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

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.