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At the Crossroads

By Mary-Love Bigony

Big Thicket is cited among America’s 10 Most Endangered National Parks.

In 1974, proponents of the Big Thicket capped more than 50 years of work when this biologically diverse region was declared the first national preserve in the National Park Service. The Big Thicket National Preserve is not a single large park, but a series of 15 tracts totaling 97,000 acres spread over seven East Texas counties and nestled among more than 1 million acres of privately owned timberlands. Those timberlands have long served as a buffer to development in the preserve, but now much of that land is on the auction block. Alarmed by this impending sale, the National Parks Conservation Association has included the Big Thicket on its 2003 list of America’s 10 Most Endangered National Parks.

Chuck Hunt, regional issues coordinator for the Big Thicket, says he hopes that the listing will generate public concern about the potential loss to this biologically diverse region.

The Big Thicket has been called the biological crossroads of North America. It’s where east meets west and north meets south. Lush ferns grow there; so do cacti. The Thicket produces orchids, camellias and four species of carnivorous plants. It’s rich with habitats. Within a few miles of one another are baldcypress swamps, sandhills and an upland pine savanna. More than 300 bird species, ranging from roadrunners to bluebirds, live in or visit the Thicket.

Around each of these areas is forested land, most of which is owned by timber companies. Since 2001, more than 1.5 million acres of this timber company land has been up for sale. If the land is sold for development, it could have a dramatic impact on the ecology of the preserve, as well as on the wilderness experience visitors to the preserve seek.

“Right now,” says Hunt, “hikers in the Big Thicket look out and see trees, some of which are on timber company land. If that land is sold and developed, hikers might see houses.”

“We thought that the timber companies that bordered the units were forever,” says Maxine Johnston of the Big Thicket Association, “and that they would give protection and buffering to the preserve so you would still have the feeling there was a forest out there.” Johnston has written letters to every member of the Texas delegation in Washington, D.C., on behalf of the Big Thicket Association, seeking support for adding some of the land that is for sale to the national preserve.

Early explorers and settlers generally avoided the tangled vegetation of the area known today as the Big Thicket. Timber companies moved in during the 19th century, as did a few hardy individuals who lived off the land. Over the decades, these people and their descendants pushed farther and farther into the Thicket and today there are multi-generation Big Thicket residents, some of whom live off the land, just as their ancestors did.

The first efforts to protect the Big Thicket came in 1927 with organization of the East Texas Big Thicket Association to work for either a state or national park. In 1938 the Biological Survey of the East Texas Big Thicket Area was published, comparing the area to “the Lost Atlantis.” World War II intervened, and interest in the area resurfaced in 1962, when Gov. Price Daniel advocated making the Big Thicket a state park. In 1973, several members of the Texas delegation in Washington introduced a Big Thicket bill. Finally, in 1974, President Ford signed the bill creating the Big Thicket National Preserve.

“With the divestiture of so much timber company land right now,” says Maxine Johnston, “it’s not a problem of taking land away from individuals; it’s a matter of trying to add some of that land to the preserve. We have an unparalleled opportunity to do something to protect the preserve. If we can add some of that land that the timber companies are divesting, it would be very much to the Big Thicket’s advantage. It might save it, in fact.

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