Frank Smith, Conservationist
A Lifetime of Achievement and Service, Flying, Sailing, Driving with the Top Down
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.
Reminder: The Threat is Still Alive
Operation Save Buffalo Bayou II
March 14, 2016
Okay, so we harshed the mood a little with our small, silent reminders that regatta contestants were paddling through a historic natural area still threatened with destruction.
“Thanks for polluting my day,” yelled one paddler in the crowd of hundreds of Buffalo Bayou boaters playing loud music and stopping to pee in the woods. We were watching from the sandy bank of the lovely middle meander, forested with young willows and box elder that would all be cut down, the meander filled, graded, and planted with grass.
The event was the 44th Annual Buffalo Bayou Regatta on Saturday, March 12. And once again we hung our beautiful Save Buffalo Bayou banner (Night Heron by Houston artist Frank X. Tolbert 2) from the railroad bridge and set out small white signs alerting participants to the fact that the wild stretch they were passing through would all be bulldozed under a plan proposed by the Harris County Flood Control District and the Bayou Preservation Association (BPA).
The project, known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, demonstrates exactly the wrong thing to do. (See Buffalo Bayou Park and Fonteno Park.) It would raze most of the trees and vegetation along more than 1.25 miles of the 18,000-year-old bayou as it passes by Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. These trees and vegetation and even the sand are part of the riparian zone, essentially wetlands, that hold the banks together, cleanse and filter the water, slow and absorb storm runoff, provide wildlife habitat, among many other important ecological functions. The $6 million “natural channel design” project, financed with $4 million in county and city taxpayer funds, would dredge and reroute the bayou and plug tributaries, obliterate ancient cliffs, destroy 250,000-year-old sandstone formations, and fill in our lovely meander (a natural detention area). Killing the bayou’s ecosystem in the name of “restoration.” And landscape design.
And no, contrary to rumors, the project, although holding its breath, is not dead. The Army Corps of Engineers is still deciding whether to issue a permit for the project, which is otherwise a violation of the federal Clean Water Act.
The Bayou Preservation Association first formulated the plan for the project in private meetings in 2010 and former BPA president Kevin Shanley, then a principal with the landscape architecture firm SWA Group, was the primary promoter. SWA Group is the design firm that is also responsible for the landscape design of Buffalo Bayou Park downstream east of Shepherd.
So this is why we had signs up warning of landscapers lurking. In Buffalo Bayou Park downstream, we set out a few signs pointing out that landscaping has washed away (several times actually) and that removal of vegetation has caused erosion problems, and that repairs were $$$$ (paid with City funds). Yes, we were bad! Those signs did not last long, however.
Upstream around Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary our signs pointed out where beavers live, where banks were being naturally rebuilt by the bayou, and the Pleistocene bluffs that would be graded into a slope. Interestingly, the bayou, during and after the Memorial Day flood in 2015, has already graded the lower banks of those steep bluffs into a slope.
The River Oaks Country Club is theoretically a one-third partner in the demonstration project and owns the entire south half of the project reach. But in the meantime the club in two places has armored its banks with ugly concrete riprap, one of the most environmentally destructive methods of erosion control (pdf), and also, we allege, in this case illegal, as we contend that much of the riprap was placed in public waters, also a violation of the Clean Water Act.
The club, unfortunately, is having erosion problems on its high banks in those places because it cut down a lot of trees and extended the mowed and watered grass of its golf course up to the edge of the banks.
We put out signs pointing out that riprap damages the ecosystem and is part of the problem, not the solution.
But we’re glad people had fun, enjoyed the bayou, and picked up some of trash.
Maybe they’ll think about the future of the bayou.
And special thanks to river guide Tom Helm and to Richard Hyde for extra long duty putting out and picking up our banner and picking up our signs.
Buffalo Bayou Doesn’t Like Sidewalks, It Seems
Buffalo Bayou Park Was Supposed to Be More Stable
Nov. 16, 2015
Updated Nov. 17, 2015
Update: “Endless Repairs: Buffalo Bayou Sets Its Own Terms,” Houston Chronicle, Nov. 20, 2019
Well, we can’t help but wonder if constantly scraping and repairing the sidewalks, forever reinforcing the collapsing banks somehow, and repeatedly replacing the trees and landscaping is fully covered by the $2 million annual maintenance budget for Buffalo Bayou Park paid by Houston city taxpayers.
The popular, much praised, and much needed park on the banks of the bayou between Allen Parkway and Memorial Drive is suffering from some serious erosion problems. And that matters to us not just because of the expense and waste. This $53.5 million project, a boon to adjacent property owners and those who live and work nearby, was touted as a successful example of what the Harris County Flood Control District, egged on by the Bayou Preservation Association, wants to do to our healthy, historic wild bayou further upstream in and around Memorial Park. Buffalo Bayou Park was supposed to be more stable! The flood control district calls it Natural Stable Channel Design, but it always looked to us like they were doing everything you’re not supposed to do on the banks of streams: dig up the banks, run heavy equipment over the banks, remove the trees and vegetation (yes, they did a lot of that), build concrete and asphalt sidewalks on the banks, plant grass and mow it.
Let’s Work With Nature, Not Against It
Once you’ve done all that, and the banks and channel start falling apart, it’s pretty difficult to fix it. Best to let the bayou do what it will do anyway. (And eventually the bayou will rebuild and replant it all.) But it seems unlikely that the City and the Buffalo Bayou Partnership are going to sit back and patiently let millions of dollars worth of sidewalks, lamps, and bridges collapse into the bayou. Can they stop it? Time will tell.
In the meantime, it does make one wonder about all those concrete trails they are carving out of the banks and floodplains of the bayous for the Bayou Greenways project. A nice idea, but is that going to work?
Here’s what we’re talking about. What this slide show of photos of Buffalo Bayou Park between Shepherd and Montrose taken on Nov. 15, 2015 (and updated with later photos).
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 .
Cutting, Removing Fallen Trees on Bayou Banks is Wrong
Brush Creates New Banks and Needs to Stay
Aug. 28, 2015
We were afraid of this.
Big floods are powerful. Anyone who has lived on or spent any time on a river in the wild knows that a river can rearrange its banks with an awesome, even frightening force. Yet floods in nature are necessary.
Buffalo Bayou is an 18,000-year-old river, our Mother Bayou. We are privileged to have a forested stretch of the bayou passing through the middle of the city in our great public Memorial Park. But during the Memorial Day flood and the record-high water released by the Army Corps of Engineers from the upstream dams during the days that followed, the rushing bayou took down trees and shrubs in Memorial Park, the Hogg Bird Sanctuary and elsewhere. The bayou was reordering its banks, replenishing and reseeding the floodplain, adjusting to the changing flow, as it has done for a very long time.
Not all of this was erosion exactly. Our geologists explain that some of it was slumping caused by the overflowing of the banks. The overflowing floodwater saturated the high ground and seeped into the internal layers of clay soil that turned to pudding and slid out, creating the concave look that you see on some of the banks. This particular slippery geologic makeup of Buffalo Bayou is one reason why we believe the Harris County Flood Control District’s costly and misguided $6 million “stabilization” project, known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, won’t work on the high banks of our untamed Buffalo Bayou, a rare natural asset to have and learn from in the middle of the city.
Our Muddy, Maligned, Mistreated Bayou Knows Better
But trees and brush falling onto the banks (and into the water) is part of a natural process, an important natural rebuilding process. The brush collects sediment from the waters of the bayou, building up new banks that the bayou replants with stabilizing and colonizing native vegetation. Yes, amazingly, our muddy, maligned and mistreated living bayou does that, with its own superior intelligence and life force. The bayou restores itself, replenishing its important ability to filter pollutants, neutralize bad bacteria, cleanse the water, protect against further erosion and provide aquatic habitat, among many other important functions, including trapping our trash and plastic debris before it ends up in the bay and oceans.
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?
Leave It Alone: Buffalo Bayou Will Naturally Repair Itself
Opponents of the Memorial Park Demonstration Project Say Buffalo Bayou Is Fine Post-Flood
By Dianna Wray, Houston Press, Wednesday, June 10, 2015
After the rains started coming down on Memorial Day weekend, geologist Bill Heins, an ardent opponent of the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, couldn’t stop thinking about what was happening as the waterway continued to swell and slop over its usual banks along the last natural stretch of Buffalo Bayou that exists in Houston.
The flood waters haven’t fully receded yet, but both those in favor of the project and those against it have been out on the bayou looking for anything to back up their arguments. Project proponents point to signs of erosion on the soggy banks as evidence that we need this project. Those against it, including Heins, argue that the banks are showing signs of only minor erosion and that the evidence so far shows the natural system of the bayou — even during a record-setting flood — is working perfectly, meaning the Memorial Park Demonstration Project is unnecessary.
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!
Operation Save Buffalo Bayou: Banners, Signs Erected During Big Regatta Saturday, March 7
March 8, 2015
Defenders of Buffalo Bayou traipsed through clumps of wild chives and violets on the banks of the bayou Saturday, March 7, in order to hang colorful banners from bridges and trees and set out signs informing more than a thousand participants in the annual Buffalo Bayou Regatta about the grave threat to our wild bayou.
Operation Save Buffalo Bayou was a huge success as competitors paddling down the bayou waved and shouted “No bulldozers!” and “Leave it natural!” to members of the Buffalo Bayou defense team sitting on the banks in the project area.
Bayou defenders also handed out informational flyers at the end of the race in Sesquicentennial Park adjacent to the Wortham Center downtown and engaged participants and officials in conversation.
The regatta was organized by the Buffalo Bayou Partnership (BBP), a non-profit organization in charge of developing the $58 million Buffalo Bayou Park between Memorial Drive and Allen Parkway downstream of the project area. The partnership officially supports the $6 million plan to bulldoze one of the last natural stretches of the bayou as it flows past Memorial Park in the middle of Houston.
Sand on the Sidewalks
BBP President Anne Olson wrote a letter of support for the destruction project to the Army Corps of Engineers in June 2014 saying that the plan would “significantly prevent” the bayou from “depositing silt on Buffalo Bayou’s downtown parks and trails.” She also claimed that the project, known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, would demonstrate “a prototype that can be employed by bayou property owners who currently remedy their property erosion by all different types of inappropriate stabilization methods.”
In fact the amount of silt and sediment contributed by the historic nature area targeted for destruction by the Harris County Flood Control District is minimal. But the project itself would likely greatly increase the sediment flowing downstream as a result of dredging the bayou, removing trees and plants, and breaking up the soil structure of the banks.