Saving a Piney Paradise
With a long history of both enlightened management and abuse, east Texas forests now face new threats.
By Henry Chappell
The dead, brown pine needles on the footpath catch my eye before the green ones growing 50 feet over my head. I pick up an especially long one and lay it on my forearm. The needle extends from the base of my hand nearly to my elbow.
Longleaf pine. It grows in nearly pure stands on well-drained uplands from southeastern Virginia to East Texas. Left to mature, longleaf pines can reach heights of a hundred feet or more. The boles run straight and uniform. Its tough, porous outer layer protects it from hot fires that kill hardwoods and other kinds of pine. Its home — the dry, sandy uplands — burns easily and often.
The first chroniclers in East Texas described giants. Old photographs from the late 19th and early 20th centuries substantiate their claims: vast stands, open and park-like, and trunks of 350-year-old trees more than 3 feet in diameter.
Early Anglo settlers called the longleaf forests “pine barrens,” and tended to skirt them. Corn and cotton are far less adapted for drawing nutrients from the upland soil than are longleaf pines.
Amos Parker, traveling west of Nacogdoches in 1834, had this to say of the longleaf pinelands:
“Immediately after leaving the town we came into pine woods again; to all appearance, the same we had already passed over — rolling, sandy soil; the trees straight and tall, but standing so far apart that a carriage might go almost anywhere among them. The grass grew beneath them, and we could see a great distance as we passed along.”
A wagon and mule team could easily wend through longleaf forest. As could a skidder. A house built of unpainted longleaf boards will last a century.
Today, only a few good longleaf stands remain in Texas. One of the best can be found here at Boykin Springs.
Along the trail, skinks, warmed by the February sun, rustle in the dry duff. A few sluggish grasshoppers flush. Just like in the old photos, the woods are open, with knee-high grass growing amid healthy, fire-blackened boles.
Mostly, these are vigorous middle-age trees, less than 80 years old. In earlier times, as ancient trees succumbed to red heart fungus, red-cockaded woodpeckers bored into the softened heartwood and made themselves at home.
Perhaps they will again, someday.
Of Texas’ 10 ecological regions, two combine to form the geographical area known as East Texas: the Post Oak Savannah Region and the Pineywoods. While each region’s name suggests its dominant vegetative features, East Texas is actually a vast system of forest and grassland communities, ever changing and shifting in response to temperature, precipitation and human pressures.
The Pineywoods form the eastern edge of Texas. The region covers some 24,000 square miles, or about 9 percent of the state. Roughly, it extends from Bowie County in the north to Orange and Hardin counties in the south. Upshur, Smith, Houston, Walker and Montgomery counties form the western boundary.
The Pineywoods represent the westernmost portion of the Southern Pinelands, the pine and deciduous forest that extends from southeastern Virginia along the southern coastal plains to southeast Texas.
Immediately west of the Pineywoods and east of the Blackland Prairie, the Post Oak Savannah Region covers some 21,000 square miles, or about 7 percent of the state, extending from the western half of Bowie County, southwest to its southern boundary in Guadalupe, Gonzales and Dewitt counties. In the south, its western boundary runs roughly along the Bastrop-Travis County line. In the north, Post Oak Savannah gives way to Blackland Prairie in Van Zandt, Rains, Franklin and Red River counties.
Some ecologists include the Red River Area, a forested bottomland corridor running immediately adjacent to the Red River, from the Arkansas Border through Grayson County.
To understand the challenges facing East Texas’ forests today, we must look back at the region’s past. But to look deeply is to risk heartbreak, for as much as the history of East Texas, from the 1820s through the 1970s, is a story of audacity, endurance, courage, resourcefulness and economic progress, it’s also a chronicle of ecological and cultural rapacity and loss.
Rather than launching immediately into explorers’ descriptions of rivers boiling with fish and alligators, and outrageous tallies of game killed in a single day, I’ll begin with a pure symbol of wildness, a former presence that, as much as any, represents primeval East Texas.
In 1838, Gustav Dresel, a young German businessman serving as German consul to the Republic of Texas, traveled the backwoods country of southeast Texas, visiting homes of the settlers and writing about their way of life. He recorded this incident near Huntsville: “The twelve year-old son of a planter Benton shouldered his rifle to shoot a stag or a wild turkey. He penetrated into the thicket and perceived a leopard. He had never seen any of these animals before but knew quite well that they were dangerous. ... He fired. The beast was hit but not killed. It reared several times and then plunged against the young rifleman, who had loaded again with the utmost coolness and now sent the second bullet at the beast so well that it fell dead to the ground.”
Sam Houston reported jaguars east of the San Jacinto River. Vernon Bailey, chief naturalist of the U.S. Biological Survey, reported the last verified jaguar in East Texas killed south of Jasper in 1902.
Although ecologists and foresters recognize numerous forest types and sub-types, based on slight differences in elevation, soil characteristics, and moisture, credible historical sources describe four distinct forest types: the longleaf region, the loblolly pine region, bottomland forests and shortleaf pine region.
O.M. Roberts, who served as governor of Texas from 1879 to 1883, provides one of the more valuable descriptions. As a young lawyer, in the 1840s, he traveled extensively in East Texas. In A Description of Texas, he locates the longleaf belt:
“Immediately above and north of the level Gulf prairie, in southeastern Texas, lies a body of longleaf pine, over one hundred miles in width, on the Sabine River from about Sabine Town [east of present-day Hemphill] down that stream, and thence west, diminishing in width for about one hundred miles. This lies just below the old San Antonio Road where it passes through eastern Texas.”
Using such descriptions, modern ecologists place the historical longleaf pine forest as an area of some 5,000 square miles in the south-central Pineywoods, beginning with Angelina and Houston counties in the north, extending east to the Louisiana border, south as far as the Gulf Prairie, and west to the Trinity River.
Located west and south of the longleaf region, and extending southward to the interior of the Coastal Plain, the loblolly pine forest occupied some 7,000 square miles, including the area in Hardin and Polk counties known as the Big Thicket. Although pure stands of loblolly ran along the low, dry ridges, moist low-lying areas with clay and silt soils supported a mixture of hardwoods and loblolly, and a very dense understory of shrubs and shade-loving trees.
Towering bottomland hardwood forests grew along the major drainages such as the Trinity, Sabine, Angelina and Attoyac. The rich soil, periodically nourished by flooding, yielded tremendous growths of oak, ash, hickory, sweet gum, black walnut, cottonwood, cypress and tupelo. Early travelers described oaks 6 feet in diameter, and hickories 3 feet thick.
Shortleaf pine and oak-hickory communities dominated the northern half of the Pineywoods, from the Red River in the north to Angelina and Houston counties in the South, from the Louisiana border, west to Hopkins County.
Although we generally describe the Pineywoods in terms of forest communities, there were sizable open prairies. In 1837, Gustav Dresel crossed the Neches River just south of Zavala:
“Having left the forests of the Neches River behind, we came to a fertile prairie where the most excellent grass sprouted from black earth and the most diverse flowers grew exuberantly in between. Here and there the wide plain was broken by groups of trees.” Indeed early settlers named dozens of places in the Pineywoods “prairie,” including Mustang Prairie at Crockett, Tarkington’s Prairie in Liberty County and Shawnee Prairie in Angelina County.
Westward, in the Post Oak Savannah Region, where frequent fires, started by lightning or Native Americans, kept encroaching brush and trees at bay, true midgrass prairie, punctuated by oak mottes, dominated the uplands while tremendous hardwood forests grew, and still grow, along the Sulphur, Trinity and Red rivers and their tributaries. Likely, the first Anglo settlers in East Texas found a land even wilder and less peopled than did the Spanish explorers three centuries earlier. The first European explorers in the region reported extensive farming by Caddo Indians living in relatively permanent, well-populated villages. The Caddo population collapse due to European contagions after the mid-1600s undoubtedly left many areas to regenerate and mature into climax forest before Anglo settlement began in earnest in the mid 1820s.
These pioneer settlers, mostly yeomen farmers from Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and the Carolinas, could not have known that the Southern frontier and their ancestral way of life would end where the East Texas woodlands gave way to Blackland prairie.
Here, an able family could live well on catfish taken from the rivers and streams, turkeys, white-tailed deer, and black bear shot in the woods, and even bison in the numerous prairies. Semi-wild hogs grew fat on the mast of oak, beech and hickory. The ancient hardwoods sustained fox squirrels and cat squirrels in numbers unimaginable today. In the fall, clouds of passenger pigeons descended to roost and feed on hardwood mast.
Half a century before the age of cattle drives from the Texas plains to markets in Kansas and points north, the Pineywoods had its own era of open range grazing. Tough, wild cattle thrived on the grass and rough forage of the open, mature pinelands. Backwoods horsemen and their cur-dogs — fierce, versatile herding and hunting dogs — rousted and herded steers and drove them to markets in Louisiana.
Bears, cougars, jaguars and red wolves found the introduced livestock easy pickings. The pragmatic, unsentimental pioneers, in the tradition of their ancestors, hunted them mercilessly.
In a 1903 interview with Vernon Bailey, Ab Carter, a farmer and stockman who raised hogs in the woods in Liberty County, near Tarkington’s Prairie, reported that over two years, beginning in 1883, he and a neighbor, using an excellent pack of hounds, killed 182 bears within a 10-mile radius of their ranches.
For a while, the last few bears held on in the southern portion of the Big Thicket until an old sow and two cubs were killed in Liberty County in 1919, and then a large male in Hardin County in 1928. Occasional reports notwithstanding, stockmen no longer had to worry about the native East Texas black bear.
By 1905, Vernon Bailey considered cougars very rare or extinct in East Texas. Red wolves hung on a bit longer, perhaps because they were small — barely larger than coyotes — and less threatening, or perhaps because they were harder to trap or trail with dogs. Nevertheless, in 1981, a team of biologists working in the wolves’ last redoubt in far southeast Texas gave up after attempting to bring the last few into captivity.
Prior to 1880, logging for local lumber needs left only a light mark on the Pineywoods. But in the late 1880s, large production sawmills and the coming of the railroad to the East Texas hinterlands initiated a new age of industrial lumbering. The earliest operations were cut-load-and-leave ventures executed with no thought to regeneration, let alone sustainability.
Later, as the railroad moved deeper into the Pineywoods, self-contained company towns sprang up in service of sawmills. Spurs ran from the main rail lines into the woods so that tremendous loads of old-growth could be hauled away.
At the height of the boom, over 600 sawmills operated in East Texas. In 1901, the lumber industry was the state’s top manufacturing enterprise and largest employer, a position it held until 1930 when it moved into second place behind the petroleum industry.
Early visionaries such as W. Goodrich Jones began warning against the lumbermen’s excesses. Jones, the son of a prominent Galveston merchant, jeweler and watchmaker, had spent two of his formative years in Europe, where his father took him on walking tours of the Black Forest, in southwestern Germany. There, he developed an appreciation for the beauty and commercial potential of well-managed forests.
In 1898, B.E. Fernow, chief of the United States Bureau of Forestry, asked Jones to survey East Texas. Jones was appalled at the destruction and predicted that under the current approach, East Texas’ forests would be gone within 25 years. His plan called for a sustained yield, systematic reforestation program that would ensure long-term survival of Texas’ forests.
In 1914, Jones and other leading lumbermen and conservationists founded the Texas Forestry Association, predecessor of the Texas Forest Service. The measures came none too soon. The first large-scale efforts at replanting clearcut land didn’t occur until 1925.
Then came the stock market crash of 1929 and subsequent economic depression. For the first time, even the most resourceful East Texans were truly hungry. In Land of Bears and Honey: A Natural History of East Texas, Dan Lay and Joe C. Truett describe the economic and ecological exhaustion:
“Hunting had been great sport before, but being hungry was serious business. Deer hounds followed the last track, and turkey hunters emptied the last roost. Squirrels retreated to their safest hollows, never quite secure from the bark of feist dogs and .22 rifles. Rabbits, coons, and possums felt the sting of hard times. Armadillos were ‘Hooverhogs.’”
By the end of that decade, fewer than a million acres remained of the original 14 to 18 million acres of East Texas forest. By 1935, only 30 square miles of old-growth longleaf pine forest remained.
After the end of World War II, the Texas Game, Fish and Oyster Commission trapped and restocked deer and turkey. With more enlightened forestry, wildlife and timber began to recover.
The subsistence way of life waned as rural folks joined the cash economy. Although year-round hunting persisted, especially among those raised to view any deer or turkey as food to be shot on sight, the idea of hunting seasons and bag limits began to take.
At the same time, rural roads improved drastically. Free range cattle and hogs that had been a minor annoyance to folks puttering along a rutted road in a Model A became a real hazard to travelers cruising along at 45 miles per hour. Furthermore, absentee landowners, and especially timber companies, no longer saw their lands as part of a larger “commons” to be grazed, hunted and burned by backwoods stockmen and hunters. Fences and gates ended the open range era.
For all of these gains, something was lost, too. Though they could be rough on their home ground, the backwoods yeomen were rooted as deeply as the Caddo before them, and self-sufficient to a degree that’s virtually impossible today. Times were usually hard, but you could always pull a catfish from the river or set your cur-dog after a possum in the creek bottom. Whatever damage they did, it was nothing compared to that wrought by outside industrial forces that drew vast wealth from the region and left many with no choice but to leave the woods.
Others, of course, saw the change as opportunity and left as soon as they could. Since the mid-1930s, when large timber companies sold hundreds of thousands of acres of logged-over land to the U.S. Government — land that now makes up the three national forests in East Texas — the U.S. Forest Service has played an important role in shaping timber management practices in Texas.
Early on, the USFS stressed timber production above all other considerations and encouraged replanting of large single-species stands, especially fast-growing, commercially viable loblolly pine.
Hardwoods were considered weeds. Thousands upon thousands of oaks, hickories and beeches were fatally “girdled” by axes and other mechanical and chemical means. A few backwoodsmen, resentful about being fenced out and about the destruction of hardwoods that fed their hogs, burned thousands of acres of industrial pine plantations. You can still find some of that old resentment if you know where to look, but the fiercest manifestations died along with the last of the yeomen born in the 19th century.
By the late 1950s, reforestation in East Texas was running over 50,000 acres per year and has averaged well over 100,000 acres per year since the late 1970s.
In the 1980s, conservationists began to question the notion that loblolly pine monocultures are healthy, functioning forests. The challenges were especially fierce in regard to national forests, which, according to official mandate, are to be managed by the principal of “multiple use,” giving no one interest — timber production, say — priority over others such as wildlife conservation or recreation.
In 1988, the Texas Committee on Natural Resources (now Texas Conservation Alliance), led by its founder, fiery, relentless Dallas attorney Edward C. “Ned” Fritz, successfully challenged the U.S. Forest Service in court, alleging that over-emphasis on management for young, commercially valuable timber, to the detriment of older trees, further imperiled the federally endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. The decision halted clear-cutting on some 300,000 acres in Texas national forests.
In 1977, during the Carter Administration, the Office of the Interior identified and recommended only 10,712 acres in East Texas for wilderness designation subject to the protections specified in The Wilderness Act of 1964. Citizen groups, led by Texas Committee on Natural Resources, the Sierra Club, and other organizations, pressed for protection of 65,000 acres. Eventually, the two sides reached a compromise, and President Ronald Reagan signed the bill on October 30, 1984.
Today, five wilderness areas in East Texas — Big Slough Wilderness Area in Houston County, Indian Mounds Wilderness Area in Sabine County, Little Creek Wilderness Area in Montgomery County, Turkey Hill Wilderness Area in Angelina County and Upland Island Wilderness Area in Angelina and Jasper counties — total some 37,000 acres protected from timber cutting, road building and other mechanical intrusions.
“There have been huge changes in the way public forests in Texas are managed,” says Larry Shelton, who directs the sustainable forests program for Texas Conservation Alliance. “The Forest Service has shifted its philosophy away from managing primarily for income from timber sales toward managing for healthy ecosystems.”
But, with a few exceptions, Texas’ forests remain working timberlands. In a recent year, according to a study by the Texas Forest Service, the state’s forest sector produced $22.1 billion in industry outputs, employed 79,500 workers and paid $2.9 billion in wages. New challenges loom. As recently as 2000, timber companies owned 32 percent of Texas’ forests, mostly in large tracts. By 2004, timber industry ownership had dropped to 16 percent as large companies sold off lands to timber investment management organizations and real estate investment trusts.
Larry Shelton worries that this shift may put private forestland at increased risk. “Historically, these lands were owned by industrial timber companies that were in it for the long haul. Now we have investors looking at how they can maximize profits from these lands,” he says.
He also worries that as timber companies and investment management companies sell lands to private individuals and families, forests will suffer from increased road building and habitat fragmentation.
Mark Brian, senior forester and vice president at Advanced Ecology, Ltd., a consulting firm based in Center, remains optimistic. “I have faith in people and I think that individuals will look out for their economic interests in healthy ways,” he says. “I’m already seeing it with landowners I work with. In many cases, they aren’t buying land for purely economic purposes.”
Increasing population pressures will undoubtedly raise competing visions. East Texas has already lost nearly 70 percent of its hardwood bottomlands to agriculture and reservoir construction. Reservoirs currently proposed for the Sulphur and Neches rivers, if built, would drown hundreds of thousands of acres of our best remaining bottomland.
In Paddling the Wild Neches, Richard Donovan writes, “History may well judge our generation not so much for wealth and progress, but for how much of the natural world we allow to survive.”
Modern forestry, coupled with a strong and growing conservation ethic, a resilient land, and a people and culture still rooted in that land, has given us another chance to leave something fine and enduring.
East Texas Titan
No single company has influenced the land and people of East Texas as much as the timber and forest products conglomerate that would come to be Temple-Inland. In 1893, Thomas Latane Temple of Texarkana founded Southern Pine Company and began acquiring timberland in Angelina County. The company town of Diboll grew up around his sawmill on the tracks of the Houston East & West Texas Railway.
Throughout the early 1900s, Temple vastly increased his land holdings, especially in the Neches valley. White-tailed deer, which had been nearly hunted to extinction in previous decades, thrived on protected company land.
In 1935, after much lobbying by Arthur Temple Sr., the federal government purchased 77,806 acres of company land in Sabine County. These lands made up much of the Sabine National Forest, officially designated in 1936. In the 1940s, the company hired professional foresters to implement sustained yield management of its lands. In 1948, Temple endowed a scholarship at the College of Forestry at Stephen F. Austin State University.
In 1952, the company leased the site of the Fastrill logging camp to the Texas Forest Service for the establishment of a tree improvement research program. Named the Arthur Temple Sr. Research Area, the site is still active today.
In 1972, at a meeting of the Southern Forest Products Association, Arthur Temple Jr. addressed the growing controversy over even-age timber management: “Properly used, I think it’s great. But I violently object to the pat answers that say it is the concept of the future.”
In 1973, Time, Inc. acquired Temple Industries and merged it with Eastex Pulp and Paper Company. The pro-clearcutting position prevailed. By the end of the decade, Temple-Eastex owned hundreds of thousands of acres of even-age pine plantations. During this time, the company also sold about 27,000 acres of bottomland for the establishment of the Big Thicket National Preserve.
In 1984, Temple-Inland emerged as a new company when Time, Inc. sold its forest products operations. According to its first annual report, Temple-Inland was Texas’ largest industrial landowner, managing 1.1 million acres in East Texas.
In the 1990s, Temple developed its Forestry Principles, which stipulated that all of its forestlands would be managed as a “multiple resource asset.” In 1998, the Environmental Protection Agency awarded the company its Environmental Protection Award.
In February 2007, Temple-Inland announced a plan to maximize shareholder value by selling its strategic timberlands and splitting into three public companies. In October 2007, Temple-Inland sold 1.55 million acres of timberland to Campbell Group, LLC.
Know Your Forests
• The Land of Bears and Honey: A Natural History of East Texas by Joe C. Truett and Dan Lay (University of Texas Press)
• Paddling the Wild Neches by Richard Donovan (Texas A&M University Press)
• Backwoodsmen by Thad Sitton (University of Oklahoma Press)
• Realms of Beauty by Edward C. Fritz (University of Texas Press)
• Trees of Texas by Carmine Stahl and Ria McElvaney (Texas A&M University Press)
• The Southern Forest by Laurence Walker (CRC Press)
• The Illustrated Flora of East Texas by George Diggs, et al. (Austin College and the Botanical Research Institute of Texas)