Serendipity at White Rock Lake – Norbuck Park’s Blackland Native Prairie Destroyed

Ben Sandifer April 30, 11AM, Bath House, Native Plants and Prairies Day
Prairies typically don’t have trees. Especially our local Blackland native prairies that were flat with wildflowers and short grasses that grew in the chalky shallow soil of White Rock Lake area. The top soil and its delicate balancing structure of organic matter is key for the prairie to survive. But trees are commodity these days and are very much needed in densely populated urban areas. Losing any square inch of natural habitat is hard to take for local neighbors and naturalists.

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City Hall Blog
Wilonsky: Dallas street worker’s poop in the park destroys native prairie at White Rock

Robert Wilonsky Follow @RobertWilonsky Email rwilonsky@dallasnews.com
Published: April 21, 2016 9:24 am

This is how you get on the list at Dallas City Hall. You know the one. The one where you’re in deep … trouble.
Late last week, naturalist Ben Sandifer was on his bike, taking pictures of butterflies near White Rock Lake, when he came across a muddy convoy pulling out of Norbuck Park off Buckner Boulevard. It was pretty much the last place he expected to find an excavator followed by a front-end loader. That’s unspoiled Blackland Prairie, or what’s left of the coveted native flora that once blanketed North Texas.

Sandifer is an accountant. But he spends most of his time adding up all the ways the city keeps screwing up its natural assets — the Great Trinity Forest mostly, White Rock Lake the rest of the time. On this day, Dallas’ nature cop did what he always does at a crime scene: He started rolling video and asking questions.
He wanted to know why two guys from the city streets department who are supposed to be fixing potholes were instead tearing down trees and trenching up prairie land. The driver of the loader told him he had to rescue the driver of the excavator off Buckner Boulevard and Northwest Highway.
I asked City Hall the same thing. The answer stunk.
“An employee — on his own, not related to any job we were doing — had to relieve himself,” said Dennis Ware, director of street services. “He went and found the nearest wooded area and tried to do that, and upon leaving he was stuck in the mud. Another employee had to go pull him out with heavy equipment.”
The city worker did not go No. 1.
“I saw it,” Sandifer confirmed.
The proof was right there on the ground, alongside copious paper towels.
So, let’s get this straight: A guy who works for the city took his giant excavator off-roading so he could go spoil one of the last unspoiled pieces of the Blackland Prairie in Dallas.
Yeah. That seems about right.

Ben Sandifer in 2014, trying to protect the Great Trinity Golf Forest from the golf course construction. (File Photo/Staff)
It’s still not clear why the driver of the excavator felt it necessary to take his giant vehicle into the muddy prairie to do his business, or why he didn’t use one of the portable bathrooms near the ball fields off Buckner. Ware said Friday, and again a few days later, that the whole thing is still being investigated.
Maybe, Sandifer said, the driver in the excavator didn’t know what he was damaging — a remnant of the prairie that’s been buried by development. Just 1 percent of the prairie still exists, most of it in bits and pieces near railroad trestles and along highway easements.
Areas around the lake contain some of the best remnants — thanks, in large part, to the North Texas Master Naturalists, officials with the Texas Parks and Wildlife and the SMU students who stepped in years ago and got the parks department to agree to stop mowing it. The Park and Recreation Department promised several years ago to leave it untouched, because it’s so fragile — little more than “a thin veneer of soil,” Sandifer said, cover chalk and limestone.
“If it’s disturbed,” he said, “it can disappear in short order.”
Sandifer’s used to nonsense when it comes to City Hall’s treatment of nature: He probably sends two or three emails every week to Trinity Watershed Management officials and the Army Corps of Engineers complaining about how someone working for or hired by the city is violating a permit near the Trinity.

What’s left of the Blackland Prairie around White Rock Lake (File photo)
He said he often feels like there’s a black cloud following him wherever his travels take him.
“It’s uncanny how he’s able to be at the right place at the right time in a lot of situations,” said Willis Winters, director of the Park and Recreation Department. Winters went down to Norbuck Park on Friday, 15 minutes after he found out about the incident, and has been talking to Ware about making the fix. Winters said streets has taken full responsibility. The city’s done far worse to far bigger chunks of nature than last week’s dumping on Norbuck Park. But fixing this will take time and cost money — out of the streets budget that’s supposed to go toward pothole repair. “People may say that,” Ware said when we spoke Wednesday, when I called to follow up. “They could.”
Because they should? “Streets will be paying for the damage. Unfortunately we caused the damage. We need to own up to it, and we need to pay for it.”

Winters said Brett Johnson, the city’s urban biologist, is putting together a remediation plan — one that will likely involve small equipment and handwork. Said Winters, soil will need to be repaired, grass will have to be replaced, and trees may have to be removed. No one’s yet sure how much it will cost.
Winters said he was “surprised” by what happened — “especially given the circumstances” — and “disappointed,” but pleased streets had taken full responsibility. Ware said Wednesday he’s not yet sure if the employee who tore up and defecated on the prairie will be punished. He said the department is “looking at prior history, looking at this event and the damage it caused and determining what action is appropriate.”
Said Ware: “When we mess up, we need to own up to it.”
No … kidding.
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