The Bend in Winter
Jan. 12, 2020
The grass sparkled with a rare sugary frosting as we walked across the picnic grounds of Memorial Park towards the woods of Buffalo Bayou. It was late December. Jim Olive was in town, and we were headed to photograph that bend in the bayou we’d been documenting throughout the seasons for almost six years now.
The pale morning sun slanted through the trees, highlighting the field of frost. It was below average cold, starting out in the 30s. We’d had to look for mittens and woolly stuff.
Trails Not Trails. Laws Not Laws.
Whoops! What’s this? We stopped. Our path into the woods was blocked. Wire-fenced off and a big green sign posted in English and Spanish: “This is Not a trail. Do not enter! Destroying public property is a prohibited by Title 19, Chapter 191, of the Government Code of Texas.”
Hmm. Well, it turns out this is Not a law either. More about that later.
To continue, we continued. The clanking, grinding sounds of heavy machinery rang through the wintry woods. Next we found that the soaring loblolly pine snag, long dead, had been cut down. It had been standing tall for years, slowly decaying, providing habitat and sustenance for wildlife. We counted the rings. At least 70-80 years old. The massive felled log lay across the trail that was Not a trail, blocking our path. The name “Jesus” carved into its side years ago was still faintly visible. We went around.
Jim took up his position. We were on a high bank looking down at the slow-flowing water below. (Red arrow shows the spot on this 1922 topographic map of the bayou flowing past what is now the Arboretum, Memorial Park, and the River Oaks Country Club.) We could see up and down the meandering stream. The view was disturbing. Across the way, on the River Oaks Country Club’s golf course, a couple of backhoes like some prehistoric monsters ate at the mound of excavated dirt that was piled up there. In the distance Areas 1 and 2 of the club’s massive three-part “repair” project had now transformed the bank into what looked like the side of a parking garage. Huge trucks roared back and forth, throwing up dirt, on the upper bank where trees had been removed.
But all around us the yaupon holly berries were bright red and cheerful.
Jim focused his camera, waiting for the perfect angle of light. His assistant wandered around dispiritedly, drifting down to stare at the sandy creek that is the main tributary stream trickling from deep inside the park, emptying into the bayou. A rope swing, fixed with a small handle made of a short wooden branch, hung over the water. Lodged in the bushes high on the opposite slope were the wooden remains of someone’s platform/observation deck/tree house.
Jim took his beautiful photographs. We packed up and headed for some warm breakfast tacos.
On the way out, taking a different path, we encountered another sign warning us against “destroying public property.”
The Explanation. And A Puzzle: Non-Existent Law
We contacted the Memorial Park Conservancy, as well as the director of the Parks and Recreation Department and the City Attorney, about the signs and fencing. Carolyn White, the Conservancy’s conservation director, formerly a project manager with the Harris County Flood Control District, explained in an email that in fact these “unofficial” trails on the southeast side of the park near the bayou have been closed for years. It’s just that the Conservancy is putting up new fencing and new signs.
The “official” color-coded trails in the park, those open to the public, she pointed out, were decided years ago through an agreement between the Conservancy, the Parks Department, and the Greater Houston Off-Road Biking Association (GHORBA).
However, hikers and runners, who were not consulted, have continued to use (and maintain) these “unofficial” dirt paths, as they have for decades. But the Conservancy believes that “use of these unsanctioned trails compromises the stability of this terrain and results in land loss for Memorial Park and damages to public property,” wrote White. Furthermore, she noted, the “extremely steep terrain … is unsafe for passage.”
White pointed out that the same signs are “posted throughout Memorial Park … which allows for misuse of park assets to be treated as destruction of city property.”
We are obliged to note, however, that the law cited in the warning signs, “Title 19, Chapter 191, of the Government Code of Texas,” does not exist. We will follow up for clarification.
Under the Conservancy’s 2015 Master Plan, eventually there will be 5.4 miles of natural surface trails, 2-3 feet wide, exclusively for the use of hikers, through this and surrounding areas. (p. 78) This does not include the 12-foot wide Southern Arc crushed-stone multi-use trail (p. 77) looping from east to west through this southern section of the park.
The plan includes 7.4 miles of biking-only trails through the woods and planned prairies of the south side of the park. (p. 79)