Many express outrage over Oncor’s clear-cutting of White Rock nature area

Cristopher Centers

The damage is clear cut. “They destroyed an ecological jewel,” said Kelly Cotten, a nearby resident of the area and longtime White Rock environmental activist, after Oncor contractors last month bulldozed and clear cut a wide swath of land that runs through a beloved, historic wildlife area close to […]

The damage is clear cut.

“They destroyed an ecological jewel,” said Kelly Cotten, a nearby resident of the area and longtime White Rock environmental activist, after Oncor contractors last month bulldozed and clear cut a wide swath of land that runs through a beloved, historic wildlife area close to lake.

City officials, environmentalists and many East Dallas residents were united in anger and bitterness over the unforeseen actions the energy company.

The Dallas Park and Recreation Board called on Oncor to temporarily suspend its tree- and brush-clearing activities along its right of way after the energy company cut down to the ground at least three acres of trees and brush that made up part of the Old Fish Hatchery Nature Area in the southwest corner of White Rock Lake.

City officials have been meeting with Oncor this week to get to the bottom of what happened and why they were not given a chance to review Oncor’s plans for the maintenance ahead of time.

“We were not notified before any of this work was done,” said Park Board president Calvert Collins-Bratton.

“It’s not our land — it’s Oncor’s easement, I get that. But any time you’re dealing with real protected habitat, we should always be consulted,” Collins-Bratton said.

District 9 Councilwoman Paula Blackmon was scheduled to meet Thursday afternoon with Oncor officials.

“It looks like an atomic bomb went off,” Blackmon told The News.

All parties must figure out “how this happened, what can we do moving forward and how do we prevent it from happening again in 20 years,” Blackmon said.

“These discussions need to happen,” she said.

An Oncor spokeswoman said the work performed by its contractors at the hatchery site last month is part of its vegetation management operations and that it was “planned with the utmost care and consideration for any potential environmental impacts.

“Oncor works hard to balance the need for vegetation management with the need to preserve the many natural resources across our service territory,” said Kerri Dunn of Oncor communications.

Oncor will be “working closely’ with city officials “to develop an area of safe, sustainable vegetation under the transmission lines and look forward to sharing those plans once they are completed,” Dunn said.

The Old Fish Hatchery Nature area is located on about 50 acres in the southwest corner of White Rock Lake. The heavily wooded area includes oak, elm, pecan and cottonwood trees, forming a natural habitat for a variety of animals and birds, including racoons, mink, coyotes, beavers, possum, foxes, river otter and a variety of birds, from warblers to woodpeckers.

It’s a unique wildlife ecosystem conveniently located in the middle of the city that feels more like a wilderness area, said Ben Sandifer, an accountant and well-known Dallas environmental watchdog.

“The worst thing that happened out of all this is just the complete moonscaping of that area. It was mulched down to the ground,” Sandifer said.

The path that Oncor cleared out under the transmission lines is about 80 feet wide and runs close to a mile right through the nature preserve, Sandifer said.

“The area that was cleared out was a forested wetland area,”, a perfect habitat for wetland wildlife, Sandifer said.

The side that has been cleared down to the ground will “negatively impact” the untouched side, he said.

“Nature will heal itself but it might be a decade before that happens. The timeframe for bringing back some of the species is very long into the future,” Sandifer said.

“That’s the negative impact of what Oncor has done to clear out an area in the shortest amount of time,” he said.

According to Oncor’s Dunn, the right-of-way under the transmission lines had become inaccessible to workers.

The area “had become overgrown with rapid-growing, dense, incompatible vegetation, many of which had the potential to reach heights that could interfere with electric equipment, and an inaccessible mat of already downed trees,” Dunn said.

‘This created a potential fire hazard,” she said.

The Old Fish Hatchery Nature Area annually draws thousands of avid birders, hikers and naturalists, and it is a natural classroom area for Dallas-area students studying environmental science and biology, Cotten said.

A beaver dam where he had taken DISD students on field trips many times over the years, was “completely wiped out,” he said. “Generations of beavers had used that dam,” he said.

Adding to the bitterness over Oncor actions is the fact that the energy company’s predecessor, TXU, had signed an agreement 20 years ago to protect the nature area when doing maintenance and avoid this exact type of damage, said Cotten, a retired environmental consultant who helped put together the non-binding letter of intent in 2000 with TXU to protect the nature area.

“They agreed to make permanent changes,” Cotten said. But it wasn’t a binding agreement, he said. “It was a letter of intent.”

One thing that Oncor did right was to do the maintenance in the fall, Sandifer said. There wasn’t anything nesting there as would be the case in the spring. And the area is not as wet as it is in the spring making it easier to do the maintenance, he said.

But the work should have been done in a way that did less harm to the nature preserve.

“They could have easily removed the nuisance vegetation and fast-growing trees — your cottonwoods, willows and invasive, non-native plants,” Sandifer said.

“And they could leave in place the stuff that doesn’t grow up any higher than your knees,” he said.

That approach would have still allowed vehicles that Oncor uses for maintenance to get down into these areas easily, Sandifer said.

The fish hatcheries were established in the 1930s and consisted of several 1-acre ponds where fingerlings were raised to stock area lakes for sport fishing. After the major drought of the 1950s and the building of other Dallas-area reservoirs, the hatcheries went fallow and became the wetland habitat that they are today, Sandifer said.

“The area went wild and ended up becoming one of the best-known places to see wildlife, not only in Dallas, but really in North Texas,” he said.

“Right in the heart of Dallas, inside Loop 12, is a great incubator for a number of species of wildlife.”

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