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By Sean Pendergast
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The park is a migratory Motel 6. Birds stop and rest and eat in the woods when flying south for the winter, says Joy Hester, president of the Audubon Society. "It's Grand Central Station," she says. "They rely on those wooded areas."
Packs of javelinas have been seen on the trails. Squirrels, rabbits and raccoons fill the woods, providing a smorgasbord for the forest's fairly reclusive bobcats and coyotes, the latter of which have been spotted on the golf course at sunset. A bobcat was recently run over.
Memorial Park doesn't have any rules, says Glenda Barrett, executive director of The Park People. Because no one planned where off-road biking trails should go, trails just appeared. Because they weren't well planned, and didn't follow the International Mountain Biking Association's guidelines, the trails caused massive erosion into the bayou. Some people want to erect poetry-inscribed tombstones honoring lost loved ones. Without a master plan, there is nothing in writing forbidding it. Caudill doesn't have a good reason to say no, other than she thinks big plaques decorated with fake flowers give the park a depressing cemetery feeling.
To determine what can and cannot happen in the park, the parks board and the conservancy needed a constitution.
The master plan is a blueprint, to guide the park's future. It says more trails are needed, and suggests general areas where trails could be. But it doesn't map out exactly where the trails will go, or what they will be made of.
"You can't have anything that big and have every tack nailed down," Hobby says. "It would be useless if it was so specific that you could quibble about what trail turned left and what trail turned right."
Caudill says the plan is conceptual, not concrete. The city didn't want the plan to be too detailed, or force the city to make promises it can't keep. "It's not strapping any of us to anything we can't get out of," Okan-Vick says. Plus, creating a detailed plan would cost more money and probably would never pass City Council because there would be too many details to fight over.
The plan offers simple suggestions, such as new, uniform park signs. Another relatively easy-to-implement recommendation is removing dump trucks from the middle of the park. Parker says that's a slap-your-forehead why-didn't-we-think-of-that-before suggestion. Beside the greenhouse, the city stores maintenance equipment for the entire northeast quadrant of Houston, which could be kept on any city-owned industrial land. "It's a terrible waste of parkland," Caudill says.
A recent survey of Houston parkgoers showed people want more trails and picnic areas, Caudill says. So the plan suggests creating a comprehensive trail system connecting the entire park. Grant money will help pay for the trails and volunteers will design and build them. A trail committee has begun meeting to determine whether the park should have soft trails, hard trails, dirt trails or crushed granite. Caudill told the committee she was going to lock them in a room and let them fight it out. "Maybe this is too much democracy," she says.
After trails, the plan suggests creating more picnic areas, which is the root of the current controversy. The picnic loop is filled with plenty of tables that aren't used because most people don't want to eat on moldy, sloping concrete slabs that are sinking into the ground. "The tables are beginning to look like falling tombstones," says Candyce Rylander, executive director of the parks board. Benches are missing. Tables are overturned. Grills are falling apart.
The clustered pine trees in the picnic area prevent people from tossing Frisbees or flying kites. The master planners' solution to the lack of space in which to play pickup softball is to remove existing softball fields.
If the city builds a sports complex elsewhere, the current fields could become a "picnic meadow," with rented picnic pavilions and possibly a pond.
Mountain bikers emerge from the trees covered in blood and dirt. Jeff Nielsen, president of the Greater Houston Off-Roads Biking Association, has broken his nose, two ribs and separated his collarbone. It's part of the sport, he says. The only woods Houston bikers have to ride in are located in Memorial Park. Otherwise, bikers have to schlepp to parks in Huntsville or Galveston.
Technically, mountain bikers were never officially allowed in the park. In the 1980s, bikers used old cross-country running trails and created new ones. Because they didn't map or plan the trails, some swept too close to the bayou or down steep hills that later caused erosion. The biking association formed to fight for the right to bike in Memorial Park. Nielsen says city officials repeatedly told him that the park is not the proper place for his sport. They're calledmountain bikers, and the park doesn't have mountains. "It's not like I tried to snowboard down the street," Nielsen says.
Once bikers rode close to 15 miles of trail, Nielsen says. Now bikers are allowed on only about six miles.
The master plan would triple the bikers' pathways. "If you believe their maps," Nielsen says.
Jorge Figueroa went to the park every evening during May and June, alerting ball players that their fields may vanish. "They're gonna throw us out," Figueroa told them.