Honoring a Longtime Conservationist

Sierra Club Recognizes Save Buffalo Bayou Founding President

Awards Dinner Saturday, Oct. 16, in Austin

Oct. 13, 2021

The Lone Star Chapter of The Sierra Club has recognized the founding president of Save Buffalo Bayou with the Evelyn R. Edens Award for river conservation.

For over fifty years Frank C. Smith Jr. has been active in river conservation efforts, among other work on behalf of the environment and public lands, as well as good design. He began working with Terry Hershey in 1966 to stop the Corps of Engineers from stripping and straightening Buffalo Bayou and covering it in concrete—as they have done to White Oak and Brays bayous, not to mention the many small creeks and streams that have received the same treatment from the Harris County Flood Control District.

Smith also worked to protect Armand Bayou and Memorial Park, among many other conservation projects. He was the leader of a group of people who founded Save Buffalo Bayou in 2014 to stop the Flood Control District from stripping, bulldozing, and rerouting Buffalo Bayou flowing past Memorial Park, one of the last forested stretches of the bayou accessible to the public.

The Edens award is one of several to be officially presented at a fundraising dinner in Austin Saturday, Oct. 16, at 6 p.m. Tickets to the event are still available both for in-person and virtual attendance.

Evelyn Edens was a Fort Worth area environmentalist who worked with others to create Save the Brazos as well as the annual Texas Meeting on the Outdoors. She served on the executive committee of the Lone Star Chapter. The award honors river conservation efforts of individuals and groups.

Other awards to be presented include:

Legislative Champion Award to Rep. Erin Zwiener and Sen. Sarah Eckhardt

Special Service Award to Danielle Belleny

Environmental Justice Award to Renee Roberson

Hal Suter Environmental Alliance Award to Delia Iris Gonzalez (CEER, Houston)

Hermann Rudenberg Award to Errol Summerlin (CAPE—The Coastal Alliance to Protect our Environment)

Chapter Service Award to Wendel Withrow (Dallas Sierra Club)

Ken Kramer Living Waters Award to Rachel Sanborn (San Marcos River Foundation)

Frank Smith photographed by Terry Hershey in the late 1960’s.

Indigenous People on Buffalo Bayou and Beyond

“The Atakapa-Ishak are not extinct”

Oct. 11, 2021

Updated Oct. 13, 2021

Thousands of years before land speculators like the Allen Brothers arrived in 1836 or slave traders Jim Bowie and Jean Lafitte set up shop on Galveston Island around 1817 or even the Spanish conquistador Cabeza de Vaca shipwrecked on the island in 1528, there were people living around Buffalo Bayou and the prairies, forests, rivers, and bays of the Texas Gulf Coast.

At least 13,500 years ago, predecessors of the Akokisa people were living in what is now coastal Texas. At the time the coast, along with major rivers flowing across it, extended a hundred miles further out, land and channels now covered by water. Sea level then was hundreds of feet lower.

Major Native American Cultural groups of the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast, c. 1700, Worrall, A Prehistory of Houston, p. 436

But inland, Buffalo Bayou and other rivers and streams were flowing along the same winding, forested paths that now carry their waters to the gulf (unless they’ve been stripped and channelized). Incised into the landscape by the drainage of the sea at the end of the last glaciation period some 20,000 years ago (no glaciers in Texas), “basically these rivers and creeks are where they were in the late Pleistocene (some 12,000-20,000 years ago),” said geologist/author Dan Worrall at a recent talk on the lifeways of the Akokisa at the Houston Botanic Garden.

We know this in part because Early Paleoindian Native American artifacts have been found along the banks, showing that the streams were there at least 13,000 years ago, he said.

Living Well on the Land

The Akokisa were a branch of the Atakapa-Ishak, who lived (and still live) along the upper coast of southeast Texas and southwestern Louisiana. The Atakapa spoke a unique language that was distinct from the Karankawa, for example, the people who lived further down the coast. Like the Karankawa, the Atakapa were divided into different groups, communities organized in large part around the different river basins.

Around 1700, the native people of southeast Texas were thought to number some 4,000-5,000. But by 1800 the Atakapa population in Texas had suffered a catastrophic collapse, largely due to disease brought by Europeans. Spanish missionaries tried to teach them agriculture, despite the fact that the native people were healthy and thriving, doing just fine hunting and gathering a rich, varied diet, and lightly managing the prairies and forests with controlled burning. (In fact recent research shows that Native Americans were healthier before the introduction of agriculture.)

“They lived on the land very well,” said Worrall.

Worrall’s big new book, A Prehistory of Houston and Southeast Texas: Landscape and Culture, documents in extensive technical detail the evolution of the landscape and the people who lived here long before European settlement.

The Akokisa and their predecessors ate seasonally and locally, of course: oysters and clams, alligators, turtles, and fish, seabird eggs, wild grapes and berries, persimmons, pecans and acorns, the tuberous roots of cattails, arrowheads, and greenbriar, among many other flowers and plants, edible and medicinal. They left behind vast middens of shells and fish bones. As well as bison kill sites along creeks and bayous.

In the fall and winter they moved inland to hunt bison and deer on their traditional hunting grounds on the Katy Prairie at the headwaters of Buffalo Bayou in what is now northwest Harris County. The bison migrated seasonally during the winter from the interior Texas plains, moving through the tallgrass prairie on their way south to the coast to graze on the lush salt grass (except during dry periods, points out Worrall).

Buffalo Bayou, along with other bayous and streams, was surrounded then by vast riparian and flatland forests, particularly extensive north of the bayou. European settlers in the nineteenth century cut down much of the timber to create cropland on the fertile floodplains. Beyond the forest to the south of the bayou was tallgrass prairie. Further to the west there was prairie and savannah dotted with oak trees.

Read the rest of this post.

Portrait of an Atakapa man, Alexandre de Batz, 1735

Early Fall on That Bend in the Bayou

Time is Passing

Oct. 8, 2021

We’d just had a big storm, a hurricane actually, named Nicholas. Its big winds tore up the trees and ripped out power lines, leaving tottering poles and a hundred thousand people without electricity up and down the Gulf Coast, including in Houston.

It also brought in our loyal photographer, native Texan Jim Olive, who blew in from the dry California desert, where the daytime temperatures had been well over 100 degrees. The plan was to take our fall shot of that Bend in the River, the same location on Buffalo Bayou that we’d been photographing throughout the seasons for seven years now.

Early fall 2021 on that bend in the bayou, looking downstream from a high bank in Memorial Park with the River Oaks Country Club opposite. Photo by Jim Olive on Sept. 17, 2021

We met at sunrise at the east entrance to the Picnic Loop south of Memorial Drive, where the massive $70 million land bridges are still under construction. The park gates, usually open, were closed, apparently due to possible falling limbs and tree damage from the storm. But helmeted cyclists were shoving their slim bikes through the gates anyway and hikers were slipping through.

Big Jim recently had had major surgery and had spent quite a bit of time laid up. The prospect of walking through the morning heat to our spot was daunting. But he soldiered down the curving drive and into the woods.

A Changing Scene

The popular path into the bayou woods was still blocked by the Memorial Park Conservancy with wire fencing and branches. But the much-used dirt path through the woods itself seemed changed. There had been a big storm after all, and there was debris—leaves and tree limbs—blocking the narrow trail, which usually was kept clear by anonymous volunteers. It was difficult to tell how much of the debris blockage had been caused by the winds and how much might have been placed there by park employees.

The bayou banks were remarkably green and lush. The sediment-laden water was flowing fairly high and fast, around 800 cubic feet per second. We stood patiently on the high bank, listening to the sounds of the woods and water. The sun rose over the tall trees, big oaks and pines. The assistant wandered off, as usual. Jim got his beautiful shots, miraculously without tumbling over the steep, high bank and into the fast-flowing stream. But then, once out of the woods, he opted to rest, wait by the paved loop, and watch the cyclists whiz past. Years ago Jim also used to bike regularly, every morning two or three times a week, around this loop, as well as around the trails in Buffalo Bayou Park, then shaded with overhanging trees. Afterwards he and his physically fit friends would swim a mile or so in the nearby Masterson YWCA pool that used to be on Waugh near the bayou.

Cyclists on the Picnice Loop in Memorial Park just after sunrise on Sept. 17, 2021. Photo by Jim Olive

The assistant hurried to fetch the car, hoping the gates were now open. They were not. So, anxious about Jim, she jogged back along the road and splashed through the soggy grass field towards some park employees with an electric cart inspecting the trees. Cyclists circling around the loop kept an eye on Jim, who was out in the sun.

The assistant approached the conservancy staffers, waving her arms and calling out for help transporting the photographer back to the car. The answer was no. Only park employees allowed in the electric cart. But they did offer to unlock the gate so that the assistant could take the time to hurry back, get the car, drive it into the park, and pick up Jim.

Well, we were grateful for that, at least. Jim, who has donated numerous photographs to the Memorial Park Conservancy, survived. (He also happens to be a trained emergency medical technician.) The assistant was steamed. We continued on for our traditional breakfast taco at Sunrise Taquitos down the road.

We’ve asked the Conservancy, a private foundation which runs the public park on behalf of the City, for its rules and guidance on medical and other emergencies in the park. We’ll update our report when we hear back.


Looking upstream from the high bank in Memorial Park with the River Oaks Country Club golf course across the way. Photo by Jim Olive on Sept. 17, 2021

The creek that flows from the center of the park near the golf course, under Memorial Drive and through the woods, as it enters Buffalo Bayou just downstream from the bend. Photo by SC on Sept. 17, 2021