Master furniture maker Alton Bowman led efforts to create the city's tree board as development threatened Flower Mound's tree canopy.
Jan. 5, 2016
Master furniture maker and conservator Alton Bowman knows the special qualities, colors and origins of an amazing array of woods.
He uses rosewood, ebony, teak, tulip wood, mahogany and many more to reproduce fine French antiques from the 17th and 18th centuries, inlaying desks, chairs and tables with the intricate marquetry that characterized the decorative furniture arts of the Renaissance.
Some of these restorations, Bowman explains, are a virtual map of the Age of Exploration, featuring woods and precious finds brought to Europe from the New World, Africa, India and Asia. Much as any art speaks to its era, this furniture commemorates a rich lifestyle (indeed, one that took a revolution to abolish). Some of the more exotic woods have even gone extinct, available now only from repositories in France, where most of the artisans keeping this craft alive reside. Bowman calls on them when assisting museums and collectors with restoration projects or building his own award-winning creations.
Alton Bowman polishes wood in his workshop.
TREES THAT ARE OLDER THAN THE CONSTITUTION
Curating the past, Bowman cultivated a deep respect for the trees that supply his art. So it’s little wonder that when development threatened an historic post oak down the road from his home in Flower Mound, Texas, Bowman decided to champion the cause.
It was the mid-1980s, and Flower Mound, a sleepy, sparsely populated town 25 miles northwest of Dallas was headed for big changes. Its vast tracts of prairie were primed for development. But Flower Mound also straddled the unique, cherished Cross Timbers, a patchwork of old forests that cuts across the southern US grasslands, ranging down from Oklahoma into North Texas.
The Cross Timbers’ native, craggy trees, mainly white oaks and elms, have sheltered wildlife for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years and provided shade from the open, rolling prairie. Its thickets dared intruders to invade and deeply impressed early observers, among them the author Washington Irving, who visited in the 1830s.
“I shall not easily forget the mortal toil and vexations of the flesh and spirit that we underwent occasionally, in our wanderings through the Cross Timber,” he’s quoted as saying. “It was like struggling through forests of cast iron.”
A color illustration from Harper’s Weekly, circa 1874, shows a deer hunt in the Cross Timbers in Texas. Source: “A Deer Drive in the Texas ‘Cross-Timber”. The Portal to Texas History.
The giant post oak that Bowman tried to save on Shiloh Road could have been made of cast iron, so dense and hard was its wood. When it was felled – because the needed road-widening won out over the lamentations of residents – Bowman measured its rings and found it was more than 250 years old. Even he was surprised at the tree’s age. That lone tree, a lone wolf from the Cross Timbers, had been growing since before the founding of the United States. Indeed, it dated to about 50 years before.
Bowman decided the town needed more protection for its trees, both the unique large specimen trees and the forests that spanned the region. For seven years, he and several other town leaders, including Flower Mound’s first mayor Bob Rheudasil, another advocate for urban forestry, pushed to form a tree board. Finally, the city council agreed in 1993 when it realized that having a tree board would qualify it to become a “Tree City USA,” a selling point for the new suburbanites and businesses moving in, Bowman recalled.
THE IRONY: SELLING YOUR TOWN AS A “TREED COMMUNITY” ENTAILS LOSING TREES
Arbor Day Foundation awards the Tree City USA designation to US towns and cities that establish both a tree board and a tree law to oversee the town’s arboreal canopy. The idea is that towns with active tree management will not let trees be needlessly destroyed and will replant to keep their shady lanes robust. Today, some 3,400 US communities have earned the designation.
The concept works, Bowman says, recalling that Flower Mound leaders liked the cachet of the designation. Today, the growing suburb boasts about its unique post oaks on its town logo.
Flower Mound’s tree ordinance laid out clear goals, which included a target total canopy cover of 35 percent as established by the American Forests conservation group. To achieve that, the town would, per the ordinance, protect healthy trees, provide for trees to be replaced, preserve special, “established” trees, create windbreaks and “reduce the clear-cutting of land” to preserve the “country atmosphere and natural environment of the town” and mitigate the “ill effects of rapid and intense urbanization.”
Bowman and others knew they were embarking on a tough task.
“Basically preservation of trees and the development of a city are at odds,” Bowman says. “But you can compromise with a tree ordinance.”
The ordinance gave the tree board the power to call out when trees were jeopardized, and specifically, to hold developers to a replacement plan based on the diameter inches of the trees lost. The baseline replacement trees could not be meager saplings either, but had to be three inches in diameter. Specimen trees had to be replaced by trees at least six feet tall, and with the aggregate girths of the replacements adding up to double that of the lost trees.
“It worked very well” in the early years, Bowman, now 70, recalled in an interview in his Flower Mound studio.
But about 15 years ago, development in Flower Mound sped up during what would become the extended building boom that preceded the banking crisis.
City leaders, wanting to invite business development viewed the tree ordinance as a potential hindrance to developers and “started taking it apart,” Bowman said. When big developers proposed large projects, the town would award them a SPA (Special Plan Areas) designation. These came with a package of perks, including exemption from tree replacement requirements.
The exemptions flew under the radar of the most of the public, because residential developers were still held to the tree requirements.
But commercial development carved away steadily at the forests remaining in Flower Mound. By 2015, the town’s tree canopy had lost, by Bowman’s calculations, about 7,000 trees that would have been planted as replacements, had the exemptions not been granted.
Photographs showed Flower Mound’s canopy had fallen far below its goal, to about 25 percent. By contrast, Bowman says photographs from 1970 show canopy coverage stood at 38 percent. True replacement of trees could maintain that percentage, he said.
Bowman says he knew that the fight for trees would involve many losses. The town was going to develop and the tree board couldn’t expect to win every fight. He was heartened, however, by some major victories. In one neighborhood, a champion tree called the Staton Oak was saved. In a couple others, builders worked with conservation groups to create “conservation developments” of residences surrounded by small urban forests. (Disclosure: I live in one of those.)
Another victory involved saving a mighty post oak that’s probably 300 years old from being razed for a child care center. The builders were worried the acorns would be a choking hazard and appealed to the board for permission to axe the tree. But the board felt this concern was misplaced and that destroying the champion tree would be a terrible loss for the town. The council backed them up.
A post oak saved from the bulldozer in Flower Mound. This one is among the oldest trees in town. Photo courtesy of Barbara Kessler.
But it took several years of rapid development, and the election of three new council members, before the town council stepped in to restore full protection for trees. Following the opening of two large multi-use developments featuring high density housing and offices and several smaller developments – including some that were clear cut, residents began to complain that Flower Mound was starting to look excessively chain-sawed.
In the spring of 2015, many of those residents backed candidates who promised to push back against the development, ease density and conserve trees. The new slate was elected and the town council was persuaded to overturn the SPA exemptions, making the big developers once again accountable for tree-clearing plans.
Developers of SPA areas had been exempted from tree mitigation for several years. But mitigation was restored in 2015. Photo courtesy of Barbara Kessler.
“From the tree board’s perspective, this levels the playing field,” said Jimmy Hoefert, an environmental review analyst with the town. Now the SPA business developers have to mitigate tree losses; have to have a plan to offset the damage they cause.
Alton Bowman says the town must now focus on restoring the canopy to make up for lost time and remain vigilant when developments are proposed, especially high density projects that can create special problems.
In addition to claiming trees, high density developments strip the land of space for mitigation plantings, though developers can contribute to a tree fund in lieu of planting trees themselves, giving $375 for each tree lost.
Because it confines the human footprint to a smaller space and creates walkable areas, high density development is often viewed as eco-friendly, creating yet another dilemma — because developers can also hide behind this label and simply use density to pack in more lots and tenants, without providing the surrounding green space and walkable amenities that would make a development truly eco-friendly. Done the wrong way, high density developments can strand inhabitants and businesses in islands no better than strip mall development or produce over-developed areas, which was a major concern of residents pushing for better tree protection.
Density aside, replacing trees can be counted on to help the environment, and Bowman says he hopes that Flower Mound has learned its lesson and can return to being a leader in preservation. Leaders are needed, he notes, because cities all over the nation are facing this same issue.
“Trees really do basic things,” he says. “They provide oxygen. They clean the air from all these new cars coming in. They’re the scrubbers of the air. They purify it and they eat carbon dioxide. To increase density and cut trees, that’s not very smart.”