Eileen Fritz McKee, daughter of Ned and Genie Fritz, savors the aroma of Texas buckeye blooms. Photo of Eileen McKee by Jennifer Weisensel from Wild DFW.
March 24, 2023
Hundreds visit the Bonton Woods every early spring, hoping to see the Great Trinity Forest's Texas buckeyes — radiant with conical clusters of fragrant yellow-ivory blooms.
In the 1980s, I trekked along with about 20 others, trying to keep up with the exuberant environmentalist Ned Fritz as we bushwhacked to the grove he discovered on the edge of the Trinity River. My right hiking boot is still there somewhere, mired in muck.
Today, North Texas Master Naturalists are carrying on the tradition. Volunteers will be leading walks on the Ned and Genie Fritz Texas Buckeye Trail starting this weekend. Co-leaders include special guests, including Fritz family members. For details on the walk leaders and tips on the often muddy hikes, visit the Ned Fritz Legacy site. The walks kick off Saturday, March 25 and run through April 9. Space is limited. The blooming season is wrapping up early, so later hikes may be moved forward.
Fritz found Texas buckeyes (Aesculus glabra var. arguta), a sub-species of the more famous Ohio buckeye (Aesculus glabra), in the early 1970s. He discovered the native grove while exploring natural areas the proposed Trinity barge canal was set to destroy. The plan called for straightening and channelizing the Trinity into a concrete channel from Fort Worth to the Gulf. Much of the Great Trinity Forest at White Rock Creek would have been leveled and dug out for a barge turning basin. While fighting the canal, the name Great Trinity Forest arose among activists.
Genie Fritz holds a Texas buckeye walk sign in the 1980s. Courtesy of David Gray.
Texas Parks and Wildlife termed the plan "ecological devastation." While the idea for the Trinity barge canal seems ludicrous today, the plan had tremendous political and business support. The federal government had poured millions into the project, estimated to cost $1.2 billion, with another $565 million for adjunct facilities like docks and ports. In 1970s dollars — an estimated $12 billion today! Fritz formed Citizen's Organization for a Sound Trinity, or COST, to fight the plan. The 50th anniversary of its defeat is March 13 this year. (Details in a future feature.)
Soon after the discovery, Fritz brought his wife, Genie, and family to share his excitement over the blooming buckeyes.
"There was no trail and it was always muddy. You had to jump over ravines. An adventure hike," says daughter Eileen McKee. "He wanted to share what he'd found and people follow that passion."
CREATING A LEGACY TRAIL
Once the canal defeat was final, Fritz began leading hikes to the buckeye grove each spring. The guided walks captured Dallasites' imagination, making newspaper headlines and sparking television coverage. A guided entry into the Great Trinity Forest enthralled people. Fritz was the first to champion the forest, even lobbying Texas Parks and Wildlife to turn much of it into a state park.
Once the canal defeat was final, Fritz began leading hikes to the buckeye grove each spring. The guided walks captured Dallasites' imagination, making newspaper headlines and sparking television coverage.
Over time, naturalists made a system of dirt trails to the site. As Ned aged, Jim Flood took over leading the walks for a while, for which Ned's widow, Genie, remains ever grateful. Then more individuals carried on. Eventually, the City of Dallas paved one segment. Oddly, users must scale a levee on a dirt path to reach it and it doesn't lead to the buckeyes. Several years ago, being built on a soft riverbank, its overlook fell into the river — a barricade now blocks the trail's end.
A soft-surface section of the Ned and Genie Fritz Texas Buckeye Trail. Photo by Daniel Koglin from Wild DFW.
In 2019, a group of activists did the great deed of convincing the Dallas City Council to officially name the trail system the Ned and Genie Fritz Texas Buckeye Trail. Quite the irony for a man who continually fought the city from the 1960s to the 90s regarding creek channelization, tree destruction, air pollution, park policies, and more, through his group Save Open Space.
In 2019, a group of activists did the great deed of convincing the Dallas City Council to officially name the trail system the Ned and Genie Fritz Texas Buckeye Trail.
But the soft-surface sections of the buckeye trails were allowed to become overgrown. Even worse, Chinese privet (Ligustrum sinense) took over areas near the river. People coming to see the much-ballyhooed buckeyes could barely spy the blooms. After two years of soft-surface trail restoration, organized by Kristi Kerr Leonard in cooperation with Dallas Parks and Recreation, the grove looks better than it has in years. (Details in a future feature.)
An understory tree with a broad spreading crown, compared to its Ohio relative, the Texas buckeye is more compact and has greater heat tolerance, though it often sheds leaves in summer. But it's a fairly delicate tree with slender trunk and branches. Above the buckeyes tower bur oaks, massive at their bases, growing rapturously in the rich alluvial soil. They feel like guardians of the small trees. Close to the river, the buckeyes swell in number and height.
GET ON THE TRAIL
Leonard has arranged weekend walks through the Texas buckeyes on Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons in March and April, sponsored by Ned Fritz Legacy in cooperation with North Texas Master Naturalists. Leaders include experts in foraging, native plants, birds, reptiles and ecology. Space is limited. See the schedule and reserve a remaining spot. For more information on the leaders, visit the Ned Fritz Legacy buckeye blog post.
Map of the Ned and Genie Fritz Texas Buckeye Trail by Scooter Smith from Wild DFW.
Or take an amble on your own. Look for the picnic shelter at the Bexar circle. Cross the small bridge, scale the levee and the trailhead will be visible below. Look for two concrete semi-circles with boulders along the paved trail. The soft-surface trails emerge from them. Trail signage is weathered, but news ones underwritten by Trinity Coalition are in the works. Use Google maps or a trail GPS like AllTrails or Gaia to track your location. Being in the lowlands, the trail is very muddy after rains. Mosquitos can be fierce in warm weather.
Weekdays are preferable to reduce overcrowding. Please keep adults and children on the trail to avoid harming the buckeyes and other sensitive vegetation. Dogs on short leashes only and must remain on the trail. After your walk, treat yourself to a leisurely farm-fresh meal at the Market Cafe at Bonton Farms. Closed after 3 pm and on Sundays.
A bur oak in autumn towers over the younger trees. Photo by Daniel Koglin from Wild DFW.
This is biographical website is a labor of love being created by this writer and Leonard. Learn about the canal, buckeye grove, and all the Fritzes' astounding environmental and humanitarian achievements. For a quick overview, peruse Ned in a Nutshell. Your donations to preserve this legacy are deeply needed and gratefully received.
Above the buckeyes tower bur oaks, massive at their bases, growing rapturously in the rich alluvial soil. They feel like guardians of the small trees.
• Other Texas Buckeye Walks
Check these sites for listings.
• North Texas Master Naturalists calendar
• Volunteer Opportunities
Join the Ned and Genie Fritz Texas Buckeye Trail restoration team on the second Saturday of the month (except in the heat of summer).
Link to location on Google Maps.
7000 Bexar St, Dallas, TX 75215
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