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Will Denton's Greenbelt remain open? The answer lies in its past, future.
  • 6 min to read

Denton’s easy access to the Greenbelt off U.S. Highway 380 is back after years of closure, and a local partnership is working on a long-term solution to keep it that way more often.

Extended floods have killed trees and kept locals out of what is meant to be a natural treasure for Denton County. Despite the partnership, there was no solution in sight Friday.

The Greenbelt took decades to plan and build, but its most convenient Denton access point spent most of the past decade closed to the public.

Its roughly 11 miles of trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding, along with kayaking access, are part of Ray Roberts Lake State Park.

How did we get here?

The Greenbelt was originally built with an understanding that paths would occasionally be underwater, according to Denton Record-Chronicle reporting from 1998.

Despite that, it wasn’t until the area was nearly complete that people began to realize the full extent of the issue.

The Record-Chronicle, speaking to the project manager for the company hired by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to build the Greenbelt at the time, reported annual maintenance and operation could cost “several hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Denton and Dallas were considering altering their lease agreement with TPWD at that point after becoming displeased with the agreements’ terms. Twenty-three years later, the state parks department still handles daily operations and takes in revenue generated from admission fees.

The Army Corps of Engineers drew up the first Greenbelt plans in 1972 at the request of Dallas and Denton, but it was another 10 years before the issue of flooding began to regularly surface at Denton City Council meetings.

The final public hearing on the Greenbelt proposal wasn’t until 1992. The City Council approved a $1.6 million cost to help with construction two years later.

Stops and starts among various levels of government dragged out progress for years, and public access was repeatedly pushed back from the original projected November 1997 opening.

Federal budget changes, contractor issues and municipal displeasure with lease agreements continued at pace.

Access finally opened on June 5, 1999, but impatient nature lovers had been using the trail for several weeks at that point, according to Record-Chronicle reporting at the time.

Its opening was the delivery of a promise that some recreational land would be created to compensate for land inundated when Lewisville Lake’s water level was raised decades ago, and some advocates see lack of access to the land as a poor execution of that promise, at the least.

Sixteen years passed before 2015 brought the most rain in recorded history.

In 2015, coming off a prolonged drought, North Texas found itself with the heaviest annual rainfall recorded for more than a century. The National Weather Service, which tracks Denton rainfall back to 1913, recorded 65.07 inches of rain in Denton during 2015 — more than ever recorded here by the NWS.

“We had a lot of trees that went from drought to inundated for a long period of time,” said Katherine Barnett, sustainability manager with the city of Denton. “And I’m thinking that’s what helped create all that deadfall that we saw coming into the river and into Clear Creek.”

Floods that preceded the flood

The Greenbelt in its present state wouldn’t exist without more than a century’s worth of work and large sections of Denton County flooded to create two lakes along the Elm Fork of the Trinity River.

Lewisville Lake itself covers swaths of land inundated in order to provide more water to the growing Dallas-Fort Worth area. It joined nearby Lake Dallas — the lake, not the city — in 1955.

The elder lake, which was a major source of water for Dallas residents, was built in the 1920s.

The dam separating the two bodies was breached to combine them, and the name “Lewisville Lake” was later adopted.

Ray Roberts Lake, in comparison, is much younger. Construction on the dam that birthed it didn’t begin until 1982, and “deliberate impoundment of water” began five years later, according to the Texas Water Development Board.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which owns the Greenbelt; the city of Denton, which leases the Greenbelt to Texas Parks and Wildlife; Texas Parks and Wildlife, which handles day-to-day operations at the Greenbelt; and the Greenbelt Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for the land, were still in the early stages of a long-term solution Friday morning.

Barnett has worked for the city for nearly 28 years and has worked with the Greenbelt since it opened more than 22 years ago.

She said Denton intends to ask the Army engineers to complete a more in-depth study into the causes of the flooding around the Denton section of the Greenbelt.

Robbie Merritt, parks superintendent at Ray Roberts Lake State Park, said logjams, silt and increased rainfall over the past few years have surely contributed to reduced access to the Greenbelt.

“We have seen some significant changes, it seems, in the amount of rainfall that we’ve been seeing and flash flooding events … the in the last 10 years,” he said.

He said more trees along a waterway also naturally increase the chances of those trees ending up in the water and creating a logjam.

“In this case, I think we have a larger problem in the Greenbelt river system, which is that Lake Lewisville is silting in,” he said.

Richard Rogers, board chairman of the Greenbelt Alliance, sees the buildup of silt added to existing logjams as a primary contributor to the difficult problem the waterway finds itself in.

“It is in the floodplain, and it does flood regularly, but floodplains by definition flood, and then they drain,” he said. “What’s happened is this logjam has created just a large dam, and it’s filled in with sediment.”

His family has owned land along the Greenbelt since 1958. He and his wife took over the land from his uncle 23 years ago.

He remembers a time when the area was heavily treed and not flooded as frequently before the logjams grew in intensity roughly six years ago.

He has since flown above the area and seen what extended flooding has done to the area. He describes seeing hundreds, if not thousands, of dead trees that he attributes to the floods.

“I think there has continually been a question about who is responsible for keeping the trails open and holding to the commitment that was made to the public that the recreational area be accessible,” Rogers said.

He said governments purchased land from private owners to build out the area, but no dedicated pot of money was created to pay for maintenance.

Merritt, who oversees day-to-day operations of the Greenbelt, said more funding wouldn’t solve the problem.

Even with unlimited money, he said taking a team of bulldozers down to a remote part of the river wouldn’t be his preferred course of action. That’s why the partnership with the Greenbelt Alliance, the Corps of Engineers and the city of Denton is important to develop a long-term solution.

Denton, as a lessee, is somewhat responsible for the big picture and longevity of the Greenbelt, and Barnett said the city has a seat at the table regarding a long-term solution to the problem the land presents.

What’s the problem?

But what is the problem, exactly? To some extent, the section of the Greenbelt prone to flooding is meant to do exactly that: It’s in the floodplain.

Elyse Zavar, a professor who specializes in emergency management at the University of North Texas, said that essentially means that section of the Greenbelt is a place where water is naturally stored.

She said there’s a tendency in Denton County to build public trails and recreational areas in floodplains.

“That means open space is in the floodplain and not someone’s home,” she said, but it also means “that amenity isn’t available when water is sitting there.”

She said there are several reasons the Greenbelt is perhaps additionally prone to flooding. To start with, it’s located between two dams, and sections of it run along a spillway.

Denton and Denton County also regularly rank high on lists of the fastest-growing areas in the county. While it might not be intuitive, development of natural spaces can increase flooding in other locations in ways that can be complicated to predict.

“We do know as we lose the ability to absorb ground water … that’s going to have impacts downstream and in other locations,” Zavar said.

Development doesn’t even need to be adjacent to the Greenbelt for that to take place. Conversion of soil to concrete, slabs, asphalt and other building materials elsewhere in the area can create changes elsewhere.

Outcomes might be more varied and extreme, but little of what is happening in the Greenbelt isn’t naturally occurring. Floodplains flood and logjams can occur without human intervention.

One particularly large jam known as the “Great Raft” spread for hundreds of miles and birthed numerous lakes, Caddo Lake in East Texas being among them.

Barnett, Denton’s sustainability manager, said Friday she couldn’t speak to whether the Greenbelt’s logjam is harming anything other than human enjoyment.

None of the people interviewed for this article could speak to how common logjams of the variety seen in Denton County are in the country, though it’s clear they are far from unheard of.

Barnett said discussions about the balance between allowing a habitat to behave naturally and maintaining it for human enjoyment are constant. She said such discussions relating to the Greenbelt are at “a very low level” with the Army engineers.

“Well, that’s habitat, that’s a naturally occurring process, it’s also a recreation resource,” she said people say in such talks.

“There’s always a balance there,” she said.

While the natural cycle is somewhat to blame for the Greenbelt’s troubles, Zavar was clear the natural cycle itself is changing.

Rain is coming in larger amounts over fewer instances year after year. That means we could get the same average rainfall each year but have large amounts over short periods of time, short enough that natural and manmade infrastructures have trouble handling them.

That then could be followed by long stretches without as much precipitation.

Zavar said it would be naive to look at this situation without acknowledging the influence of climate change.

“The reality is we’re seeing changes in precipitation — we’re seeing changes in what we’d expect,” she said. “What we know about the warming atmosphere is it kind of supercharges the hydrologic cycle.”

Weekend gift fair offers non-profits holiday boost, shoppers unique goods

The Alternative Gifts Fair at First United Methodist Church of Denton is making its in-person return this weekend, giving a holiday boost to nonprofits and offering community members a unique shopping opportunity.

The fair is a way for nonprofits of all kinds to increase their visibility ahead of the holiday season. It started out small over 30 years ago, but has ballooned to the three-day event it is now, this year with nearly 30 vendors set up at the church.

Karen Anderson-Lain, chair of the fair committee, said the fair was no exception to the pandemic’s impact on local events. While it typically raises in the ballpark of $80,000, last year’s fair was forced online, with the virtual version raising about a third of that total. She said she’s hoping this year’s, which kicked off Friday and runs through Sunday, can attract hundreds of shoppers and reach over $60,000.

“We know it’s going to be a restart where we have to revitalize awareness of the event,” Anderson-Lain said. “The organizations really need the help right now.”

The several nonprofits represented this weekend include local options like the Denton Quilt Guild and Our Daily Bread, in addition to several from across the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The committee also selects one organization each year to be the recipient of funds from its community artisan and silent auction section, choosing the Denton Community Food Center this time around.

Anderson-Lain said the committee chooses the vendors through applications, although it also reaches out directly in some cases. Goods up for purchase over the weekend include anything from baked goods to custom-made jewelry and baskets.

Brodie Bruner, a board member for Dallas-based Paper for Water, said the water access nonprofit does best at hands-on events like the gifts fair, where it can show its origami ornaments up close.

“It’s visibility for the cause and what we’re doing about it,” Bruner said. “When people can actually touch the ornament and hold it in their hand, they’re much more likely to purchase something.”

For church members and the community, the fair lives up to its name, providing some unique handmade products. Shopper Analisa Warren, a Lubbock resident in town to visit her churchgoing family, said she’s been to the fair once before and finds it a good opportunity to give back — and do some holiday shopping.

“It’s a different way to give back than just getting a letter in the mail asking for money,” Warren said. “You get to hear their stories and it’s unique stuff. They have something for everyone.”

The biggest returns will go to the Denton Community Food Center, as the fair’s community section typically brings in around $10,000 for the chosen organization. Food center volunteer Liz Holland said a lot of the money will go toward holiday meals, with Thanksgiving and Christmas on the horizon.

“Especially at this time of the year, all this extra money is going to help,” Holland said. “And with so many people out of work right now, it really makes a difference.”

The fair continues through Sunday, starting at 9 a.m. and wrapping up at 1 p.m.

Eight dead, including 14- and 16-year-olds, after crowd surge at Travis Scott's Astroworld Festival

HOUSTON — Officials here vowed Saturday to get to the bottom of how a music festival turned fatal Friday night when a crush of concertgoers surged toward a stage where rapper Travis Scott was performing, leading to at least eight deaths and scores of people injured.

An estimated 50,000 people gathered at the sold-out Astroworld Festival for what was supposed to be a night of fun. As the headliner took the stage, fans began moving in so tightly that some struggled to breathe, sparking chaos and what Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña called a “tragic night.”

“That caused some panic, and it started causing some injuries,” he said. “People began to fall out, become unconscious, and it created additional panic.”

The dead ranged in age from 14 to 27, Mayor Sylvester Turner told reporters Saturday. A 14-year-old, a 16-year-old, two 21-year-olds, two 23-year-olds, a 27-year-old and a male whose age was unknown had died. Twenty-five people were hospitalized, including five juveniles. A 10-year-old child was in critical condition, officials said.

Turner said officials were investigating “how missteps may have occurred” at the concert.

“I’m absolutely devastated by what took place last night,” Scott wrote Saturday on Twitter, vowing to work with police and help the community heal.

The incident marks one of several tragedies to strike at a concert, where packed crowds, loud noise and sudden confusion have fueled mass casualty events. In 1979, 11 people were killed when thousands of fans tried to get into a Cincinnati music venue to see famed British rock band The Who. There have been numerous incidents in the years since, including a 2018 stampede at a nightclub in Italy that left six dead.

The Astroworld Festival kicked off Friday as thousands of Scott’s young fans began to gather at NRG Park to see the musician, whose concerts have a reputation for being rambunctious and sometimes dangerous. Tickets, priced at $349.99 and up, had sold out in less than an hour. Some attendees flew in from out of state.

But the excitement for many fans soured early in the day. Security guards shut down a merchandise stand as an unruly crowd tried to push its way inside. Swarms of people jumped over security barriers and pushed their way into the event.

Hamad Albarrack, a University of Southern California student, said he saw a girl trip and get caught under a gate as people around her kept running.

“I was looking at my friend, and I was like, ‘Oh, no, it’s going to be a bad day,” Albarrack told The Washington Post. “People were chucking water bottles from literally 8 in the morning.”

Neema Djavadzadeh, a 22-year-old Houston native, flew from New York to attend the concert with his sister as a graduation gift. But when he saw videos of people crashing through the festival gates, he said he briefly reconsidered.

Djavadzadeh and his party ultimately arrived around 3 p.m. to find what he described as lax and disorganized security. Guards at the entrance were not matching IDs to coronavirus vaccination cards to enforce the festival’s COVID-19 protocol, and police and medic tents were sparse, he said.

“A lot of people were comparing it to Woodstock ‘99, with how nobody really cared that a lot of terrible stuff was going on,” Djavadzadeh said.

By 7 p.m., the area where Scott was scheduled to perform was getting full. An hour later, it was packed.

A timer counted down to the musician’s arrival at around 9 p.m., and the crowd grew animated as Scott prepared to take the stage. At some point, fans started to push their way forward.

“As the countdown gets towards like, five minutes, there’s really becoming nowhere to move,” said Alana Stevenson, 20. “By the time the first song starts playing ... immediately the pushes begin, which is a given, especially for a Travis Scott concert.”

Stevenson said her friend was getting crushed, and she saw a young girl, “legitimately passed out,” being passed through the crowd. Panicked, people began to scream and try unsuccessfully to push each other out of the way. Most of the crowd, standing further away, remained oblivious to the chaos.

“We were literally partying in a graveyard,” Stevenson said. “There was dead bodies, and people kept going.”

Some fans intentionally got in the way of first responders as they tried to extricate people, jumping on their vehicles and recording themselves dancing, another witness said.

In a short video shared with The Post, people in the crowd yell for help as Scott calls out, “How we feeling right now?”

“I started freaking out,” said concertgoer Jake Scampini. “I thought I was going to pass out. I had to breathe out of my nose because I had an arm around my throat and my mouth.”

Houston Police Executive Assistant Chief Larry Satterwhite, who was near the front of the crowd, told reporters Friday that “it happened all at once.”

“Suddenly, we had several people down on the ground, experiencing some type of cardiac arrest or some type of medical episode,” he said.

Madeline Eskins, 23, said a security guard asked for her help when he learned that she was an intensive care unit nurse. She said she saw three people receiving CPR as a paramedic placed defibrillator paddles on another woman’s chest. Some people’s eyes rolled back in their heads. Others had no detectable pulse.

Eskins said there were insufficient medical supplies — tools that should be stocked to address cardiac arrest and provide basic life support — and that people wearing shirts identifying them as medics did not know all the ways to check for a pulse. But she said the root of the problem was what she described as overcrowding and underprepared first responders.

“This was hell,” Eskins said. “I’m surprised it was only eight people dead.”

On Saturday, Peña said that medical staffers had the necessary equipment but that he could not guarantee that each individual medic had every tool.

Joey Guerra, a music critic for the Houston Chronicle who was covering the festival, said Scott paused the show a few times. The Associated Press reported the musician could be seen in a social media video stopping his performance to ask for help for a person in the audience: “Security, somebody help real quick.”

“I think he noticed people that were in distress or needed help, and he would stop the show and tell security, ‘Hey, come help this person, get them out of here,’” Guerra said.

Scott was scheduled to perform for 75 minutes, and he did despite the stops, Guerra said. It is not known if he was supposed to perform an encore, but Guerra said he felt like the show came to an “abrupt” end. Near the end, Scott brought fellow rapper Drake onstage, and Guerra said this “amped up the energy like crazy.”

“Anybody who’s been to a Travis Scott show knows that ... the energy exchange between him and the crowd is really, it’s really electric. It’s really amped up, it’s very passionate and fervent,” Guerra said. “There’s moshing, he encourages people to — he calls his fans ‘ragers’ — so that kind of aggressive, high-pitched energy is, I think, a signature of his show.”

Turner said about 530 Houston police officers and 755 private security officers hired by Live Nation Entertainment, which organized the concert, were at the event. Houston Police Chief Troy Finner acknowledged that some young people had been “rushing” past security staffers to get in earlier Friday, but he said the incident had been brought “under control” and did not appear related to the later deaths.

Peña said the city’s fire code would have allowed NRG Park to host more than 200,000 people at the festival — four times as many as officials estimated were there.

Finner urged people not to speculate on potential causes of the tragedy but acknowledged rumors that someone had injected fans with drugs. He said a security officer at the event was reaching over to restrain someone when he felt a prick in his neck and went unconscious. First responders revived him with naloxone, a medicine used to treat suspected opioid overdoses, and noticed a small puncture in the officer’s neck.

Several other people were also given naloxone at the festival, officials said.

Asked why authorities had not ended the festival sooner, Finner said trying to do so would have been unsafe.

“You cannot just close when you have 50,000 individuals,” he said. “You have to worry about riots when you have a group that young.”

Although the emergency unfolded Friday night, Peña said more than 300 people had been treated at a field hospital set up near NRG Park throughout the first day of the festival, including during the aftermath of the crowd surge.

A reunification center had been set up at a hotel for people trying to find those who attended the event. Officials said two emergency hotlines had been established and were quickly overwhelmed with calls.

Abbie Kamin, chair of the city council’s public safety committee, said there had been issues with the festival in the past “but nothing to this scale.”

“There are a lot of questions, and I’m confident we’ll get the answers, but this is personal,” she said. “Astroworld, that venue, that site, has been a source of amusement for Houston families for years. Travis Scott means so much to Houston.”

The annual music festival, named after Scott’s studio album, began in 2018 but was halted during the coronavirus pandemic last year. Texas-born Scott, 29, unveiled the lineup in October with artists including Lil Baby and Drake performing on Friday. Reality TV star Kylie Jenner, who has a child with Scott, also attended, according to her Instagram posts.

The rapper and producer released new music this week and is known for hits such as “Sicko Mode” and “Franchise.” He has been nominated for eight Grammy awards during his career.

Scott, whose legal name is Jacques Webster, has a history of issues with crowd control at his shows. In August 2015, he was charged with disorderly conduct after police said he urged fans to climb over barricades at Chicago’s Lollapalooza festival and led a chant of “We want rage.” Security stopped Scott five minutes into his performance, and Chicago emergency officials said he fled before being taken into custody.

Scott pleaded guilty to reckless conduct charges later that year and was ordered under court supervision.

He faced new charges two years later after allegedly encouraging fans to join him onstage at a show near Fayetteville, Arkansas. A police officer, a security guard and several other people reported injuries in the May 2017 incident. Scott eventually pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct.

Also in 2017, a man fell from a balcony at the Terminal 5 concert venue in New York City after Scott encouraged his fans to jump. At one point, Scott assured someone that people in the mosh pit below would catch them.

”I see you, but are you gonna do it?” Scott said, according to New York news site Gothamist. “They gonna catch you, don’t be scared! Fall!”

The man who fell later sued Scott, alleging that a surging crowd had pushed him off the balcony after the performer beseeched people to jump from the lower levels.

Jazz phenom Herschel Evans, born in Denton, burned bright before early death

Herschel Evans was born in Denton on March 9, 1909. His parents, Lee L. and Laura Evans, were in their 40s when he was born. He had one older sister, Edna, and four older brothers, Lee Jr., Freeman, Albert and Frank.

Evans began his musical career at age 4; he became an accomplished pianist. He spent time in Kansas City, Kansas, with his cousin Eddie Durham, a trombonist and guitarist. Durham persuaded Evans to switch to tenor saxophone, instead of trombone and alto saxophone. Evans perfected his technique in the famous 12th to 18th Street Kansas City jazz quartet.

After returning to Texas in the 1920s. Evans performed at age 18 with Trent’s Number Two Orchestra. At age 19, he played with the St. Louis Merrymakers. He joined a San Antonio territory band called the Troy Floyd Orchestra in 1929. Census records show Evans living on Wyoming Street in San Antonio with his aunt Bertha Boster and cousin LZ in 1930. The band broke up in 1932.

From 1933 to 1935, Evans played with Benny Moten’s Kansas City Band. The band included Count Basie and Oran “Hot Lips” Page. They recorded prolifically with Victor Records.

After performing with Jones’ Chicago Cosmopolitans, Evans joined the Charlie Echols Band in Los Angeles. He also played stints with Lionel Hampton and Buck Clayton.

In September 1936, Evans joined Count Basie’s big band, where he rose to prominence playing tenor saxophone. Band members nicknamed him “Tex.” Evans’ duets with fellow saxophonist Lester Young are jazz standards. Their rendition of Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump” demonstrated a split tone style contrasting Evans’ full-bodied emotional timbre with Young’s high-pitched light tone. The piece received critical acclaim.

Basie defined swing, which was deeply rooted in Kansas City jazz. His style had a blues aesthetic anchored by a riff, a repeated chord progression, structuring a pulsing four-beats-to-the-bar swing.

Although Evans wasn’t a prolific composer, he wrote several pieces, including Doggin’ Around and the Texas Shuffle. His co-author, Edgar Battle, sued the Lewis Publishing Company in 1952 for failing to adequately promote the songs they published.

Evans’ recording of Blue and Sentimental was his greatest single success. He also recorded with Lionel Hampton, Teddy Wilson and Harry James (husband of Denton’s Louise Tobin).

While performing with Basie at the Howard Theatre on Jan. 13, 1939, Evans became ill. His illness caused him to miss a recording session with Decca records in New York City on Feb. 5. Evans collapsed at a Feb. 6 performance at the Crystal Ballroom in Hartford, Connecticut. He was rushed to a New York City hospital. Evans died of heart failure three days later, one month before his 30th birthday.

Evans is buried in the Angeles-Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles. He’s credited with influencing Illinois Jacquet, Arnett Cobb and Buddy Tate, who left the Nat Towles Band in Omaha to replace Evans. Evans’ musical talent burned brightly in his short lifetime.

A flooded section of the Greenbelt north of U.S. Highway 380 is seen in September 2020, in an aerial photo taken by Greenbelt Alliance board chairman Richard Rogers.

Herschel Evans was born in Denton on March 9, 1909, and rose to fame playing with Lionel Hampton, Count Basie and Buck Clayton.