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.
It’s Not Dead Yet
Flood Control Still Pushing Costly, Destructive “Stabilization” Project on Buffalo Bayou
July 31, 2016
It’s a pointless, wasteful, ill-conceived, and maybe illegal project to rip up and raze trees and plants and wildlife habitat, dig up the banks, plug up tributaries, dredge and reroute the channel along one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou in Houston. This is a dreamy stretch of the river in the middle of the city, filled with beaver, otter, alligators, fish and flying creatures, and even edible plants. It flows for more than a mile past our great public Memorial Park, a natural detention area and significant geologic site that features very old high bluffs and sandstone formations. All of which would be obliterated.
And after almost three years of adamant public opposition, the Harris County Flood Control District is still promoting the project, which will cost the taxpayers at least $4 million plus, not including future costs of maintenance and repair.
It’s mystifying why they want to do this, why they think it would even work, why they don’t realize that the bayou would wash it away or that it would simply all slump away, as has happened in Buffalo Bayou Park downstream, where taxpayers are footing the ever-mounting bill for constantly repairing the banks dug up and stripped of trees and vegetation by Flood Control.
Do They Not Have More Urgent Problems?
Surely, the flood control district has more urgent problems that require our hard-earned tax money. Harris County is one of the most flooded places in the country. And this project, billed as a “stabilization” and “bank restoration” program, will do nothing to address flooding and could even make it worse. The county should focus on the hundreds of miles of channelized bayous and streams unwisely covered in now-aging concrete that should be restored to something more natural and beneficial.
The project, called the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, was first proposed in 2010 by the Bayou Preservation Association under then board chair, Kevin Shanley, landscape architect and principal with SWA Group, the firm responsible for the ugly, obtrusive bridges, collapsing sidewalks, poorly-functioning dog park and non-functioning faux Hill Country fountain and stream in Buffalo Bayou Park.
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.
Update on the Beaver
We Tried to Find Out
Feb. 13, 2016
Many people were concerned about the mysterious death of the beaver on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou opposite the Arboretum.
The beaver’s corpse was discovered Saturday, Jan. 30, by a group of Boy Scouts documenting wildlife on the bayou as it passes by Memorial Park, an area threatened by a project proposed by the Harris County Flood Control District and promoted by the Bayou Preservation Association. The project, known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, would destroy much of the wildlife habitat along some 1.25 miles of the bayou as it passes by the park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. The Army Corps of Engineers is currently considering whether to issue a permit for this project, which would otherwise be prohibited under the federal Clean Water Act.
Yes, there are beavers on Buffalo Bayou, and yes, animals do die. We mourn the loss of any creature. But the circumstances of the death of this beaver, which looked otherwise young and healthy, was puzzling, and there was good reason to try to identify the cause. So several days later, we tried.
An anonymous friend generously offered to pay for a necropsy of the beaver. We contacted a veterinarian who was ready to perform it. Where to store the body? Someone volunteered her freezer. Another member of our team went out of his way to climb down the banks and locate the beaver’s corpse using GPS coordinates. By chance a veterinarian happened to be in the vicinity, as the area was near an animal clinic on West Loop 610.
Alas, the corpse was too far gone for a necropsy.
One of our naturalist experts said that while beavers do have accidents (chopping down a tree that falls on top of them, for instance) he agreed that the strange place and position of the beaver was suspicious. He suggested that though there were no obvious signs of trauma when discovered, the beaver might have been shot and tossed. A small caliber bullet hole might not be noticed, he pointed out.
Thus ends the tale of the beaver body on Buffalo Bayou.
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 .
Once-a-Boat-Launch at Woodway to Re-Open by Mid-December
Meanwhile Buffalo Bayou Busy Replanting, Beautifying
Sept. 5, 2015
A contractor has been found at last to take down the heavy-duty chain-link construction fencing, put up some railing, spread some gravel and sod, and restore the informational sign in that western part of Memorial Park that was once a popular boat launch and is now referred to by public officials as a drainage outfall.
Closed to the public for more than two years, including more than a year after the $1.36 million taxpayer-funded solar-irrigated “erosion control” project was completed, the ugly, massively enlarged outfall draining Post Oak Road is still officially a Texas Parks and Wildlife Paddling Trail boat launch. Previously it was also a forested area with a nature trail.
But officials with the Uptown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) 16 now seem genuinely eager to do “what we can to get it open to the public,” said John Breeding, administrator, at the Uptown board meeting in a Galleria high-rise last Wednesday, Aug. 26.
The board voted without discussion to award a contract for $219,272.10 to Jerdon Enterprise, LP, which was the sole bidder for the long-delayed project. With “add-ons” the cost could go to $335,615.10. That seems like a lot of public money for taking down some chain-link fencing, putting up some standard railing, laying down some loose gravel, etc. But apparently no one else wanted to do it.
Work on the Outfall Phase II is now scheduled to begin this month and be completed by December 15, 2015.
And if you’re confused about why a TIRZ and not the parks department or the city council would be making these decisions, well, it is confusing. But the TIRZ has control of the money.
The Piles of Concrete Came Down
Country Club Armors High Banks with Chunks of Rubble
August 12, 2015
For months we watched with suspense the towering piles of concrete riprap. They hung heavily over the edge of a high bank on the south side of Buffalo Bayou near the downstream end of one of the loveliest natural stretches of the bayou in the city. It’s a long stretch of the bayou that the Harris County Flood Control District wants to bulldoze and “restore” to a “more natural state,” so we were apprehensive.
A row of small telltale colored flags had first appeared near the waterline here and upstream at the upper limit of the area targeted for flood control’s highly destructive Memorial Park Demonstration Project.
The south bank of the nearly 1.5 mile project area is owned by the River Oaks Country Club, which is a one-third partner in the $6 million public project initiated and promoted by the Bayou Preservation Association. The club, which has nearly completed a renovation of its golf course on the bayou, had long threatened to armor its banks with riprap if the “stabilization” project didn’t go through.
And now the club has carried through on its threat, laying down black plastic sheeting on the steep banks at those two locations downstream and upstream, distributing chunks of concrete on the slopes, and covering the blocks with dirt. Club member Steve Lindley, who is overseeing the riprap work as well as the golf course upgrade for the club, said that the plastic sheeting is porous and biodegradable and that club plans to seed the dirt with grass to keep it from washing away and eventually to plant it with native vegetation such as chili pequin.
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!
But It’s Best to Leave the Bayou Alone, Says BPA’s Water Quality Director
Feb. 5, 2015
We lost track of the number of times our jaws dropped listening to Steve Hupp present the Bayou Preservation Association’s argument for destroying one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou in Houston.
Hupp, who was speaking to the Briar Forest Super Neighborhood council on Jan. 20, is the water quality director for the BPA, which was founded in the 1960s to protect the natural banks of Buffalo Bayou from the bulldozers of the Harris County Flood Control District. Hupp lamented that a representative of Flood Control wasn’t there to help him make his case for bulldozing and dredging some 80 percent of a healthy stretch of our wild, southern bayou for more than a mile in and around our public Memorial Park, including the great cliffs of the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. This $6 million boondoggle, touted as “bank restoration and stabilization,” is called the Memorial Park Demonstration Project (MPDP). Demonstrating exactly the wrong thing to do for erosion control by razing the riparian buffer, the project will destroy the bayou’s ecosystem. According to the BPA, the bayou will be re-engineered to “a more natural state.”
Briar Forest, which is south of Buffalo Bayou between Gessner, Westheimer, and Dairy Ashford, has been fighting its own battle with Flood Control over a plan to destroy a significant amount of forest to create stormwater detention basins.
City Council Member Oliver Pennington was at the meeting. Pennington, who is running for mayor, represents District G, which includes Briar Forest way out there and much closer into town, the south bank of Buffalo Bayou in the “bank restoration” project area. The south bank, which is half of the project, is owned entirely by the River Oaks Country Club, founded in 1924, of which Pennington is a member and which is donating $2 million or one-third of the projected cost of the “stabilization” project. The club is in the process of digging up and rebuilding its golf course, which over the decades has encroached on what was once thick riparian forest, moving closer and closer to the edges of the high banks of the bayou.