Larger than Life
The inimitable Edward ‘Ned’ Fritz changed the face of Texas conservation.
By Wendee Holtcamp
In 1981, one curious 11-year-old boy found himself on a hike with the inimitable Edward “Ned” Fritz during one of the original Texas Wilderness Pow Wows. Fritz was already renowned as “the father of Texas conservation,” a man who had spent years fighting to preserve wilderness, halt clearcutting in national forests, and inspire others to action. His red hair had started turning white with age, but his passion for conservation continued to grow. The memorable hike was a perfect example of how the man often known more for his passionate words and indomitable spirit also inspired people in gentle, life-changing ways.
“He made a big deal about me just because I was young and interested in the plants and forests and outdoors,” says David Bezanson, who recalls the hike on which Fritz shared lore about the forest wildflowers and plants with him. It even influenced his decision to pursue a career in conservation; he now works for The Nature Conservancy in Austin.
“It was pretty amazing for someone who was that prominent and that much of a leader to pay attention to someone who was 11 years old,” Bezanson says. “Ned had an amazing ability to reach out to people of all ages and to see their value.”
During Fritz’s long and storied career, he earned a law degree from Southern Methodist University, married his sweetheart Genie and raised four daughters, served as a Navy flight instructor during World War II (he taught George H.W. Bush to fly), worked as an advisor on consumer affairs in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, and ran a successful law practice. On retiring in the 1970s, he went on to change Texas conservation with his trademark fiery grit.
Relentless. Fearless. Passionate. Persistent. His friends and colleagues use these words to describe him. He was a lover of natural ecosystems and a lover of truth and worked tenaciously to ensure both prevailed. He despised when monetary gain was placed before managing the natural world in a sustainable way — one that ensured its integrity would be maintained for future generations. His persistence is the stuff of legends.
His early and sustained advocacy for the Big Thicket of East Texas epitomizes his determination. The battle for this treasured forest goes as far back as 1927, but by the 1970s, many longtime advocates lost their oomph. Fritz would drop by the house of fellow activist Geraldine Watson, a naturalist who wrote Reflections on the Neches, refusing to let her give up on the cause.He also knocked on local residents’ doors, alleviating fears associated with having federal land ownership in their backyard. Congress established the Big Thicket National Preserve in 1974. “He was very instrumental in passage of the Big Thicket National Preserve (BTNP). I can’t go over there and canoe down Village Creek without thinking about Ned Fritz,” says former TPWD Executive Director Andy Sansom, now executive director of the River Systems Institute in San Marcos.
“He could get people to devote huge amounts of time and resources to environmental issues. He was very difficult to say ‘no’ to,” says Sansom, who met Fritz in the 1970s, when Sansom worked in the Department of the Interior and Fritz had come to lobby Congress for the creation of the BTNP.
“I never met anyone quite like him. He had flaming red hair and he talked a mile a minute. He was a very colorful and eccentric character,” says Sansom of his first impressions. He recalls that when Fritz was excited about an issue he’d often begin a conversation by saying “Lookie” and then roll out a map or some document. “Like many, many other young people, he was a sort of an early mentor to me. I was thrilled and privileged to actually get to know him.”Fritz established several nature organizations and helped preserve more than a quarter million acres of land.
He founded the Texas Committee on Natural Resources (TCONR, now Texas Conservation Alliance) and Natural Area Preservation Association (now Texas Land Conservancy), as well as several other regional and state chapters of organizations, including co-founding the Texas Chapter of The Nature Conservancy. He was instrumental in passing the Texas Wilderness Act, leading the charge to set aside five wilderness areas in the national forests of East Texas.
“There are examples of his legacy on the ground all over Texas,” says Sansom.Fritz’s impact extended nationwide. He played a role in passing both the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act and the 1976 National Forest Management Act. He served as a litigating attorney with TCONR, petitioning the U.S. Forest Service to stop clearcutting in lawsuits spanning three decades. His occasionally indignant tone is evident in his 1989 book Clearcutting: A Crime Against Nature:
“A clearcut looks like a war zone. It is the radical surgery of the timber business. The soil washes off like blood.”Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine ran an article in 2000 about Fritz, which resulted in many opinionated letters to the editor.
“We got some criticism by people in the forest service and others because Ned was so controversial,” Sansom says, “but quite frankly I was proud of the magazine for doing that. The fact that he was controversial was one of the reasons he was effective.”Sansom and Fritz worked together on and off throughout their lives.
“I did not agree with all of Ned’s positions on various issues, but I always felt we were very blessed by having a person who was willing to go to the extremes that he did to bring change to institutions like federal agencies, because they don’t change on their own,” Sansom says.“A lot of people were angry because he challenged their beliefs, but with Ned it was never personal,” Bezanson says about his mentor. “It was simply about good stewardship of land and wildlife. Ned just wanted us to learn the truth.”
Fritz also had a lifelong impact on David’s mom, Janice Bezanson, who started volunteering with Fritz and TCONR doing filing and other simple duties. “The first thing I knew, I was debating a forest service supervisor on the local TV station!” she says. Fritz had a way of seeing the potential in people. She worked with Fritz closely for more than 25 years, and became a close friend. Today, she is Texas Conservation Alliance’s executive director.“I lost count of the things Ned accomplished that people said couldn’t be done. He was the most persistent person on the face of the earth,” she says. But she also recalls a gentler side that fewer people knew.
“He had a marvelous sense of humor, very deadpan. His motivation and personal relationships were very affectionate. His family and his daughters adored him. He was very musical and wrote songs, and he’s written some wonderful poetry.”Fritz’s softer side emerges clear and memorably in another book he authored, Realms of Beauty: A Guide to the Wilderness Areas of East Texas, a fitting tribute to a natural landscape that would not be preserved in its current form were it not for the man who penned these words:
“The freer a forest is from the manipulations of human beings, the more clearly the spirit of earth and sky is manifested in the marvelous processes that we sense. Let our eyes and minds now drink the beauty and sing the praises of seven areas where, by the grace of humankind, East Texas plant communities may survive and evolve as long as life endures in this verdant region.”