Frank Smith, Conservationist
A Lifetime of Achievement and Service, Flying, Sailing, Driving with the Top Down
Update April 7, 2023
Frank Smith has finally escaped this earth. He passed away peacefully at his home in Houston on Thursday, April 6. He was 101.
“Just say ‘Frank Smith croaked,’” he joked to his wife of 42 years, Katherine Bel Fay Sadler Smith.
In 2021 the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club recognized Smith’s lifetime of environmental activism with the Evelyn R. Edens award for river conservation.
October 16, 2016
The year was 1933. Frank Smith was twelve years old and he had just climbed to the 14,255-foot summit of Long’s Peak while at Camp Audubon in Colorado.
It’s an achievement that still makes him proud. But more importantly, being in the snow-capped Colorado mountains changed the perspective of a young boy born and raised in a flat, humid city, albeit in one of the leafiest, most privileged neighborhoods in Houston.
“They made us pay attention to the flowers and the trees, and study and identify the mammals,” he recalls of his summers at Camp Audubon. “It was the first time my attention was directed toward natural things.” He had learned “a lot of other things,” he says. “But I had never been taught anything about the natural world.”
Those fortunate summers in the Rocky Mountain high forest wilderness during the Great Depression set Smith on a remarkable path of conservation and environmentalism. He read the books of John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club in 1892, including The Mountains of California. That path would lead Smith to found and lead numerous organizations, most recently Save Buffalo Bayou, that have helped protect and preserve bayous and streams, including Buffalo and Armand bayous, Galveston Bay and its estuaries, and create public park lands around the state of Texas. He would work with virtually all of the region’s prominent conservationists, all of them becoming close personal friends. Some of them had been friends since childhood.
But first he would have to grow up, join the Navy, establish several engineering businesses, invent some things, and meet Terry Hershey.
State of the Bayou
Downed Trees. New Channel. New Riprap. Washed Out Sidewalks, Beavers, and Turtles
But Some Banks Naturally Rebuilding
Does It Make Sense to Repair?
Sept. 1, 2016
Updated Sept. 11, 2016
You could not step twice into the same river. Heraclitus
We finally had a chance recently to float down beautiful Buffalo Bayou to see how things have changed. Our trip took us past Memorial Park in the middle of Houston. We also biked along the bayou through Terry Hershey Park far upstream in west Houston below the dams to see what was happening there.
The good news is that some of the high banks that had slumped in Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary during the Memorial Day 2015 flooding are naturally rebuilding.
The bad news is that the River Oaks Country Club has added more riprap to the south bank, hard armoring the bank with ugly, damaging concrete rubble, including where it should not be.
Nature’s Miraculous Way of Restoring. For Free.
Houston has had multiple record-breaking rains and flooding since the spring of 2015. When Buffalo Bayou overflows its high banks, as it did in the Memorial Day flood of 2015, the banks in places sometimes slump or slide away. This happens when the overflowing water seeps through the ground and saturates layers of sandy clay that liquefy, sometimes causing the bank to give way. Buffalo Bayou is 18,000 years old, and this has been happening for a very long time.
This natural tendency to slump is one reason why we think attempting to engineer these banks as proposed by the $6 million Memorial Park Demonstration Project won’t work. It’s also the reason why we think building and repeatedly repairing sidewalks at the bayou’s edge is wasteful and foolish.
No Changes in Operation of Buffalo Bayou Dams
Release Rates May Be Looked At in Future
March 13, 2016
It was a dark and stormy night. Thunder boomed and heavy rain pelted the roof as a small group of us sat nervously in the middle of the rising Addicks Reservoir in far west Houston listening to the district commander of the Army Corps of Engineers tell us Addicks and Barker dams are safe.
Flanking Col. Richard Pannell last Wednesday, March 9, was a panel of officials from the Corps’ Galveston District office, as well as representatives from the Harris County Flood Control District and Granite Construction, the company awarded the $71.9 million contract to replace the leaky conduits in the 70-year-old earthen dams. The audience was a small crowd of about thirty hardy citizens who had braved the heavy traffic and heavy rain and managed to find the Bear Creek Community Center in the middle of a dark, wet forest despite the wrong address in the Corps’ public notice.
Col. Pannell made a thorough and convincing presentation of the history of the dams, the current problems, and what is being done about them. Among other work, the conduits in the two dams will be entirely replaced by new conduits in separate locations. This process will take about three years. He emphasized that the dams were in no immediate danger of failing and explained that the dams are labeled “extremely high risk” because of the potential consequences to Houston, the nation’s fourth most populous city, in the unlikely event that the dams failed.
Dams Operating Normally Despite Leaks
There were several questions about the capacity of the dams and the impact of repairs on the rate of future releases of water impounded behind the dams. The pattern of extended high releases and rapid drops has been criticized for damaging property on the bayou and killing trees and vegetation that control erosion.
After the enormous Memorial Day storm last year, the Corps began releasing impounded stormwater at 3000 cubic feet per second (cfs) for the first time. Normally the release rate is limited to 2000 cfs as measured by the Piney Point gauge. The Corps does not release water from the dams during a rain event, and the high releases began on June 1 and continued for ten days, finally dropping on June 12. The banks were already saturated from the storm, and the damage from the extended high flow was plainly visible up and down the bayou.
Fighting For Our Public Forests on Buffalo Bayou
On the Radio
Forests Work for Us
Oct. 28, 2015
Listen to Susan Chadwick of Save Buffalo Bayou and Landrum Wise of Save Our Forest talk about community campaigns to protect public forest along some twelve miles of Buffalo Bayou in Houston.
They spoke with Pat Greer and H.C. Clark on Eco-Ology on KPFT 90.1 Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2015, about efforts to keep the City of Houston and the Harris County Flood Control District from destroying woodlands on Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park in the center of Houston and in Terry Hershey Park in far west Houston.
In addition to their great social value and benefit to our health, well-being, and quality of life, the trees and vegetation that grow naturally along the bayou perform vital ecological services and are a key part of the bayou’s living system. Known as riparian zones or buffers, these specially adapted trees and plants cleanse and filter pollutants from the water. They protect the banks from erosion, absorb and slow storm water runoff and provide natural flood detention. They shade us and cool the stream, and provide wildlife habitat.
Legally Required to Conserve Harris County Forests
The Harris County Flood Control District, according to its 1937 charter, is charged by state law with conserving forests in the county. (See page six.) But for decades the district has been razing forests to build storm water detention basins on our bayous, creeks, tributaries, and elsewhere, and to re-engineer channels and banks. Detention basins are used to hold or slow temporarily surface runoff or high flows in a stream during storms.
The flood control district’s project on Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park, known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, would raze some 80 percent of the trees and vegetation along more than 1.25 miles of the bayou and its tributaries in Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. The Army Corps of Engineers, which enforces the federal Clean Water Act, is currently considering whether to issue a permit for the controversial $6 million project, which is described by flood control as an “erosion control” and “bank stabilization” project. The project violates Best Management Practices for riparian areas. Virtually every federal and state resource agency has policies and regulations protecting riparian zones, which perform essentially the same function as federally-protected wetlands.
Recent Success for Save Our Forest
The City of Houston recently withdrew a project to cut down the majority of trees and understory on some 42 acres of public forest and excavate up to six large detention basins on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou in Terry Hershey Park between Beltway 8 and Wilcrest Drive. The Capital Improvement Project was to have cost the taxpayers between $3.5 and $8.5 million.
However, the flood control district appears to be continuing with its widely-opposed “Charting Buffalo” study that proposes as many as 24 storm water detention basins along some 10.7 miles of both banks of Buffalo Bayou in the forests of Terry Hershey Park between Beltway 8 and Highway 6 at Barker and Addicks dams. On Nov. 12, 2013, despite public opposition, Harris County Commissioners Court approved flood control’s request for $250,000 for a vegetation and topography survey in the park.
The headwaters of Buffalo Bayou are on the Katy Prairie west of Houston, and the 18,000-year-old “mother bayou,” fed by numerous tributaries, flows for some 53 miles east through the city and the ship channel into Galveston Bay. Buffalo Bayou, unlike major bayous like White Oak and Brays, which join Buffalo Bayou just west and east of downtown, has never been covered with concrete, though parts of it have been channelized.
Update on Puzzling Project to Bulldoze Wild Buffalo Bayou
Damaging, Expensive, Contradictory Plan Still Threatens
Conflicts Still Apparent, Purpose Still Unclear
No Permit Yet
October 8, 2015
The Harris County Flood Control District has responded to largely critical public comments to the Army Corps of Engineers about Flood Control’s misguided project to destroy one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou in Houston, a most remarkable asset to have in the middle of a city. The Corps is reviewing the Flood Control District’s responses, says Jayson Hudson, who has been the Corps’ Galveston District project manager for the permit application.
Flood Control must apply for a permit from the Corps of Engineers because the Clean Water Act requires the Corps to ensure that projects on federal waters do not damage the health of our waters. Federal waters are defined as navigable streams (Buffalo Bayou) up to the Ordinary High Water Mark, their tributaries and adjacent wetlands, all of which form the great living veins and arteries of our limited water supply. Some studies argue that all riparian areas , the highly biologically diverse natural gardens and forests along stream banks so vital for clean water, should be considered protected wetlands .
While We Wait
The Flood Control District’s Failing “Natural Channel Design” Projects
July 11, 2015
Well, the comments are in to the Army Corps of Engineers. The comment period that ended June 5 was not extended. So now we wait to find out what the Corps will do next about a permit for the Harris County Flood Control District’s controversial $6 million Memorial Park Demonstration Project. The flood control district wants to destroy one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou as it flows past Memorial Park in the middle of the city so that engineers can “build it better,” thus demonstrating exactly the wrong thing to do for erosion control and bank stabilization on the bayou.
It’s the wrong thing to do because the specially adapted trees and plants on the bayou (known as the riparian zone) protect the land from erosion, slow storm water and runoff, filter pollution and bacteria (and trash) from the water, provide shade and habitat, among many other vital functions. Razing the riparian buffer, as this project would do, digging up and running heavy equipment over the banks and bayou bottom are all contrary to Best Management Practices and the policies of virtually every federal and state agency charged with protecting the health of our waters, our wildlife habitat, and our soil.
What Are the Options?
So what are the Corps’ options?
Immutable Plan. Invisible Rocks.
“Revised” plan to destroy Buffalo Bayou not really “revised” at all.
Project manager says no significant changes to much criticized original plan.
No sandstone in project area, says flood control, contradicting itself.
June 3, 2015
Despite the hundreds of comments criticizing the purpose, methods, impact, cost, benefit, and harm of Harris County Flood Control District’s proposed “erosion control” project on Buffalo Bayou in and around Memorial Park, the district has made no significant changes to the plans recently re-submitted to the Army Corps of Engineers.
Jason Krahn, project manager for the controversial Memorial Park Demonstration Project, told Dianna Wray of the Houston Press that the district was “simply following the guidelines” and that there were “no significant changes” to the original project plan.
Indeed, many of the “revised” plan sheets posted by the Army Corps of Engineers on its website appear to have been simply relabeled with new dates, though there are some with new details.
The public has until June 5 to send comments to the Corps about the district’s “revised” permit application and the district’s responses to previous comments. There is no limit on the number of comments one can make. So if you’ve already made a comment, make another!
Revised plan to destroy Buffalo Bayou announced: Public has till June 5th to comment
May 5, 2015
Updated May 15, 2015.
Today, May 5, 2015, the US Army Corps of Engineers posted a new public notice announcing a revised permit application from the Harris County Flood Control District to destroy nearly 1.5 miles of one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou in Houston. The flood control project, called the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, is in a historic natural area with high cliffs and sandstone formations hundreds of thousands of years old.
Comments must be submitted by June 5, 2015.
The Flood Control District’s first application was announced in a public notice last April, and public comments were received through June 30. The comments were overwhelmingly negative. The revisions to the permit application are in response to those comments.
The Corps is now soliciting comments from the public, governmental agencies and officials, and other interested parties in advance of making a determination about the permit application. The Corps requests that comments be limited to the clarifications and updates made by the Flood Control District to the Memorial Park Demonstration Project plans, monitoring plan and planting plan, as well as the District’s responses to comments received by the Corps and made by the Corps. The summary of updates and clarifications are contained in the following document under the “Response to Comments” tab on the Corps’ website:
You can read the revised plan here.
Houston and Harris County taxpayers are funding $4 million of this destructive “restoration” project, which would shorten, reroute, dredge, and channelize the bayou, eliminating a healthy riparian zone and rebuilding it using “natural, stable, channel design” methods prone to failure. The River Oaks Country Club, which owns the entire south bank of the “restoration” project, is paying $2 million. Riparian zones are crucial to the cleanliness of our waters, and are generally protected by policies and programs of our state and federal governments.
The north bank of the project is mostly Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, with some private property in between.
All comments and requests for additional information should reference file number, SWG-2012-01007, and should be submitted by June 5 to:
Regulatory Branch, CESWG-RD-P
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
P.O. Box 1229
Galveston, Texas 77553-1229
And send a copy of your comments to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The TCEQ, which asked critical questions about the project in its comments to the Corps, must certify that the project complies with state water quality standards.
Texas Commission on Environmental Quality
Water Standards Team
401 Coordinator, MC-150P.O. Box 13087, Austin, Texas 78711-3087
The Blinged-Out Master Plan for Memorial Park
City Council Quality of Life Committee Should Send Expensive, Overdone Master Plan Back to Drawing Board
March 24, 2015
The Memorial Park Conservancy is sending its $3.2 million unfinished master plan for Memorial Park to the Houston City Council’s Quality of Life Committee on Wednesday, March 25. The plan is so far a gaudy, overstuffed mish-mosh of bad, hazy, contradictory, wrong, and incomplete ideas developed apparently with the main goal of spending some $200-300 million, half of it public money.
The committee should reject this tacky, impractical document and consider directing hundreds of millions of dollars towards the purchase of new parkland instead.
Among other things, the plan misleadingly describes Buffalo Bayou as it flows along Memorial Park as “altered.” A slide shown at the final presentation of the plan to a packed audience at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston March 9 outlined the bayou in bright red and identified it as “altered Buffalo Bayou.” (See slide 18.)
We were stunned. Reasonable people would assume that “altered” meant channelized, dug up, scraped, engineered, rebuilt, etc. by humans or machines. In fact, the bayou flowing past Memorial park is one of the last unaltered stretches remaining in the city.
But no, “altered” in this case means “changed over time,” explains Shellye Arnold, executive director of the park conservancy. The bayou has adjusted to increased water flows from increased runoff due to development and paving; therefore the bayou is “altered,” says Arnold in an email.
The conservancy is developing the ten-twenty-thirty-year plan with the Houston Parks and Recreation Department and the Uptown TIRZ 16, which is funneling our tax money into the blinged-out project. It’s not clear who is in charge of the master plan, or even who is now in charge of Memorial Park, for that matter.
Let’s Work With Nature, Not Against It
What’s the right way to protect Buffalo Bayou?
March 18, 2015 Updated: March 18, 2015 11:20am
Is the traditional vision of local and urban flood control agencies in conflict with federal and state agencies charged with protecting the health of our waterways?
Let me explain how I came to ask myself this question about mission conflict.
I grew up on Buffalo Bayou in Houston, and since early last spring I have been involved with a campaign to stop a flood control project that would destroy and then attempt to rebuild a healthy and relatively untouched riparian forest corridor running through the center of our city. It’s pretty rare to have a stretch of fairly wild river running through the middle of such a large city. The late great conservationist Army Emmott described our Buffalo Bayou as a ribbon of life running through the concrete. And that’s what it is: a living thing, a diverse and dynamic ecosystem that shows us the wondrous process of nature.
We are even more fortunate that in the words of the great river scientist Mathias Kondolf of Berkeley, this enchanting river has “room to move.” Here, in the middle of the city, we have space to “let the river be a river” — to let its banks change and its forest garden grow, as they would naturally. Dr. Kondolf traveled through this reach of the bayou in November, a reach that has never been channelized. The nearly 1.5-mile stretch targeted for destruction flows between the riparian forest and great cliffs of a public park (Memorial Park) and the forested terraces and high banks of a private golf course.
Note: This opinion piece is adapted from a presentation delivered February 12, 2015, at Texas’ first Urban Riparian Symposium, sponsored by the Texas Water Resources Institute, the Texas Riparian Association, and the City of Austin.