Twenty years ago, a poet and a lawyer joined forces to save a beloved parcel of Oak Cliff nature. Photo courtesy of Texas Land Conservancy.
Jan. 21, 2022
It was 1999, and the news was circulating in north Oak Cliff like wildfire.
Developers sought to buy and rezone the 160 rugged, wooded acres of the Boy Scouts’ old Camp Brooklawn. It was a stab to the heart for those Oak Cliff residents who'd spent their childhoods playing in the woods along Five Mile Creek back in the 1930s when the area was rural, except for a few abbreviated thoroughfares.
David Marquis, a writer and performer best known for his I Am a Teacher play, still lives in his circa 1947 family home. It's one of the area's first, built well before the rise of development in the 1960s. He was standing in his kitchen early one morning, eating a bowl of cereal by the sink, when the call came from then City Councilperson Laura Miller: You need to be at a community meeting that night about the sale.
"A lot of neighborhood folks were there," recalled Marquis. "They were upset that this land could be lost. I'm standing at the back of the room thinking that sooner or later some kind of development is going to happen. We need to control it and shape it. Or we can sit back let it happen. But just opposing it, we're eventually going to lose."
Dallas-based author David Marquis, left, and attorney Michael Jung discuss Oak Cliff Nature Preserve's beginnings. Photo by Amy Martin.
A POET'S PERSPECTIVE
On a blistering hot August day that year, Marquis walked the land to see up close what might be lost when a chance encounter changed everything and led to the creation of the 121-acre Oak Cliff Nature Preserve. Though the steep, chalk terrain is bedeviled by aggressive ashe juniper and invasive Chinese privet on the slopes, patches of original chalk Blackland Prairie still survive on the ridge tops. Hardwoods like Shumard and bur oak, American elm, and green ash find shelter in the ravine bottoms.
A path winds through Oak Cliff Nature Preserve's rugged chalk terrain. Photo by Amy Martin.
"I was way down in the southwest corner when a hawk flew right over me and landed in a cedar tree maybe 20 feet away. I swear to God, that bird turned around and looked at me and said, 'What are you gonna do about it? Otherwise, I'm not going to have a place to fly around.' That was a pivotal moment for me. Even then, I knew that if I took this on, it would take over my life. But that hawk looking at me, I knew I had to."
Marquis used his poetic eloquence to inspire the neighbors, firing up their determination not to let the cheap housing that bedeviled Oak Cliff at the time consume the land of their memories. He turned his prosaic ways onto city government, exhorting them to find a way of saving the land. An activist coalition and official city task force was born.
Marquis knew Mary Suhm, Dallas’ former city manager, from when he was a school teacher and she was a librarian in Allen. She had an idea. A tidy $1.25 million of HUD section 108 funds for neighborhood stabilization was available, but the deadline to secure it would expire that year on Dec. 31 at 5 p.m. Marquis kicked into gear, using his eloquence and passion to convince the task force into meeting three times a week.
ENTER THE LAWYER
"A great blessing came to us in the form of Michael Jung,” said Marquis. “His joining into it was critical. Because I had to focus on this big picture of how to put this deal together. Somebody had to put the documentation in place and find the legal structure to implement the plan.”
Jung has plenty of bona fides: a degree from Harvard Law School and two bachelors of science degrees from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. An attorney for over three decades, now with Clark Hill, he specializes in appellate matters in state and federal courts, focusing on business litigation, zoning, land use and election law.
Once Jung was in, deal-making went into overdrive. Somehow, he had to find a way to satisfy the developer, who still wanted to build on some of the land; the neighborhood residents, who opposed major housing developments; and the city council and planning commission.
Tax-exempt bonds helped developers make finances work for building affordable senior housing, now called The Oaks at Hampton, on the northern end's flat plateau — a stabilizing influence on the neighborhood.
The developer would purchase the property from the Boy Scouts and then donate most of the acres as a nature preserve. In exchange, the neighborhood would support zoning 46 acres to accommodate the senior housing and about 10 acres for retail development.
"Suddenly, we had the makings of a deal that was much more palatable to the people in the area," said Marquis.
Oak Cliff Nature Preserve features more than eight miles of wooded trails. Photo courtesy of Texas Land Conservancy.
It gets better. The Oaks at Hampton developer realized he needed acreage for access off of Hampton Road. The city had borrowed money to replace the area's decrepit and barely used public library but lacked a location for a larger facility.
More deals and land swaps ensued. Hampton-Illinois Branch Library was reborn.
The land set aside for retail space on that corner was eventually bought by DISD to become the highly rated Jimmie Tyler Brashear Elementary School, which melds beautifully into the library.
"Now that library is the second most used library in the system behind the central library and the first built to silver LEED standards. It has a black box theater. Our first rehearsals for The Land, my play about land and conservation, were in that theater. It was a really sweet irony," said Marquis.
"The community got a rockin' new library and school, new retail, and eventually a new single-family subdivision. And it all came because we wanted to save the trees," said Marquis. "We had a nature preserve with trees, a library and school, and affordable senior housing all wrapped up together. No politician in their right mind was going to vote against that."
None of it would have arisen with the concerted efforts of the task force's Charlotte Barbosa, Charletta Compton, Carl Harts, Michael Penn, and Donald Seilheimer, with Beth Farrell representing the off-road bicycling community, and Marquis as chair. Other citizens who took active roles included Dr. Gabriel Ogbagulo.
A PRESERVE IS BORN
Now what to do with the remaining acres? Enter the Natural Area Preservation Association, founded by Texas eco-pioneer Ned Fritz. Jung has been on its board since 2000, seeing through Fritz's passage in 2008 at age 93, and its name change to Texas Land Conservancy in 2010.
Amber Arseneaux, Texas Land Conservancy’s North Texas program director, oversees outreach at the Oak Cliff Nature Preserve. Photo by Amy Martin.
Texas Land Conservancy now owns the OCNP and doubly protects it with a conservation easement, a deed restriction that permanently restricts development. It’s the first use of a conservation easement in Dallas zoning history, according to Marquis and Jung.
"Owning 110 acres in the middle of a city as we do, we have the problems you would expect," said Jung.
Stewards of the park still battle vandalism, litter and illicit nighttime activity in the parking lot. But illegal dumping, wild dogs and established homeless encampments are no longer overriding issues.
Amber Arseneaux, Texas Land Conservancy’s North Texas Program Director, now keeps the preserve hopping with first Saturday workdays and special events such as holiday hikes and outdoor recreation workshops. The popular Hike, Yoga and Brew presented by ExploreMore combines a yoga warm-up and three miles of vigorous hiking with beers afterward at Oak Cliff Brewing Company.
On the warm winter day that Arseneaux, Jung, Marquis and I conducted our interview at OCNP’s picnic area near the entrance, even on a weekday a steady stream of people came to visit. Half arrived with off-road bicycles. The rest were a combination of hikers, dog walkers and trail runners. A pair of mothers came with kids who squealed with delight at being taken to the preserve.
Arseneaux praised the Dallas Off-Road Bicycle Association for being vital to OCNP's establishment, noting they played a big role before her hiring in 2019.
"We weren't here very much, so we relied on DORBA to keep the place open and keep a set of local eyes on it."
Volunteers at Oak Cliff Nature Preserve on a workday in September. Photo courtesy of Amber Arseneaux.
Starting in 2006, DORBA labored to forge over eight miles of multi-use hike and bike trails. Only one of the six loops is rated for beginners, making OCNP popular with more experienced riders, including its most famous patron, President George W. Bush.
"This was his favorite place to ride," Marquis noted, adding that Secret Service agents accompanying him tried valiantly to keep up.
Sign includes the QR code for Oak Cliff Nature Preserve trail map. Courtesy of Texas Land Conservancy.
OCNP’s limestone rise is attractively wrinkled by steeply folded ravines carved by wet-weather creeks rushing to Five Mile Creek at the base. The terrain is challenging enough for bicyclists to traverse, but DORBA has installed several ramps, humps and other bike thrills, with bypass routes for hikers.
Trees get bigger toward Five Mile Creek. The most attractive trails with somewhat reduced privet are Loop 2 Yellow and Loop 3 Orange, both in the southwest corner. Loop 4 Red in the southeast has moments of great beauty. Pedestrians must absolutely stay off the Loop 4 Red jump line as signs indicate. Bicyclists are moving extremely fast and have too limited visibility to avoid hikers. Collisions and serious injury to both bicyclists and hikers are possible.
Charles Raines, a DORBA regular at OCNP, shared his experience:
"I ride there for the workout, but I'm always cognizant of the natural beauty of it, especially when the meadows bloom in spring and the fall color changes. It's a really special place in that regard, and Dallas is fortunate to have access to it."
The first Saturday workdays are a great way to discover the OCNP community, he said.
"I've volunteered on several occasions for trail work," said Raines. "I find the time spent on trail work to be highly rewarding because I can see and enjoy the surroundings at a much slower pace.”
A new bridge is built to support both hikers and the steady flow of off-road bicyclists at Oak Cliff Nature Preserve. Photo courtesy of Amber Arseneaux.
THE PARK’S FUTURE
OCNP boundaries stop just short of Five Mile Creek, with Dallas owning the riparian corridor.
"That's where they're going to be building the new Five Mile Urban Greenbelt Trail on. The city's working with Trust for the Public Land on that," said Marquis.
Plans are to connect OCNP to the Five Mile Urban Greenbelt Trail. Even though it’s supposed to be for pedestrians and bicyclists only, paved trails can serve as highways for ATV and motorbike use and the illegal dumping, crime and vandalism that go along with them. Though greater community use is welcomed, said Arseneaux.
"We'll want to look at having intentional places for access and not have it just be completely open,” she said.
Five Mile Urban Greenbelt Trail will connect to the Trust's 1.8-acre Alice Branch Health and Wellness Park and Trail. Further downstream near Paul Quinn College is envisioned a 40-acre Judge Charles Rose, Sr. Park. Plans are also to tie the trail into Kiest Park Conservation Area.
OCNP and Texas Land Conservancy are pioneers in bringing untrammeled nature to an underserved area of South Dallas.
Marquis noted, "It's important that this place be recognized as a catalyst for so many good things that have come to the city. The green building task force, the tree ordinance and more go back to this. And that, to me, is a testament not just to what we do but to the power of the land and that encounter with the hawk. If we open ourselves to nature and put ourselves in those positions where nature can speak to us, then good things come from it."
Oak Cliff Nature Preserve features six loops of trails. Image courtesy of Texas Land Conservancy.
NAVIGATING THE PRESERVE
OCNP’s six loops of trails are seemingly tangled like a bowl of spaghetti. Surveyor flags and paint markers on trees correspond to trail colors on the park’s map. The key is to hike Loop 1 White and notice where other loops intercept it. Sparse trail markers and an abundance of shortcuts make it easy to get lost, so familiarity with the main trail is essential.
The Trailforks app details the trails and shows your position while hiking. Its use is strongly recommended to avoid getting lost. Google maps in the satellite view shows your location, but not the trails. GPS programs like Gaia and AllTrails can be helpful, though they may not show all trails.
• Pedestrians should hike the loops clockwise in order to see bicyclists coming counterclockwise.
• Pedestrians must yield to bicyclists. Hikers can see and hear bicyclists coming quicker than bicyclists can see hikers on the trail.
• Stay aware and listen. Scan the trail ahead and know where you'd go if a bicyclist comes along.
• Plan your hikes so that you are out well before sunset. Trails are challenging to navigate in darkness and the parking lot is unlit at night.
• The parking lot is to the north. To return after hiking, go steadily uphill. If you can hear grinding noises from the Pepsico plant on Pierce near the entrance, you're getting near the lot.
• Five Mile Creek and Kiest Boulevard are to the south, going steadily downhill. If you can hear a lot of traffic noise, you’re getting near Kiest.
• The Trailforks app details the trails and shows your position while hiking. Its use is strongly recommended to avoid getting lost.
• Please don't hike or bike the trails when they're saturated by precipitation as it accelerates erosion.
• Find updates at the OCNP Facebook page.
• For quickest updates, use the DORBA Trail Status apps for Apple and Android.
LOCATION: Oak Cliff Nature Preserve, 2875 Pierce St. Dallas, 75233
HOURS: Open dawn to dusk.
FACILITIES: No bathrooms or water.
CONTACT: [email protected]
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