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.

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Frank C. Smith Jr., founding president of the board, Save Buffalo Bayou, in Memorial Park on a high bank above Buffalo Bayou. Photo taken May 5, 2016, by Jim Olive.

Frank C. Smith Jr., founding president of the board, Save Buffalo Bayou, in Memorial Park on a high bank above Buffalo Bayou. Photo taken May 5, 2016, by Jim Olive.

It’s for the Birds

Report on Plans for the Hogg Bird Sanctuary on Buffalo Bayou

May 11, 2016

First the positives about the presentation Monday evening, May 9, by the Houston Parks Board about plans for the little-known 15.56-acre nature preserve on Buffalo Bayou known as the Hogg Bird Sanctuary.

The sanctuary at the end of Westcott Street south of Memorial Drive is probably better recognized as the mostly impenetrable woods next to the parking lot for the Houston Museum of Fine Arts’ Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens, located across the bayou, accessible by a footbridge. Bayou Bend is the former home of the Hogg Family, who developed River Oaks and in 1924, along with partner Henry Stude, sold at cost to the city the 1,503 acres that became Memorial Park. (The Hogg Brothers also sold to the city at cost 133.5 acres of land intended to be part of Hermann Park. In 1943 the city sold that land for the establishment of the Medical Center, which provoked the continuing ire of their sister, Ima Hogg.) Ima Hogg, a cultural and civic leader and one of the city’s most revered philanthropists, donated the family house and gardens to the museum in 1957 and then donated to the City of Houston the woods on the north side of the bayou as a nature preserve.

The mouth of the tributary and Pleistocene-era bluffs off the Hogg Bird Sanctuary on March 18, 2016. This tributary once flowed to the east across the upper part of the nature preserve into the bayou. Photo by Susan Chadwick

The mouth of the tributary and ancient bluffs in the Hogg Bird Sanctuary on March 18, 2016. This tributary once flowed to the east across the upper part of the nature preserve into the bayou. Photo by Susan Chadwick

Ima Hogg a Defender of Nature and Public Parks

Ima Hogg, who died in 1975, was also an ardent conservationist, early civil rights activist, mental health activist, and defender of park space for the public, in particular Memorial and Hermann parks. In her letters to city officials over the years, available in the archives of the Museum of Fine Arts, she described her firm belief that woodland parks should be kept as natural as possible and criticized in a 1964 letter to then Mayor Louie Welch, who famously thought public parks unnecessary, the “alarming situation” of rapidly diminishing park areas in Houston and “throughout America,” including through construction in the parks by “worthy institutions” that really ought to look for building sites elsewhere, she wrote. Miss Ima was still angry that the city had “relinquished so much of the acreage” in Memorial Park for highways and a golf course and in an earlier letter to then city director of public works, Eugene Maier, demanded that the money the city received from the state for the highway land be used to acquire and improve additional park sites. Let’s guess that probably didn’t happen.

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Protecting Galveston, Houston, and the Texas Coast

Public Comment Needed By May 9

April 11, 2016

You may have heard about proposals to protect development along Galveston Bay, the Houston Ship Channel, and Houston itself from a giant storm surge. Dubbed the Ike Dike after Hurricane Ike in 2008, one leading plan is to build a 17-foot high levee for 50 miles along Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula, with a massive floodgate across the Houston Ship Channel.

 Buffalo Bayou Runs Through It

But the Ike Dike is only one of several ideas being considered for the Houston-Galveston region by the US Army Corps of Engineers and the State of Texas. And in fact, in light of sea level rise (and due to subsidence, sea level is rising more rapidly on the upper Texas coast) and the potential flood damage from future storms, the Corps has been studying the entire Texas coast and gathering information for the past several years. In August 2014, the Corps issued a report called the Coastal Texas Protection and Restoration Project and held a series of four public workshops. And in May 2015 the Corps issued a Coastal Texas Protection and Restoration Study Final Reconnaissance 905 (b) Report.

Houston Ship Channel, Buffalo Bayou. Photo by Jim Olive

Port of Houston, Houston Ship Channel, Buffalo Bayou. Photo by Jim Olive

A Notice of Intent to prepare a Draft Integrated Feasibility Report and Environmental Impact Statement for a Coastal Texas Protection and Restoration Feasibility Study, dated March 23, 2016, was published on the Corps’ Galveston District website. And on March 31 the Corps published a notice in the Federal Register calling for public comment on a draft Environmental Impact Statement for a Coastal Texas Protection and Restoration Feasibility Study. The public has only until May 9 to comment.

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Crazy Widespread Disappearance of Wetlands around Houston

Wetlands in Buffalo Bayou Threatened Too

Aug. 3, 2015

The Army Corps of Engineers is not keeping track of whether developers are replacing tens of thousands of acres of wetlands lost to development in the Houston region as required by law.

Wetlands, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, “are part of the foundation of our nation’s water resources and are vital to the health of waterways and communities that are downstream. Wetlands feed downstream waters, trap floodwaters, recharge groundwater supplies, remove pollution, and provide fish and wildlife habitat.”

Under the federal Clean Water Act, the Corps of Engineers is charged with protecting our wetlands.

A study by the Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC), reported by the Houston Chronicle Friday, July 31, 2015, found that “more than 38,000 acres of wetlands vanished in greater Houston over the past two decades despite a federal policy that ‘no net loss’ can be caused by encroaching development.”

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Wetland photo by John Jacob, Texas A&M University's Coastal Watershed Program, published in the Houston Chronicle, July 31, 2015. Printed with permission of John Jacob.

Wetland photo by John Jacob, director of Texas A&M University’s Coastal Watershed Program, published in the Houston Chronicle, July 31, 2015. Printed with permission of John Jacob.

Opponents of Bulldozing Wild Banks of Buffalo Bayou Shut Out of Meeting

 

Harris County constable protecting secret meeting of engineers and developers from potential disruption by overly polite defenders of Buffalo Bayou. Photo by Dave Fehling, KUHF.

Harris County constable protecting secret meeting of engineers and developers from potential disruption by overly polite defenders of Buffalo Bayou. Photo by Dave Fehling, KUHF.

Oct. 30, 2014

Nobody Was Pepper-Sprayed But Door-Holding Constables Didn’t Smile Either

The unsurprising vote was 18-1 Monday, Oct. 27, 2014, in favor of stripping the forested banks, dredging, channelizing, and rerouting the last natural stretch of Buffalo Bayou as it flows past our great Memorial Park in the middle of Houston.

The Harris County Flood Control Task Force, dominated by engineers, builders, architects, bankers, developers, and realtors, voted behind closed doors on secret ballots to spend $4 million in tax money to make our wild Buffalo Bayou a bigger drainage ditch for development of west Houston. That seems to be the gist of it. Along with helping the River Oaks Country Club shore up the banks of its currently being renovated golf course. The club, which owns half the property in the project, is contributing one-third of the $6 million cost.

Whether the experimental project will work is another question. But hey, if it washes out, it’s only beautiful public parkland and a stretch of the river that teaches us the healthy benefits of what natural rivers do.

Evelyn Merz, the Sierra Club representative, cast the lone opposing vote. Representatives of the Citizens Environmental Coalition and the Audubon Society did not attend the meeting, as far as we could tell. The representative of the League of Women Voters apparently voted in favor.

Task Force Chairman Ranney McDonough of McDonough Engineering refused to allow Merz to speak, though she tried.

“It wasn’t always like that,” recalls Frank C. Smith Jr., past chairman of the task force, who was allowed into the meeting as a guest of Merz. In the past, says Smith, the task force was more evenly balanced between development and environmental interests.

The thirty-one members of the little-known task force, founded in 1973 through the efforts of citizen activists like Smith, are appointed by the Harris County Commissioners’ Court. It is an advisory body, and the vote Monday was symbolic. A committee of the task force, appointed to “investigate” the controversial project, voted 5-1 in favor of it Oct. 15. Again, Merz was the only negative vote.

The Army Corps of Engineers is considering whether to issue a permit to the Harris County Flood Control District for the project, known officially as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project.

The Houston city council has already voted to waste $2 million on destroying an irreplaceable natural resource in the middle of the city. However, councilmembers must eventually vote on whether the test experiment (the often-failing techniques haven’t been proven to work on a river like ours) is a legal taking and use of public parkland according to state law.

So let your city council representatives know what you think about that.

Listen to Dave Fehling’s report on the meeting on KUHF 88.7.

 

 

 

 

Engineers Vote for More Work for Engineers on Buffalo Bayou

Developers Eager to Pave More Streets and Parking Lots

Oct. 21, 2014

Raise your hand if you ever heard of the Harris County Flood Control Task Force.

The Katy Freeway in west Houston, widest freeway in the world.

The Katy Freeway in west Houston, widest freeway in the world and major conduit of stormwater into Buffalo Bayou. Engineers voting for bulldozing Buffalo Bayou work on Interstate 10 and other highway and paving projects as well as public drainage systems.

Thought not.

Try looking on the Internet for any mention of this 31-member semi-secret committee and you’ll find almost nothing except for an occasional reference in someone’s bio and a brief note on the website of the Bayou Preservation Association. Founded in the 1970s to create “a community collaboration of engineers, developers, and interested citizens,” according to the BPA, the task force is now mostly a collaboration of engineers and developers, as is the BPA.

County Judge Bill Elliot is reported to have said at the time: “How can Harris County government adequately protect homes and businesses from the hazards of flooding and facilitate economic development, while at the same time preserving the God-given resources we have that are still in their natural state for the present and future enjoyment of our citizens?”

Last Tuesday, Oct. 15, a county task force committee looking into that question voted 5-1 in favor of spending $6 million to wreck the last natural stretch of Buffalo Bayou in Houston, a perfectly healthy 1.5 miles of wild bayou flowing in and around our Memorial Park. The project would destroy riparian forest crucial to the health of our water, to erosion and flood control. Riparian zones are increasingly being recognized as wetlands that should be federally protected for our own health and survival.

On Monday, Oct. 27, 2014, at a public meeting in the Harris County Flood Control District headquarters, 9900 Northwest Freeway, the full flood control task force will be voting on whether to go ahead with the controversial project. Update: The chairman of the task force, Ranney McDonough, said in phone call late Thursday afternoon to Save Buffalo Bayou that the doors of the meeting will be closed and the public will be turned away. But we are going anyway.

The flood control district declined to provide us with the names of the current members of the full task force, suggesting we contact the Harris County Commissioners’ Court since the commissioners’ court created and appoints the task force. No response to those emails by press time. Update: Courtesy of one of the members,  we now have a reasonably current list of the members of the task force. And generally we know that of the 31 positions approved by the commissioners, about nine seats go to engineers and architects, another eight go to developers and builders, another two go to business groups, three or four go to government agencies, and another seven go to environmental or civic groups or individuals. Several positions are empty.

We will do our best to provide their contact information. These task force members need to be contacted and informed. Please let them know of your opposition and why. In addition, please note that Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, who represents Memorial Park, is up for election on Nov. 4.

Not In. In a Meeting. On the Other Line.

As of this writing, it is unknown how many of the five task force committee members who voted in favor of the bulldozing project have seen this part of the bayou. We’ve made fruitless calls and left messages and talked to one engineer on the committee who voted in favor of bulldozing and channelizing the last wild bayou. He’d never seen the area to be destroyed; he thought there was no vegetation there.

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