North Texas Wild: Who’s watching out for the Great Trinity Forest and the future of Pemberton Hill?
Nov. 18, 2014
By Amy Martin.
Photos courtesy of Dallas Trinity Trails.
The Great Trinity Forest — thousands of undeveloped acres south and southeast of downtown Dallas. The wild core is wedged between I-45 and US 175, where the Trinity River, finally freed from levees, sprawls through thick bottomland forests and splinters into watery braids. It threads through a miasma of small lakes, cut-off sections of the meandering river, and abandoned gravel quarries. Once it’s joined by White Rock Creek, it gets quite swampy. Call up this Google map for a look.
The city of Dallas owns much of the area – 6,000 acres – with the enormous McCommas Bluff Landfill plop in the middle. Dallas Parks & Recreation oversees large blocks of land, but hundreds of acres exist as public space in non-park limbo. Dallas County has holdings, including part of its Open Space preserves program. Dallas Water Utilities has vast pipeline right-of-ways through here for moving wastewater to treatment plants. Oncor has mega electric lines. It’s an administrative nightmare.
Left, a male painted bunting near Dowdy Ferry Gateway Park in the Great Trinity Forest.
This is the forgotten Dallas, resigned for decades to boggy industrial desolation. Most glimpse it at high speeds from highway bridges heading south from town. Now the city manager’s office, through its Trinity River Corridor Project, is scheming and dreaming about it with astoundingly little oversight and decidedly mixed results. Some actions have been excellent, raising up low-income communities and providing recreation for runners and bicyclists. In other cases, areas of rare natural beauty and worth are at risk of being plundered.
•Great Trinity Forest, the largest urban hardwood bottomland in the nation.
• Trinity River Corridor Project, a division of Trinity Watershed Management, the city bureau in charge of the Great Trinity Forest and other sections of the Trinity in Dallas.
Above, scissor-tailed flycatcher perches in a meadow of coneflowers near Piedmont Ridge Trail in the Great Trinity Forest.
• Texas Horse Park, the dude ranch rental/equine outreach bumbled from start to finish by its operator, who has prior convictions for animal cruelty.
• Trinity Forest Golf Club, whose developers felled hundreds of old-growth hardwoods, drained a beaver-lodge pond, trashed 20 acres of wetlands and dug a football-field sized pit in the Great Trinity Forest.
• Big Spring at Pemberton Hill, the embattled jewel of nature and a capsule of Dallas history from archeo-Indians to 1800s settlers. One of the most ecologically sensitive areas in North Texas, it suffers from city neglect and is under assault by adjacent developers.
Right, Big Spring turtle.
• The Activists Ben Sandifer, Ted Barker, North Texas Master Naturalists and others who are working with Billy and Zada Pemberton, speaking up for a place whose importance few understand.
LIFE ALONG THE RIVER
It’s a bright October afternoon and unseasonably hot. I am trying to keep pace with the 6-foot-8-inch naturalist Ben Sandifer, who operates the Dallas Trinity Trails blog. He’s leading me on a hike through the history and nature of this corner of the Great Trinity Forest, an area called Big Spring at Pemberton Hill. It’s tucked behind land long owned by Billy and Zada Pemberton, and Billy’s father, Edward Case Pemberton, before that. The Pembertons are, says Sandifer, the reason much of the natural beauty of the place still exists.
“They’re very special people,” he says. “Their decades of stewardship and caretaking have preserved this area for generations to come. I hope.”
Right, Dallas Trinity Trails blogger and activist Ben Sandifer.
Edward Case Pemberton’s acreage was once the farmstead of John Neely Bryan, the founder of Dallas, and his young bride Margaret Beeman, whose father taught Bryan how to be a mercantile man. Standing upon the long crest of what is now called Pemberton Hill, one of the highest points in the county, the Bank of America tower and other downtown skyscrapers are visible amid the forest gaps. A safe 40 feet above the Trinity River, a long, slow slope merges into the lush bottomland of the river, not far from its juncture with White Rock Creek, upon whose bluffs Beeman’s parents lived.
But long before the Bryans and Beemans carved out a city on the banks of an unruly river, Woodland Indians — the mound building 4000 BCE to 500 CE era predecessors of Native Americans — and the archaic cultures before them, made their encampments all along this high ridge. It was safe from the river’s floods, but close to the bottomland’s abundance of food. Hasinai-speaking Native American tribes that came later — such as the Wichita, Tonkawa and Caddo — continued to call this area home. So did the pioneers, explorers and settlers who seized their land.
Above, Big Spring.
All of these groups through the ages knew about Big Spring. They knew the waters were clean and safe and always cold, always flowing, even in summer. They knew the nearby bottomland woods were outrageously rich with deer and flush with hickory nuts, pecans and acorns. Thick rooted plants that grew in the water made for good eating and medicinal plants flourished in the moist soil nearby.
The two-story barns and arenas of Texas Horse Park loom over the 15 acres around Big Spring that the city has now deemed a protected conservation tract. It’s slated to become an official Landmark Commission city landmark — the first one that’s not man made.
Original plans for the horse park had called for it being built on top of Big Spring. Once activists averted that disaster, they discovered that the new location for fuel tanks, manure pits and chemical storage would send leaks and overflows directly into Big Spring. Another struggle ensued.
“It was an effort to get them to change their minds and push everything to the other side of the power line,” says Sandifer.
Just a few weeks ago, the horse park operator fenced in Big Spring for his personal use, even though he was forbidden to tamper with the conservation tract. It was also discovered, after millions had been spent, that the enterprise did not have proper insurance.
Sandifer takes me to an oddly shaped area adjacent to the horse park, devoid of grass and enclosed in pipe fencing. Here an archeological contractor hired by the city did a survey excavation plot. Uncovered were pottery, ceremonial parts and pieces, plus hammer stones, grinding stones and points.
Above, worn pieces of rock found around Big Spring, many of which are worked pieces by Native Americans who once lived at Big Spring
“The hammered off pieces of chert flakes, the burnt limestone rocks of ancient campfires, covered an area on the hilltop,” explains Sandifer. “The dirt road nearby was discovered to be full of worked flakes, where people had sat and chipped rocks into arrowheads, tools and hunting implements.”
So prolific were the mammoths and the paleo and archeo-Indians who hunted them, Discovery Channel produced a television show about it, Prehistoric Dallas. One mammoth skeleton was found just a few hundred yards from Big Spring and now resides in the Perot Museum of Nature and Science.
Ancient Indian activity here was so extensive that a large swath was registered with the Texas State Historic Commission.
“Over the last hundred years,” wrote Sandifer in a naturalist journal, “through utility right of ways, easements and gravel mining, the site, officially called 41DL72, slowly diminished in size.”
Above, Native American artifacts from DL72.
With the latest round of activity on Pemberton Hill, continued Sandifer, “a Native American site listed as a possible candidate for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places is gone forever, buried under many feet of building debris and slaughterhouse refuse.” [The prior leaser of the horse park property was an illegal slaughterhouse.]
ECHOES OF THE PAST
I continue hustling after the strapping Sandifer as we turn and head downslope on an old bridle trail used by the Pemberton family for generations. The scattered hickory and oak trees are healthy and productive, well trunked and over two stories tall, keeping the trail nicely shaded. A barred owl hoots to alert its presence. Part way down the slope, Sandifer shows a large stake in a tree, marking the catastrophic Trinity flood of 1908. The river is still a mile away. Sobering.
We pass over the brightly active Bryan’s Slough, formed by the run off from Big Spring.
“This water is so pure,” says Sandifer, “you have species of mussels that are now extinct in the Trinity River and only found in these side creeks.”
Next is a meadow, created artificially by a Dallas Water Utilities right of way. Activists had to lobby to reroute the huge pipeline from being dug through Big Spring.
Now past the protected conservation tract, we amble into the 25-acre Big Spring Conservation Area. The land fully levels out and becomes spongy soft; the air takes on a touch of humid heaviness. We are in the regularly active area of the Trinity River floodplain now.
Once through another strand of trees, a large expanse opens up, called the Yellow Clasping Coneflower Field. It endured a wildfire early in the summer. Naturalists are anxious to see next year how it impacted the plant life.
Above, Yellow coneflower meadow.
Sandifer stands next to an area marked off with tape by North Texas Master Naturalists.
“Smooth false buttonweed, last seen by Julian Reverchon,” he explains, “widely considered the father of Texas botany. He discovered a lot of species by horseback in Dallas County in the 1800s. Many of his species that everyone thought were gone can be found down here in this field.”
Something else may soon be found here: a wide concrete hike and bike trail.
“You’re further away from concrete at this spot here than almost any point in the county, and they want to bring it here,” Sandifer sighs.
While increasing access to the Great Trinity Forest is something activists want, concrete trails can also bring in ATVs and dirt motorbikes, even though prohibited. Just one could rip the Yellow Clasping Coneflower Field to shreds in minutes.
We stand on the edge of the Yellow Clasping Coneflower Field and look into the Great Trinity Forest, some of the trees showing bark burns from the wildfire. It is undeniably wild, yet beautiful and accessible. Floodwaters take out a lot of soft understory plants, creating an open, sun-dappled forest. The silence is astounding. No roadway roar, no planes, no industrial noise. The air is sweet and free of city fumes.
Above, migrating monarchs roosting on a Big Spring pecan tree.
“A lot of these trees — ashes, elms, cottonwoods, willows, hickories, oaks — these are the natural trees that grow down here,” extolls Sandifer. “In disturbed areas, opportunistic species take over. Out here we see deer, minx, feral hogs, which are an invasive species, woodland creatures like raccoons and armadillos, and a lot of snakes. In the summer, there are indigo buntings and painted buntings in the woods, lots of owls and hawks. There are cardinals, always cardinals, and phoebes in the field.”
“It’s been a long, hard battle thus far to get the city to recognize what a special place this is,” says Sandifer. “I think they do now. I don’t know of too many other places inside Loop 12 on a Saturday afternoon where you can hear barred owls. I can guarantee you that between here and I-45, there is not a single soul out there. There are thousands of acres to explore here, forests, creeks, lakes and a vast system of swamps.”
Above, cottontail rabbit among the bluebonnets at McCommas Bluff Preserve.
Deep in the wet woodlands is even a stand of saw palmettos, rare to be found so far north.
“How neat it would be able to keep it so that kids, especially inner city kids, kids who live across Pemberton Hill Road and other neighborhoods that don’t have an exposure to nature, could come to this place and experience quiet, to hear the birds chirp, to hear the insects, to see a red tailed hawk, to hear barred owls hoot. It’s a very special place. It can change you.”
HISTORY BUBBLES UP
Big Spring emerges from the slope in a gentle alcove eroded from the limestone hill. Bright, clear water gathers in a pool shaded by large trees. Aquatic plants ebb and flow in the cool water that never varies form the 60-degree range. Too cool for snakes! Lush greenery spills over the white rock sides and carpets the edges where waters ooze into a soggy landscape of soft herbaceous plants.
Above, a green heron catches a dragonfly in August in the Trinity riverbottom.
It’s definitely a big spring, at least for these parts, a continual and coveted source of water. It flows year round at a steady 20 to 25 gallons per minute, for a total of 12 million gallons annually. It flows down slope into Bryan’s Slough, also called Oak Creek, and into the Great Trinity Forest.
Big Spring sits at a nexus of nature and history. Its waters carry time.
“We did radio carbon dating testing on the water at Big Spring and it dates back to 1100 AD [CE],” says Sandifer. “This water has very low dissolved oxygen, so it’s not been exposed to the atmosphere. Last time it saw daylight was at least 800 years ago.“
Water testing is done once a month at Big Spring by the Texas Stream Team, funded by the Meadows Foundation and Meadows Center for Water and the Environment.
“At the head of the spring, there is always zero E coli,” boasts Sandifer. “I can say that this is the cleanest water in the whole of the Trinity River watershed, which would have been long well known.”
Above, Rich Grayson and Tim Dalbey performing water tests at Big Spring.
FROM SPANISH CONQUISTADORS TO SAM HOUSTON
Indeed it was. Sam Houston, who was then president of Texas, camped here as part of his 1843 travels to Bird’s Fort near Legacy River Parks in north Arlington. He was finalizing the Treaty of Bird’s Fort, forged between Texas and Native American tribes here and parts of Oklahoma. The Houston party visited the Beemans before moving on.
“I can imagine that it doesn’t look much different then as it does now,” reflects Sandifer.
Houston would have pitched his tents beneath an immense bur oak, bigger round than what two men could encircle. Beneath its spreading limbs is a soft carpet of sea oats, prairie wild rye and vines. Texas Historic Tree Coalition dedicated it as a historic tree in March of this year.
“Experts have been out to visit the tree and say at the youngest it’s 350 years old and oldest it’s 500. Since English has been spoken here, it’s always been a part of Big Spring,” says Sandifer. “About a half mile from this has been found chain mail and a conquistador axe. So this is a known place. You can, on a quiet day like this, imagine how many languages have been spoken here, English, Spanish, French, Hasinai and tongues unknown.”
We revel in the shady oasis of Big Spring for as long as we can, then head back up the slope, past the decayed foundation and wellhead of the Bryan-Beeman homestead. After unlocking the gate of Billy and Zada Pemberton’s land, we skirt the plot to its north where the illegal slaughterhouse relocated after eviction. It’s now shut down due to EPA Clean Water Act violations and other illegalities, disappointing hordes of coyotes that flourished off the carcass waste.
Above, Big Spring’s ancient bur oak dwarfs Billy Ray Pemberton, left, and Rich Grayson, right.
THE LAND NEVER FORGETS
In the melee to monetize and maximize the Great Trinity Forest, developers dazzle their City Hall pals with Powerpoint presentations of glossy golf courses, spiffy dude-ranch horseparks, and neat concrete trails where nature is but a pastoral backdrop. All made possible by taxpayer largesse.
Such envisionings are but idealized drawings that work perfect on paper. They ignore the messy reality of wetlands and rare bottomland hardwood forest, archeological sites, natural springs and historic ruins that few knew existed.
Even more, they ignore the messier reality of the forest’s long-ignored backwoods lawlessness. Illegal industries and dumping of hazardous waste. Poachers trapping animals and digging up plants for resale. Gun thugs in ATVs shooting at any animal that moves and terrorizing fisherman who spend lazy days on the riverbank.
Big Spring and Great Trinity Forest activists find themselves battling all that, along with the city’s absent oversight and habit of post-facto apologies. How do you deal with entities that simultaneously extoll the Great Trinity Forest while being wanton with it?
Lawlessness in the Great Trinity Forest documented by activists.
This is why preserving Big Spring at Pemberton Hill is important. The land never forgets. It holds memory, layers of geologic accumulation, the journey of where the earth has been, and at the very end, of the humans who lived upon it. Without this earthly tether to time, to the land, we are weary narcissists, drifting through an artificial universe.
Big Spring at Pemberton Hill is history, just as much as any building, even more. It is history that still breathes and exists, an open-air museum capturing how we’ve lived and, hopefully, what we’ve learned.
EXPLORING THE GREAT TRINITY FOREST
Next Week: Look for Amy Martin’s detailed guide to exploring the Great Trinity Forest on your own, with resources, trails and links to maps.
Left, a wild hibiscus growing in the Great Trinity Forest. Front page photo, Texas Stream Team volunteer Rich Grayson and Billy Ray Pemberton stroll through Pemberton Wildflower Meadow, which serves as an important bio-buffer for Big Spring seen in the trees beyond.
Amy Martin, a journalist and writer for more than 30 years, is currently senior comedy critic for TheaterJones, North Texas Wild columnist for GreenSource DFW and Texas Faith panelist at the Dallas Morning News. She was contributing editor for the national magazine Garbage (recycling and features), and has written for Dallas Morning News (recycling), Dallas Observer (music), and Dallas Times Herald (performing arts). For a dozen years, Martin also operated a popular alternative news service called Moonlady News, earning her the nickname Moonlady. A leader in Earth-centered and unaffiliated spirituality, Martin was director of Earth Rhythms and creator of the acclaimed Winter SolstiCelebrations. She may be reached through www.Moonlady.com.