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Contemplating the Trinity

Contemplating the Trinity Plagued with urban pollution and blessed with cleansing bottomlands, the Trinity River is holding its own.

By Gary Cartwright<

When self-professed Trinity River rat Cliff Johnson casually remarked to me that “any real Texan loves a river bottom,” I had to smile. Johnson, a former state representative from Paleine, owns 2,150 acres of pristine boıomland in the Middle Trinity Basin, but obviously he never lived in North Texas. When I wasgrowing up in Arlington in the 1940s, the Upper Trinity was a dirty joke. Our town dumped its sewage directly into the river. Our big-city neighbors, Fort Worth and Dallas, at least treated their sewage before sending it down river, though not so the fish could tell. In the 1960s, the U.S. Public Health Service described the 100 miles of river below Dallas as “septic.” As recently as the 1980s, sewage from Dallas was killing fish downstream in historic numbers. Alarmed by fish kills and what they called “black-water rises” — the welling-up from the river bottom of masses of oil, grease, copper, chlorine, pesticides and toxic industrial and agricultural wastes — citizens of Johnson’s district in Anderson and Freestone counties filed a lawsuit in 1985. The suit thwarted Dallas’ plan to dump tens of millions of gallons of raw sewage in the Trinity, and more than that, it called statewide attention to this outrage.

Indignant Dallas officials denied their sewage harmed fish; the water commissioner noted cavalierly that the Trinity was never meant to be “a trout stream.” A guy from the Trinity River Authority had the gall to insist that the fish kill proved that the quality of the Trinity was getting better. “We wouldn’t have had a fish kill this year if we hadn’t made the improvements in water quality in 1970,” he declared, “because there wouldn’t have been any fish (left to kill).” Stung by such twisted logic, Cliff Johnson suggested that Dallas solve the problem by dumping its sewage in the Cotton Bowl, since the stadium was only used once or twice a year anyway. (Alas, further study revealed that Dallas would have needed 36 Cotton Bowls for the task.)

To this day, citizens of the Metroplex largely deal with the Trinity by ignoring it — with a few happy exceptions. True, nobody writes poetry about this river, yet the Upper Trinity is far cleaner and more attractive than it used to be. Rivers are getting to be trendy. An 8-mile jogging and bike trail now connects Arlington’s River Legacy Park to Fort Worth and Grand Prairie. After all these years of indifference, the city of Dallas has officially discovered the Great Trinity Forest, a 7,000-acre swamp where for decades, old toilets, tires, truck axles and slabs of asphalt collected. The 7-mile-long section of river that slogs through downtown Dallas, a rerouted ditch constructed in the 1920s, may some day be transformed into a landscape of lakes, wetlands, nature trails and designer bridges; it’s part of the proposed $1 billion Trinity Corridor Project.

For all its neglect and mismanagement, the Trinity is one of the great rivers of Texas. Half of the state’s population lives along its course. It’s the longest river totally within the state’s borders, 550 river miles, and it drains an incredible 17,969 square miles, from Cooke County on the northern border of Texas to Trinity Bay, where it becomes the main source of nourishment for Galveston Bay. The river’s curse is that it essentially begins and ends in the state’s two great urban areas, Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston. Between those gigantic blobs of commerce and trade, the Trinity flows through 300,000 acres of East Texas bottomland hardwood, one of the loveliest hardwood forests in Texas. Texas is vanishing, at least its natural parts. Our state led the nation during the last decade in loss of undeveloped land: every two minutes another acre of Texas farmland or open space becomes a subdivision or mall or road.

A group of landowners in the Middle Trinity Basin has banded together with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and other state agencies to arrest and reverse this hemorrhaging. In the summer of 2000, they organized the Middle Trinity River Basin Conservation Cooperative, dedicated to preventing fragmentation of habitat and maintaining natural travel corridors for wildlife, while simultaneously attempting to restore the land to what it was a century ago. What started as a wildlife project has became a bold attempt to landscape the river itself. “There’s no point in trying to manage wildlife on my ranch unless owners of adjacent properties are on the same plan,” says Robert McFarlane, a Palestine cardiologist whose 7,200-acre hunting ranch and lodge near Tennessee Colony — called The Big Woods — is a major element of the co-op.

The neat thing about this co-op is that pipeline, energy and utility companies — the very corporations that whacked up and polluted the environment in the first place — are helping foot the bill, as required by law. “They are paying me to improve my land,” says McFarlane, whose government-approved 435-acre mitigation bank will soon triple in acreage. Corporations needing “credits” for acres they develop or air they pollute come knocking on doors of landowners such as McFarlane and Cliff Johnson, eager to pay them to restore wetlands (which clean the water) or replant oak forests (which turn carbon waste into oxygen). For a one-time fee, landowners agree to create and maintain the mitigated project in perpetuity. Virtually useless for farming and ranching, land in the flood plain is cheap, a good buy for those who intend to use it for recreational purposes. The wastewater Dallas is so eager to be rid of can help refurbish bottomland hardwoods. “Every time someone in Dallas flushes his toilet,” one landowner jokes, “I get a new oak tree.” And that’s just a start. Landowners are experiencing what TPWD biologist Carl Frentress calls “a paradigm shift in thinking how the land can produce commodities.”

“My Holy Grail is to make money off my land without having any cows,” McFarlane told me late one evening in the Big Wood Lodge. “I hate cows.” A 1970 graduate of Palestine High School, he graduated from Harvard Medical School and in 1986 returned to Palestine and started buying bottomland. McFarlane is a Falstaffian figure with a quick mind, a keen wit and a large appetite, one of those organic East Texas characters who seem to grow wild in dark, wet places. He loves listening to Vivaldi, reads Faulkner and writes wonderful essays on subjects such as “Squirrel Hunting Alone,” in which he reveals a running disagreement with his wife over whether Rembrandt’s paintings are special for the painter’s use of darkness, or, as his wife insists, for his use of light. “I think those who hunt have an inherent difficulty with optimism,” he says. His hunting lodge and guide service — the recreational end of this business — break even. But McFarlane believes there is big money to be made from such untapped resources as ground water, which is plentiful in this part of the state.

“Say I can sell it at a rechargeable rate at $100 an acre a year,” McFarlane explained. “Seven hundred acres would produce $70,000.” He could pipe the water upstream and sell it to Dallas or, easier yet, pump it into the river and charge Houston to take it out. “A single-phase well [on his land] can pump 300-400 gallons a minute,” he boasted. “It looks like a damn fire hydrant.” Planting trees is almost as profitable. One acre of flood plain, he says, can sequester 600 tons of carbon waste. “So if the market for carbon waste is $1.50 a ton, that’s $900,” McFarlane calculates. “Pretty good return for land that cost $400.” He predicts that carbon sequestration alone will, over time, refurbish the Trinity flood plain from just south of Dallas all the way to the upper reaches of Lake Livingston.

The Middle Trinity Co-op has grown to nearly 150,000 acres, including 21,000 acres owned by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (prison-system land) and almost 30,000 acres from three TPWD wildlife management areas. This turns out to be a win/win situation for both public and private landowners. Cliff Johnson, whose bottomland adjoins the Big Lake Bottom WMA, uses sewage water from the Beto Prison Unit just up the hill to create a 40-acre wetland that has become winter home to thousands of ducks. When Johnson drains the wetland in the summer to allow new vegetation to sprout, the water flows back to the Trinity, cleaner and purer than when the prison borrowed it. The Tarrant Regional Water District, which built the Richland-Chambers Reservoir at the north edge of the co-op, is making amends on a historical scale. Acknowledging that the reservoir destroyed bottomland hardwood habitat, the water district donated a 14,000-acre project known as the Richland Creek Wildlife Management Area. Each day, 15 million gallons of raw water is pumped from the Trinity River onto 250 acres of constructed wetlands. The wetlands filter and clean the water, which flows back into the Trinity. When the project is completed, it will have 2,000 acres of wetland and, hopefully, will be the model for all Texas waterways. “It’s a grand recycling scheme,” explains Jeffrey Gunnels, a wildlife biologist at Richland Creek. “This is the wave of the future.”

Life in the Middle Trinity Basin is lazy and bucolic, a page from the Old South. Folks here still speak of the “Yankee aggression,” and of great-grandfathers who lost arms and legs in the Civil War. Cliff Johnson, whose people settled near Palestine in 1857, told me: “There’s a special feeling on that river bottom. It’s got its own mystique, its own smell, its own sounds.” I discovered this for myself one dark day in late February when I took a trip across the muddy terrain with TPWD biologist Matt Wagner, each of us jockeying a four-wheeler. Indeed, the forest swallows you up and puts you in another time. Parking near a wetland, we listened to the sound of silence, momentarily broken by the bark of a barred owl. A pack of feral hogs rustled through palmettos and beauty-berry plants, rooting for grubs with their noses and tusks. When the wind shifted, hundreds (maybe thousands) of mallards, teal, pintail and spoonbills swooped up, staining the gray sky. “They’re bunching up, getting ready to fly back north,” Wagner said. Water lines on trees nearest the river reach nine or ten feet. This is rough, nearly impenetrable land. Left alone, it will return to nature, but in the hands of mere humans, it can be stubborn. Cliff Johnson told me that he planted 500 saw-tooth oaks and 500 bald cypresses, and not one of them survived. “They are native to the river bottom, just not that river bottom,” he explained.

These deep woods guard our history and heritage in ways I’d never guessed. Bonnie and Clyde Road, a muddy trail designated by a street sign Doc McFarlane posted on a piece of his property, is supposed to lead to an old ferry landing that was an escape route for the infamous outlaws. Parker’s Bluff on the section of river that runs through Big Lake is where Chief Quanah Parker and his Comanches crossed the river. It’s also where the steamship Ruthen went down in the 19th century. Douglas Sumrall, a Palestine Exxon distributor who leases land on this part of the Trinity, told me that the Ruthen once hauled cotton bales from the Dallas area to the port at Anahuac. “You can still see the ruins, square nails and all,” Sumrall said. From the end of the Civil War to as late as the 1970s, civic boosters in the Metroplex clung to the delusion that the Trinity might some day be made into a 370-mile ship channel connecting Dallas and Fort Worth to the Gulf of Mexico, creating an ersatz Port Metroplex rivaling the Port of Houston. That never happened, and never will, but that didn’t stop them from constructing several locks along the river.

When the Trinity River Authority impounded Lake Livingston in 1969, it created 450 miles of shoreline and flooded 90,000 acres of hardwood bottomland. The dam also arrested the flooding and silt that would have nourished estuaries and hundreds of thousands of acres of Texas coastal wetlands. A remnant of the bottomland hardwood ecosystem remains 25 years later, protected by the creation of the Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge near Liberty.

Below Lake Livingston, the Lower Trinity becomes wild and unpredictable. In some places, it’s surprisingly wide and deep, sheltered on both banks by dense forests of cottonwoods and elms. In other places, the cut banks I’d seen upstream vanish into a maze of passes, bayous, sloughs and incredibly beautiful and mysterious cypress swamps. On a boat trip with my friend Shannon Tompkins, a biologist and outdoors writer for the Houston Chronicle, I saw a part of this amazing swamp, one of the last of its kind in Texas. Somewhere south of Liberty, we exited the main body of the river and took an old barge canal that cut through the heart of this cypress wonderland. Fifty years ago the canal was used to transport timber and molten sulfur from the now long-abandoned Texas Gulf Sulfur mine to the ports of Galveston and Houston. You could still see the pilings of the loading docks, reaching like forgotten skeletons from the thick green water. A single long-leaf pine stood sentinel on a small rise to one side of the canal. Tompkins told me that 25 years ago that small hill was covered with long-leaf pines, some of them 150 years old. “Then one day they were gone,” he said sadly. Most of the old growth was gone, too, cut down a century ago when there were two sawmills in the town of Wallisville.

Tompkins grew up in Baytown and had lived near the river since he was in grade school. He knew every oxbow bend, slough and bypass. Like Doc McFarlane, Cliff Johnson and other river rats I’d met, Tompkins was a rare species, a college-educated swamp creature. If he had his way, Tompkins would spend every second outdoors. Yet he can quote Faulkner, Thoreau and any number of Greek philosophers and make it sound like casual conversation. When he is feeling depressed or stressed out, he comes to this isolated spot, shuts off the outboard motor and listens to the incomparable music of the swamp. It took me a while, but gradually I heard it too. A barred owl croaked his trademark hoo hoo hoo-aw. A gar splashed nearby. A brilliant yellow prothonotary warbler perched atop a piling, fluffed his feathers and whistled his reedy mating call. From somewhere deep in the forest of cypress, tupelo and pignut hickory, we heard the squall of a wood duck and the staccato scream of a pileated woodpecker.

I could hear the swamp breathing, feel it pulsating with life. In places, the surface of the dark water boiled with clouds of tiny shad, a phenomenon that people here call “nervous water.” Near an inlet, a black-crowned night heron stood poised to strike. What appeared at first to be two 8-foot logs moved in a curious way, then flicked enormous tails and revealed themselves as alligators. After a time, Tompkins took out his fishing rod and began casting into the swirling shadows near shore, hooking several nice bass, which he comforted with cooing sounds as he plucked the jigs from their jaws and returned them to the river. In a soft voice, he told me, “I bet I’ve caught every fish in this river twice.”

Back in the river channel, we moved slowly, a deep peace settling over us. I watched as though in a dream as an anhinga plunged from the sky, vanished under water, then reappeared with a small fish flapping from its bill. Nests of red wasps, hundreds of them, hung from the ends of branches, low over the water. There were few snakes in this part of the river, Tompkins told me, explaining that “snakes are mobile sausages for feral hogs, gators and birds.” In another few weeks, the river would be alive with mosquitoes and other insects, unbearably hot and humid, but on this spring day, conditions were perfect. Presently, Tompkins found what he was looking for: the bayou that leads to Lake Charlotte. The lake is one of several remote, nearly inaccessible natural bodies of water on this part of the river.

A squadron of great blue herons and great egrets, flying at eye level, escorted us deeper into the swamp. The banks here were lined with the knees of long-dead cypress. The swamp was a shadow land of submerged stumps, tangled branches and fallen trees, forbidding and otherworldly. When hurricanes threatened Galveston in the early 1800s, Lafitte and his pirates hauled their ships along this bayou, seeking shelter in Lake Charlotte. Old-timers claim that one or two of Lafitte’s ships remain buried on the lake bottom, under who knows how many feet of mud. When we reach the lake, it turns out to be so shallow that even our 16-foot aluminum boat can’t cross it. Instead, we linger at the edge of a marsh where huge cypress rise like cathedrals from the shifting shadows. It was one of those moments when you’re praying before you know it. “Heraclitus said that you cannot step twice into the same river,” Tompkins said in his quiet voice. I’d heard that quote before, only this time it made sense.

Late in the afternoon, we stop to investigate an Indian midden, one of dozens on this part of the river. This particular midden appears as a steep bank filled to a depth of four or five feet with clam shells, fish and alligator bones, shards of pottery and things I can’t imagine. Hundreds of years ago this was a garbage dump for the nomadic Akokisa tribe. Though there was obviously an abundance of fish and fowl, life here must have been terribly difficult. Since there were no rocks to be found, the Akokisa fashioned arrowheads from gar scales. None of the pottery shards that we found had a trace of paint or decoration to enhance them. “Art is a manifestation of the thought process,” Tompkins reminded me. “The Akokisa must have needed all their energy just to stay alive.” In the 1750s, the Spanish constructed a mission and fort near Lake Charlotte, but the friars complained of biting insects, extreme heat and cold, and the thick, stinking water of the lake. The Spaniards had gone by 1771.

Heading back to the place we had put in early that morning, a ramp near where the Interstate 10 bridge crosses the Trinity east of Houston, I began to realize that this fantastic swamp was only a token of what the Lower Trinity was before man had his way. The last two ivory-billed woodpeckers on earth were shot near here in 1904, by a “naturalist” named Vernon Bailey. During a 10-year period in the 1880s, a hog farmer named Ab Carter killed all the bears in Liberty County — 182 of them — then shot his bear hound because the dog was no longer of any use. In the 1970s, Lake Charlotte was scheduled to be flooded out of existence, so that Liberty could become a seaport. It was spared only because someone discovered a nest of baby eagles. And the Wallisville Dam that was so controversial 20-something years ago? If environmentalists hadn’t stopped it, the dam would have flooded 12,900 acres of marsh, cypress swamp and marine nursery and starved Galveston Bay of vital nutrients. Ironically, the dam was a key element of the grandiose dream of Port Metroplex. Somehow, the Trinity has survived it all.

An hour before dark, I made one final life-affirming discovery. Just a few hundred feet west of the I-10 bridge, there is a rookery that seems to belong on Caddo Lake or somewhere in the heart of Louisiana. Crossing a footbridge, you stand at the edge of a shimmering world of electric-green water plants, giant cypress, Spanish moss and so many snowy egrets, great blue herons and other nesting birds that the trees across the way appear to be doing a fan dance. The rumble of 18-wheelers on the bridge behind us gives way to a chorus of birds and bullfrogs. A small alligator rustles through a cluster of water hyacinths, watching us with patient eyes. “We seem to have dropped off the edge of Texas and landed in some Louisiana swamp,” I tell Tompkins. He shakes his head and says, “Thousands of cars a day pass over the I-10 bridge, yet nobody notices what’s down here. ‘Rivers and the inhabitants of the watery element were made for wise men to contemplate and fools to pass by.’ Izaak Walton wrote those words in the 1600s.” Yes, I thought, Cliff Johnson got it right. Every real Texan could and should love a river bottom, or a swamp. But you have to leave the city to appreciate it.

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