On weekend mornings, you’re likely to find Ben Sandifer bushwhacking trailways through the Great Trinity Forest or wading through secluded waters before dawn to photograph local birdlife—that is, when he’s not leading an educational walk for developers and elected officials or cleaning the grounds with his network of eco-focused cohorts. An accountant by day, the native Dallasite is also a naturalist, award-winning photographer and advocate who has dedicated his personal life to the preservation and conservation of the city’s natural areas. Here, Sandifer sounds off on how Dallasites can better protect the green spaces we take for granted.
What sparked your passion for nature advocacy?
I’m a Dallas native—I grew up biking, fishing, exploring and playing outside. I was also a Cub Scout and a Boy Scout. I returned after college and took up mountain biking, which introduced me to more green spaces. That sparked a self-education process. I started taking photos, visiting local naturalist organizations and researching local flora and fauna.
Much of your advocacy is dedicated to The Trinity River. What attracts you to this area?
I love the historical imprint of the Trinity River. Dallas’ development moved north around the Great Depression, so South Dallas is a time capsule. There are shotgun houses, there are protected Native American sites, there are ghosts of places that someone willing to bushwhack will find but few know about. So much of the history of the Freedmen’s town Joppa is passed down through oral traditions. I’ve spent a lot of time there, drinking sweet tea and catching a breeze, listening to those stories. It’s a spectacular experience learning about the unwritten histories of communities that Dallas has annexed or swallowed up over the years.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your efforts?
With [nonprofit Groundwork Dallas’] youth outreach program, Green Team, I see children from the inner cities experience nature, often for the first time. Whether visiting national parks like Yellowstone or Carlsbad Caverns or showing them a trail or a lake in their neighborhood, it’s profound to see someone gain a deep appreciation for what’s here.
How do you handle the challenges you face in your advocacy work?
To keep a place conserved and, to an extent, preserved, I sometimes do have to poke people who are not following the letter of the law. My North Star is the high road—which can be hard to do. But the fastest way to have someone stop talking to you is to become the adversary. I advocate by showing and sharing. It’s not about airing personal frustrations; I communicate for people who don’t have a voice but who care if the city saves this tree or that pathway.
I lead nature walks for developers, primary stakeholders and elected officials to illustrate how their potential actions would affect green spaces. Coming from a business background, I understand time is money. I structure my advocacy around more efficient development with a lesser footprint or impact. I’m not against construction or development, but, at the same time, I want people to be able to appreciate a pristine nature area or a special historical place that might not be on the radar of some decision makers.
Do you view your photography as a medium for nature documentary or human accountability?
I take photos for the beauty of the image, but they do end up telling a story. One morning at White Rock Lake, I saw a bald eagle observing people illegally capturing fish and turtles. They were stealing his food. It was a poignant moment for me—here is the symbol of the United States going hungry because of human action. I’m not into “gotcha” moments, but that image promoted immediate change. There were already laws in the book that disallow that activity, but police really actively patrol that area.
What do you wish that more people knew about our green spaces?
Although these look like coarse environments that can survive a bulldozer, these systems are really fragile. Cities like San Antonio, Austin and Houston spend millions of dollars reverting properties to more natural states, but Dallas has great natural areas still intact. Before we build infrastructure into them for human enjoyment, we have to think about the implications of taking out something that other cities are trying to put back in.
How can everyday citizens protect North Texas nature?
Our best natural spaces are ones taken care of by volunteers. Municipal governments can do maintenance like garbage removal, but the onus lies with citizens to put trash in the can in the first place. Strong volunteer contingents do nitty-gritty work not covered by city budgets. That’s what turns a good place into a special place.