is disaster for the generational growth and survival of this city.  The purpose of the ordinance is not a myth.  A previous generation gave us a direction to build upon and it's up to the children to follow it. We can recognize that our urban forest grew over many decades, in great part, because of development and growth, and it can equally be our desire to retain and expand this great forest canopy by training ourselves to continue it through conservation and preservation initiatives.

The great effort now with the looming conversations is to help us all understand that a landscape ordinance only provides minimums.  These are basic zoning rules for development under permit. It defines parameters from which designers, engineers and builders must utilize to work above, below and within.  The rest is up to the human imagination to design and place life in little spaces intended for human habitation and transport. If they cannot work within this range, then there must be questions to ask.  Are the developers demanding too much of the city?  Is the city demanding too much of the developers?  In the end, we all have our perceptions about what our goals should be, and this must be set by the community itself.  How do we achieve a common understanding and agreement for a unified ordinance that makes everyone happy?  Well, it's not likely to happen, but it is most vital to the longevity and unity of our communities that we make the effort.

An ordinance does not define a green city.  It merely sets ground rules by which we apply law.  If the community of people working in this system cannot work above those minimum standards which we set in place through debate, then we have not really achieved the purpose of our ordinance in the first place.  Our goal should be to be better than our minimum abilities and to rise to the challenge of providing for a greater community with finer quality and efficiency in our product.  Our community deserves it.

Land conservation is a strong goal for a growing city.  Conservation must be on equal footing in our consciousness with development for that development to be sustainable.  In essence, the conservation of land and forest in a city of human inhabitants is all that can be fully expected of us.  We have long passed the point where human intervention is countered.  We can only answer with the wise and reasoned approach to our own expansion across this city to provide for a sustainable and thriving community that is not encumbered with its own 'too much.'  So, why can't land conservation be a tool for economic development?  We can be better selective in what we conserve, and preserve, as we continue to pursue growth.  Not everything in this city needs to be paved and inhabited, and not every parcel, or every tree, in the city is a candidate for preservation.  The unified goal of sustainable development requires more from us than just laying down the land and trees and wildlife for expansion.  It requires cooperation and compromise and thorough conservative planning before the engineering begins.  Land for growing can run together with land for conserving.

But, as we have just learned, our internal economy in Dallas is weakening as salaries decline and human poverty increases.  This cannot be good for the forest either. As we seek answers to rebuilding communities, restoring the healthy urban forest can be a catalyst to help with community unity and growth.  Building community is also restoring the entire community, including the trees, the wildlife, and the entirety of the various ecosystems.  Our quality of life, and the health of city inhabitants, who can less and less endure the harsh environment of this city, can demand the conservation of a quality forest.  We can recognize the weaknesses in the urban forest infrastructure and strengthen the urban forest where we reside.  We, as individual land owners and renters, are tree stewards, and managers of this urban forest.  We must better educate ourselves to proper care and attention to these sylvan giants who form our most formidable natural defense from our urban heat and pollution tempest. When we can determine to take hold of this mission, we may better build the Dallas for our future generations.  

It's time to grow as a community and find balanced approaches together.  We can look past divisions that separated our community in a previous generation. I hope we will find a better working environment in our future discussions so we can build the tools to help sustain our city environment throughout.  

But, at some point, we need to hold out a little trust that we are capable of something greater than our least efforts.  

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Long Journey

It was 2007 when I began writing in my blog I called Dallas Trees.  During the first few years, I was quite energized to produce numerous posts on various subjects.  I'd write pieces on the City of Dallas landscape and tree ordinance, and then I'd mix it up with a little opinion, show a few political discussions, romance on trees, dash out Leopold philosophy, throw out some social commentary, or harp on anything relevant that I felt needed revelation.

Somebody's got to go back and get a s*** load of dimes!

I had just become the chief arborist, and my interests were in promoting community forestry and sharing ideas on how we can build a better tree community in our little city that could.

Over time, my interest in the blog waned and I dedicated less and less time to the venture.  The posts became fewer and less impressive. Eventually, it just came to be a sounding board.  After all, I didn't have many readers.  I did have some positive responses from the few who did read, but nothing ever really drew enough attention to spar any discussion or debate.  I have to say, I sometimes wrote things that did not sit well with some people of influence.  When someone has to defend you for your right to write, then you have to decide if your freedoms are more important than your livelihood.  I didn't think I should have to make a choice. Perhaps I didn't, but I made one anyway.

Finally, a couple of years ago, I shut down the blog and I simply eradicated years of writing and thoughts from the internet.  I should have seen this coming.  As much as I learned to release myself in writing, I found myself editing my material to the point of being irrelevant.  I also learned, as a public official, I am limited by a little bastard inside my mind that also keeps me irrelevant.  There is a point where a free mind is chained by titles and bureaucracy. 

The older posts are gone.  I miss them somewhat, but I moved on to other things.  Actually, I moved on to nothing.  I'm not who I was eight years ago and much of my enthusiasm has gone.  But, I have kept this blog alive in hope that someday I will find my voice once again.  Perhaps today is the day....or a day....for finding my voice.  I know there are those who will encourage me and welcome me back.  Mostly, there will not be any notice of this little corner of the world.  But this is for me.  It is for you if you want to tag along for the ride.  Things have changed just slightly to the point where I feel my mind may be able to come alive again.  Perhaps I need to feel I can accomplish something important for more than just myself.  

What has changed?  This little ordinance that pretty much defines my career is being revisited and perhaps renewed.  One day soon it will be different, but we don't know how different.  Starting Thursday, I have to be alive and open and charging into the maelstrom of minds and debate, ideas and angst.  I am being challenged, and perhaps this is all any city arborist really needs.  

It's time for me to expose myself to the world again.  Landscapes and trees will be my focus for the coming months in ways I haven't let myself consider them for some time now.  I get to fend off lunacy and embrace reason.  I get to have an obsession again.  I am still alive.

The ordinance opens up Thursday.  Game on.

Text of my old writings can be found in this timeline.  

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