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Don’t Mess with the Snappers

Irascible conservation veterans keep fighting for their beloved Big Thicket.

By Wendee Holtcamp

As they hiked through East Texas’ Big Thicket National Preserve, 78-year-old Big Thicket Association chief-cook-and-bottlewasher Maxine “Mickey” Johnston fussed about the red tape required to run an organization to her friend. Why not form a new one with no bylaws, no meetings and no treasury reports? The only requirements: wit, age and two decades of battle scars from fighting for their beloved thicket.

After debating titles, they rejected Mossbacks, Bearcats and Curmudgeons before settling on the Big Thicket Alligator Snapping Turtles. “A bit long and unwieldy, but so what? It doesn’t have to fit on a letterhead,” jokes Johnston. The name appealed to her because she owned a stuffed snapper she named after “the late outrageous, irascible and incorrigible” editor of the old Kountze News.

Longtime volunteer Ann Roberts became the first member, and naturalist Geraldine Watson accepted the title of Ornery Turtle — one step above honorary. Johnston’s partner on that hike, 81-year-old writer Howard Peacock, would be known as Tush Hog. “There’s a fantastic bond there,” says Peacock. “It’s almost a holy business because we went through a war together.”

These four veteran conservationists have waged a lifelong battle to conserve the Big Thicket. Efforts to save the ecoregion date to the 1930s, when R.E. Jackson started the Texas Big Thicket Association, but the Alligator Snapping Turtles were the last great wave of ordinary-folks-turned-conservationists fighting to preserve this unique ecosystem prior to the Big Thicket National Preserve’s establishment in 1974. Their efforts continue.

Johnston, a librarian by trade, has acted as an organizing force behind Big Thicket conservation since the mid-1960s. “She is one of the great heroes of the movement,” says Peacock, “and so is Geraldine.”

Watson not only solo-paddled 80 miles down the Neches at age 63, writing about it in Reflections on the Neches, she repeated the journey with two friends as an octogenarian. A retired park ranger, her book Big Thicket Plant Ecology, originally published in 1975 and recently reissued, brought the region international recognition. “Big Thicket had been presented as an area of folklore,” explains Watson. “My contribution was to try to prove its worth biologically.”

Roberts started volunteering in 1972. Johnston said volunteers typically came and went, so she jokes that she thought she’d “dispense with her [Roberts] right away” by putting her to work cleaning bird dung off bleachers. Instead, Roberts lingered for 30-plus years to become the reigning expert on folding, inserting and labeling, Johnston says. “[She] lives next door, age 80, delightful, opinionated, soap-box type!” To which Roberts retorts: “Good grief! With friends like that, who needs enemies?”

Given what they endured to save the Big Thicket, the fact that these folks have a sense of humor at all speaks volumes. The fight to preserve the Big Thicket was as tangled as the densest forest within its boundaries. It took 50 years, 28 Congressional bills and one murdered champion magnolia before the National Preserve was established.

Not everybody agreed with these irascible conservationists that the unusually diverse Big Thicket forest should be preserved. This region of deep East Texas has a colored history of profit over preservation. Home to the infamous Spindletop, the region spawned the black gold rush and birthed our nation’s oil economy. After World War II, lumber companies tore up the region in a postwar boom, and preserving the Big Thicket against these forces became a nasty battle. As Watson describes in Reflections, “There were no laws, either moral or legal, which stood in the way of their getting what they wanted, and Profit was their God.”

People ostracized Watson’s children, and as she describes it, they never really recovered. “When I first got involved, I was very naïve,” she says. “I thought that everybody would be thrilled to see a Big Thicket preserve and that we could all work together. It just didn’t happen that way.”

Peacock grew up camping in and exploring the Big Thicket, but in the 1960s, he lived in Houston. After a visit to what was then known as Kirby Primitive Area — now in the Turkey Creek Unit — he realized that lumber companies were wreaking havoc on his beloved thicket. Dempsie Henley, mayor of Liberty and Big Thicket Association president, had calculated that 50 acres per day were being harvested. “It was a rallying cry,” he says. “I got the Holy Spirit. … I decided I was going to do something.”

The Alligator Snapping Turtles kept fighting even when persecuted and maligned because they saw the long view that puts the future generation’s needs — for clean air, pure water and intact natural places — above the short-term need for economic gain. They understood the uniqueness of the Big Thicket, and they fought on multiple fronts to ensure that the forest was protected and appreciated for its ecological diversity.

In the United States, only the southern Appalachians rival the biodiversity of these far-less-celebrated woods. More than 300 bird species, 80 fish species, 50 reptiles and 30 amphibians dwell within the forests, but the Big Thicket’s true eminence comes from the stunning diversity of plant and tree species that grow here. The Big Thicket has 1,747 recorded vascular plant species — weird things like toothache trees, with spiky bark, meat-eating plants and frilly, fringed and snowy orchids. Orchid enthusiasts love the Big Thicket, with more than 40 species found within the area. Four of the five types of carnivorous plants in North America grow in the Big Thicket. More than 2,000 species of fungi — mushrooms, shelf fungus and lichens — dwell within.

Some call the Big Thicket “America’s Ark” — a crossroads where eastern forests, southwest deserts, southeastern swamps and central plains converge. As a result of the four-way ecotone, plant communities that don’t normally grow together coexist. Under the canopy of upland longleaf pines grow southwestern desert species such as yucca and cactus. On lowland wet pine savannahs, pitcher plant bogs flourish underneath the trees. Eight distinct vegetative communities can be found within the Big Thicket: pitcher plant bogs, sand mounds covered with desert vegetation and longleaf pine, palmetto-hardwood forest, thickets, open prairie lands, streambank, beech-magnolia-pine forest and baygalls (low-lying swampy areas). Though appreciated by locals and scientists, the beauty and diversity of the Big Thicket remains virtually undiscovered by the world at large.

After many years of fighting to preserve its biodiversity, on October 11, 1974, the U.S. Congress designated the Big Thicket — and Big Cypress in Florida — the United States’ first two National Preserves. This National Park Service designation allows activities not normally allowed in national parks, such as oil and gas drilling, hunting and trapping. Rather than a single large park, NPS demarcated the Big Thicket as a “string of pearls,” preserving seven of the eight ecosystems. The units have a somewhat circular arrangement, including long, narrow tracts of land along rivers and bayous. TPWD later set aside Village Creek State Park to preserve the last of the eight — arid sandyland mounds growing with longleaf pine.

In 1981, the United Nations designated the Big Thicket region as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, one of only 47 such sites in the United States — with more around the world. Biosphere reserves use a multi-stakeholder approach in order to balance conservation with sustainable development, serve as centers for scientific research and education, and integrate cultural and biodiversity preservation. Since a buffer of corporate timberland surrounds the Big Thicket pearls, this approach fits well. But today, that very buffer may cause the fragile ecosystem’s next challenge.

Of the original 3 million acres of Big Thicket forest, the preserve protects but 97,000 acres in isolated fragments, and timber companies in the region have placed their lands on the auction block.

“Timber companies sold off over 1 million acres that formerly served as buffers to protect skinny, vulnerable units,” says Johnston. Some of these lands have been turned over to TIMOs (Timber Investment Management Organizations), intermediaries between investors and their timber investments that manage forests to maximize profit. Many timber companies had extensive regions of streamside forests and other habitat preserved for non-timber purposes. Temple-Inland, for example, manages around 25 percent of its land for ecological services such as carbon sequestration, flood control and wildlife habitat, but they’re auctioning off much of their land also. It remains to be seen how TIMOs will manage their forests, but lands for sale remain a graver threat; the timberland buffer may get paved over for urban development.

Each of the Alligator Snappers stays involved in Big Thicket conservation in some capacity because much remains to be accomplished. “We believe in fighting for what is right and what is the best thing for the country. It’s just our nature,” Watson says.

Peacock is proud of all of their accomplishments. “It was all a grassroots movement that mushroomed. We kept fighting and kept working and finally achieved the Big Thicket National Preserve.”

Challenges keep coming, and the Turtles keep snapping. “We have threats — from highway expansion, oil and gas activity, water projects, urban sprawl and an underfunded, understaffed preserve — that unfortunately pervades all of our national and state parks,” laments Johnston. Since her retirement in 1988, she estimates that she has logged an average of 20 hours per week on various Big Thicket projects. “Some people might say to me, ‘Get a life!’ but for me the rewards have been great. I’ve met and worked with the most fascinating and diverse people — just as diverse as the Big Thicket itself.”

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