DAVID GREENE, HOST:
What do you think of when you think of Dallas?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DALLAS THEME SONG")
GREENE: OK, yes, but here's something that maybe didn't come to mind. The city has one of the largest urban forests in the country. NPR's Wade Goodwyn takes us to Great Trinity Forest as part of our series Hidden Places.
WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: I'm standing under one of the largest oak trees I've ever seen in my life. And as a middle-aged Texan, believe me, I've seen a lot of oak trees.
BEN SANDIFER: When this tree was a baby, King Carlos III of Spain owned this land. That's how old this tree is.
GOODWYN: Perhaps nobody knows the Great Trinity Forest better than Ben Sandifer. Accountant by day, he's a well-known local photographer and writer. And this 6,000 acre forest, it's his inspiration.
SANDIFER: The trunk is about as big around as a dining room table. And the limbs are the size of normal tree trunks on normal trees. The crown spread of the tree is approximately the size of a tennis court.
GOODWYN: The reason this giant burr oak has thrived for the last half-thousand years is that it grows next to the area's last operating spring, named in true Texas fashion, Big Spring. The water bubbling up from the aquifer below is seeing the light of day for the first time in 600 years.
SANDIFER: We're here on a day that it's going to get up to 100 degrees, and the water coming out of the spring is in the mid-60s.
GOODWYN: The forest starts downtown and follows the Trinity River floodplain. South of the city, the levees end and the forest spreads out from the river. It's 8:00 in the morning. There's nobody within miles of us, but the sounds of the city are everywhere.
In fact, I'm having a hard time recording the natural sound because we're right under the flight path from Love Field, and Southwest jets keep passing overhead every five minutes.
The Trinity Forest is a place that's in the process of becoming. What it's becoming isn't completely clear yet. We walk through acres of meadows, forest, river bottom. Massive hardwood soar above our heads. But at spots along the Trinity River, it's disgusting. Because this place is both remote and close to Dallas, forest advocate Ben Sandifer says it's long been a dumping ground.
SANDIFER: Roofing shingles, asbestos - anything that they can't dump at a landfill or don't want to pay to dump at a landfill or are just too lazy to dump, they come down and dump in different parts of the Trinity River.
GOODWYN: Dana Wilson, a conservationist and student of the Great Trinity Forest flora, has joined us. Wilson says that for most Dallasites - not the dumpers, obviously, but everyone else - the relationship with this place is really quite new.
DANA WILSON: I would say that it hasn't happened in the past. I think people are beginning to see that this is - it's a resource. It's not a place where you just dump your tires, you know. It's beautiful and unique.
GOODWYN: Both Sandifer and Wilson are wary of Dallas' future development plans. A horse park was built, and horses are now available to rent and ride through the forest. And a major new golf course is being constructed. It's where the future Byron Nelson PGA events are going to be played on TV. The course contractors already bungled the part of the contract that specified the natural habitat was to be strictly protected. They dug up an untouched meadow because they wanted the rich dirt underneath, and then managed to damage and partially drain a natural pond. The city apologized and has tried to restore the damage, promising it won't happen again. But Sandifer's not happy.
SANDIFER: If the contractors down here would do it in a way that is by the rules, then I would be all for it. But until they can get their act together, then I'd have to say no.
GOODWYN: As so often happens, the impetus for change was a calamity. The illegal dumping at one spot along the river was so bad it burst into flame. The resulting fire embarrassed and disgusted the entire city. Today, that dump could not be more different.
LISA DOLLIVER: OK, we're going to go do some collecting. We've got insect books, and we also have insect-collecting material.
GOODWYN: Trinity River Audubon education director Lisa Dolliver takes her class of 11 to 14-year-olds out into the Texas morning to hunt for insects.
DOLLIVER: Take your nature journal with you because if you find an interesting insect, you can draw it.
GOODWYN: Despite the catcalls and howls of laughter from cynics, the city of Dallas reclaimed that nasty, burning dump, returning it to the natural jewel it once was. It includes 120 pristine acres and a Texas headquarters for the Audubon Society.
T. HANSON: We have a gorgeous, modern architected Antoine Predock, 21,000-square foot LEED gold building that is really flagship for Audubon Texas.
GOODWYN: T. Hanson is the director of operations at the Trinity River Audubon Center. With 20,000 schoolchildren and 60,000 visitors each year, the center has become the city's most important gateway to the forest. Twelve-year-old Deja Allen from the Boys and Girls Club is coming to a day camp here.
DEJA ALLEN: We've been canoeing, kayaking, fishing, bird-watching. And today, we're just looking for insects.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: I got a spider.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: You got a spider?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Wow.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Look at it.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: That's really cute.
GOODWYN: Eleven-year-old Jack Mahoney wisely decided to get out of the house.
JACK MAHONEY: Well, the summer has been kind of slow for me. I've just been sitting at home all day. And I came here for a birthday. And I decided to come again.
GOODWYN: And so how's it been?
JACK: Oh, it's been great.
GOODWYN: Jack likes being outside all morning, the fishing hiking, birding, insecting. I just made that word up. And going to the Dallas Zoo beats being bored at home. But it's not all good. There's the bad and the ugly, too. Eleven-year-old Dylan Malone says she was dismayed at the condition of the riverbank while they were kayaking.
What did you all see out there when you were on the river?
DYLAN MALONE: Fish and trash mostly because there's a lot of pollution out there from people.
GOODWYN: And that in a nutshell is the problem facing the city. Like many urban waterways in this country, the Trinity River is a conduit for human waste and trash. What Dylan is describing is the aftermath of a record amount of rainfall in May that filled the riverbank and the forest around it with tons of plastic and refuse. It raises the question, can a place like this become a successful public space?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: Got it. There we go. I'm pretty sure it's a type of grasshopper. It's like green with a cream-colored stripe down its back.
GOODWYN: Based on its success with the reclamation of the Audubon site, the city of Dallas is betting it can, trash-cleaning volunteers most welcome. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.