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Reviving the Trinity

The Trinity River vividly demonstrates the inextricable links between urban and rural Texas.

By Henry Chappell

If the bottomland hardwood forest along the Trinity River, near Tennessee Colony, isn't quite as vast and ancient as The Big Woods of William Faulkner's novellas, it is, in places, old enough and grand enough to put me in mind of a passage from "Delta Autumn": "At first they had come in wagons: the guns, the bedding, the dogs, the whiskey, the keen heart-lifting anticipation of the hunting; the young men who could drive all night and all the following day in the cold rain and pitch a camp in the rain and sleep in the wet blankets and rise at daylight the next morning and hunt. There had been bear then."

We came in an electric 4X4 buggy, and as far as I know, there are no bears - yet.

As we trundled along the bottom on a May afternoon, Dr. Robert McFarlane, Carl Frentress, Al Lightfoot and me, the talk ran as much toward Faulkner's Isaac McCaslin, Sam Fathers, the Compsons, Major de Spain, Boon Hogganbeck, a huge mongrel hunting dog, and a great bear with a trap-mangled foot as toward the ecology of the surrounding forested wetland, open marsh and upland hardwoods.

I'd been invited into the company of three friends who've talked about these subjects before. McFarlane – "Doc" to his friends – named his property, these 7,500 acres in Anderson County, after Faulkner's 1955 book Big Woods.

We rode across levees and around stands of giant post oak and Shumard oak. In the drier areas, blooming rough-leaf dogwoods colored the forest edges. Egrets, herons, anhingas, yellow-crowned night-herons and the occasional teal flushed from the marshes.

Near sundown, Doc steered his buggy into a patchwork of mature woods and clearings, former prison land he purchased a few years ago. He calls this area "the checkerboard." As a boy, he hunted it extensively for deer, turkeys, hogs and squirrels. "It looked a lot different then," he said. "A lot more mature woods."

In one of the grassy lanes, Carl plucked a length of greenbriar, a favorite deer food.

He said, "Here, taste."

I suspected a variation on the snipe hunt, a fine prank on the new guy, but I took a bite. Sure enough, it was sweet and crunchy, far superior to any salad bar sprouts I've tried.

Doc gestured toward a stand of 150-year-old oaks. "All of this bottomland forest, and they never placed any value on it. It was just land to be cleared."

The Trinity River rises in North Texas near the Oklahoma border in Archer, Clay and Montague counties and extends 512 miles to its terminus at Trinity Bay, in the upper reaches of the Galveston Bay system.

It courses through 38 Texas counties and five of Texas' 10 ecological regions – the Cross Timbers and Prairies near its headwaters, through the Blackland Prairie region in the Dallas area, southeast through the Post Oak Savannah, Pineywoods and Coastal Prairies.

Overall, the Trinity watershed encompasses some 18,000 square miles, or 7 percent of the total land area of Texas.

Half of the population of the state lives within the Trinity watershed, which serves as the primary water source for 5.5 million people.

As recently as the 1980s, the Trinity River was known as Dallas' sewer. Fish kills, dangerous levels of pollution and unnaturally severe flooding were generally regarded as justified costs of urban-industrial growth.

Though the Trinity runs cleaner today, many rural Texans and informed urban citizens continue to search for ways to meet the needs of a growing economy while improving the quality of life, water and wildlife habitat along the full length of the Trinity.

Those working hardest to protect and restore the river believe that enduring solutions will be local and that healthy rural economies are as crucial to Texas' future as urban growth. Our cities depend on the surrounding countryside for natural resources, including clean water. Outdoor recreational opportunities like birding, hunting, fishing, camping and hiking are a huge part of our overall quality of life.

By some estimates, the population of Texas will double by 2030, with most of the growth occurring in and around large cities. We can no longer afford out-of-sight-out-of-mind approaches to natural resource use.

Carl Frentress, a native East Texan and retired TPWD biologist, consults with landowners along the Middle Trinity. "All societies are linked inherently to the status of natural resources," he says. "Rural landowners sustain this principle. Deterioration of the sustainability and prosperity of landowners along the Trinity results in deterioration of other components of society."

Initially, Doc McFarlane just wanted a place to hunt. He'd grown up in Palestine, with access to thousands of acres of prime river bottom habitat, and, as boys tend to do, he took it for granted. After graduating from Palestine High School in 1970, he went away to Harvard, where he completed his undergraduate studies in chemistry and went on to graduate from Harvard Medical School. When he returned to Palestine, where he now runs a busy cardiology practice, he found his beloved hardwood bottomland much diminished.

"Still, I was always a pretty lucky fellow," he says. "When I came back, some of my patients let me hunt on their places. Then in about 1992, the last place I had to hunt was so forested the guy sold it and the people were going to clear cut it. So I ended up buying some land myself."

He started with 1,000 acres, then purchased adjacent properties as they became available. In 1994, he began booking deer, hog and waterfowl hunts at The Big Woods. Nowadays, he accommodates hunters in his comfortable lodge and offers a number of hunt packages. Recently he added birding tours.

Even though Doc's Big Woods were good wildlife habitat when he purchased them, they'd declined under decades of nonexistent or indifferent management. In the mid-1990s, when a power company built a pipeline across his property, he began to learn about federal wetland rules and mitigation – land purchases or landowner compensation to set aside and improve habitat to offset losses due to development.

"At first, I planted some trees," he says. "But over the last 10 or 12 years I've learned a lot about restoration, federal wetland rules and available programs."

As he improved his land, Doc began to see the potential for restoring large areas of the middle Trinity River Corridor.

"It just seemed to me that the Trinity was the perfect river to try to restore," he says. "It affects over half the people in Texas, and there are currently no major reservoirs planned on the middle and lower stretches."

Early on, Doc and his neighbors formed cooperatives to more efficiently manage large, contiguous blocks of land for wildlife habitat. As co-op members worked together to improve their bottomland properties, they soon realized that they could best take advantage of the funds and expertise offered by state and federal programs by becoming a legal entity.

In March 2006, they formed the Trinity Basin Conservation Foundation. Its mission statement: "To improve the quality of life, ecological sustainability and ecological integrity of areas associated with the Trinity River Basin through a coalition of local communities, non-government organizations and stewards of private and public lands."

TBCF is modeled on the very successful Blackfoot Challenge, the Montana nonprofit conservation organization formed to restore the Big Blackfoot, the river made famous by Norman Maclean's novella A River Runs Through It.

Altogether the group's members own some 250,000 acres. One of the largest and most successful TBCF co-ops created the Western Navarro Bobwhite Restoration Initiative. Currently, the Navarro County co-op has about 29,000 acres under intensive management for quail and other grassland birds. In 2007, the Sand County Foundation awarded members Gary and Sue Price, owners of the 77 Ranch, the Leopold Conservation Award for land stewardship.

In September 2006, after consultation with TBCF leaders, Governor Rick Perry kicked off the Trinity River Basin Environmental Restoration Initiative with a $500,000 pledge to help TBCF and its partners develop a comprehensive water plan, enhance and preserve wildlife and improve water quality. Project leaders hope to raise as much as $30 million over the next few years.

The Trinity River Initiative brings together a diverse group of partners, including TBCF, TPWD, the Texas Wildlife Association, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Trinity River Authority, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board, the Texas Water Development Board, the Texas A&M Institute of Renewable Natural Resources and landowners.

But the project should reach far beyond the Trinity basin.

"The initiative is good for the entire state, because it will represent a model for other river basins," says TPWD Commissioner John Parker. "And the program will spread to the landowners along the creeks and streams that feed the Trinity."

Just before dark, we turned back toward the lodge. The woods were in shadow. Alligators came to mind; there's no shortage of them in The Big Woods marshes. Carl mentioned a passage from Faulkner's The Bear about human puniness beside wilderness. We couldn't remember it exactly, so I looked it up as soon as I got home: "For six years now he had heard the best of all talking. It was of the wilderness, the big woods, bigger and older than any recorded document – of white man fatuous enough to believe he had bought any fragment of it, of Indian ruthless enough to pretend that any fragment of it had been his to convey . . ."

Then Faulkner told of the beginning of the end of the big woods. Yet perhaps he was less interested in irony than in truth: that, taking a long view, our big woods – our watersheds and the other wild places that sustain us – are less ours to own or convey than to bequeath.

Narrowing the Urban-Rural Divide

The L.A.N.D.S. Program – Learning Across New Dimensions in Science – a program developed by Trinity River initiative partners, including TPWD and the Texas Wildlife Association, helps close the urban-rural divide by giving students a first-hand look and feel of the river that sustains their communities.

In 2007, fourth graders from Blooming Grove Elementary in Navarro County measured flow, turbidity, temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen and nitrates, and panned for invertebrates in Trinity River tributaries flowing through the 77 Ranch, while students in Dallas made the same measurements in an urban stretch of the Trinity. Then, the groups swapped locations and repeated their tests. The program culminated with the students gathering at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens to compare their results and discuss the importance of working together to ensure clean water for all Texans.

"It was amazing to hear these kids explain the water cycle and the meaning of pH," says Tamara Trail, TWA's assistant vice president of programs and development. "It's so important for our kids to know that water conservation involves more than just turning the faucet off and complying with water restrictions. These are our future decision-makers."


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