Q&A with Michael Banks

The East Texas conservative-conservationist talks about the need to save the Neches River
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This is Part Five in an occasional series of Q&As with Texans involved in issues of the environment and energy. (Read Part One with Bee Moorhead here, Part Two with Andy Sansom here, Part Three with Katherine Hayhoe here, and Part Four with Patrick Kennedy here.)

Below I put eight questions to Michael Banks, a dentist, kayaker, and conservationist from Jacksonville in East Texas. Banks is co-chairman of Friends of the Neches River, a group formed to protect what they call “Texas’ last wild and scenic river.”

Banks and other Neches River enthusiasts scored a major victory earlier this year when the U.S. Supreme Court effectively scotched Dallas’ plans to build Lake Fastrill, a new water-supply reservoir that would have submerged the upper Neches bottomlands and destroyed an unique ecosystem. But Banks says there’s still lots of work to be done to protect this special river.

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1) You’re a conservative Republican who ran in the Republican primary against Democrat-turned-Republican state Rep. Chuck Hopson. Do you ever find yourself at odds with the GOP on issues of conservation and environmental protection? What effect do you think the Tea Party will have on environmental policy in national or state politics?

I find myself at odds with the Texas GOP on issues of conservation and environmental protection all the time. I am a conservative Republican and a conservationist.  The root word for both is the same: “conserve”. Politically, to me, to be conservative means many things, but one meaning is to protect a certain way of life. Environmentally, being a conservationist means to protect the natural life around us. “To conserve” means to guard how change occurs both politically and environmentally.

My conservationist philosophy is also a conservative, political philosophy – one of less government, protection of private property rights, regional independence. Example: Supporting the US Fish and Wildlife creating the Neches River National Wildlife Refuge resulted in less government, as opposed to TWDB condemning private property to transfer a natural resource (water) from one region of Texas to another without compensation. Local, nonpartisan support for the Refuge was easily gained because it was the right thing to do.

It is difficult to find an environmental position in the Tea Party movement. Environmental quality is important to all. Many of our environmental laws come from federal laws to protect air and water quality and other natural resources. There are effective state environmental quality laws as well. It remains to be determined if the Tea Party will have the ability to limit the federal government as they claim under the Constitution. Currently there appears to be an environmental policy balance between the feds and the states and it is much easier to keep power in government than it is to gain power in government.

 

2) For years, Dallas has wanted to dam the upper Neches to create Lake Fastrill, a new water-supply reservoir. In February, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a lawsuit brought by the city of Dallas and the Texas Water Development Board, effectively clearing the way for the creation of the Neches River National Wildlife Refuge. Why was Lake Fastrill such a threat to the upper Neches River?

Damming of the Neches River to create Fastrill reservoir was a threat because to diminish the environmental flow of the Neches would have threaten the entire ecosystem the River supports.  The flow of the Neches River supports not only the hardwood forests of East Texas but also the Big Thicket National Preserve and the Sabine/Neches estuary.  Our diverse wildlife of East Texas is dependant upon healthy hardwood forests which are rapidly disappearing.

Just as important, Fastrill reservoir was a threat to the people of East Texas.  It was estimated that over 150,000 acres of privately owned land would have had to be condemned to build Fastrill, using eminent domain.  No land is condemned to create the Neches River National Wildlife Refuge.  Its potential 25, 281 acres would all be accepted by donation or purchased from willing sellers.

So Fastrill reservoir was more than a threat to the upper Neches River, Fastrill was a threat to the entire River, the forests, the wildlife and the people of Texas.

3) Talk a little bit about the upper Neches River – what makes it special and why does it deserve protection?

Most folks are unaware of the complex ecosystem of the Neches which includes the rare Neches Rose Mallow plant and the threatened mussel species recently identified by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, but the locals sure know about the river otters, cougars, alligators and American Eagles found on the River. The arrival and departure of the migratory waterfowl herald the change of seasons in autumn and spring without having to look at the calendar. There is a documented sighting of a black bear within one mile of the Neches this year. The Neches River is uniquely East Texan.

The Neches River has a history. There are many areas undisturbed since before Texas was settled.  This is a rare find in today’s society. A lady at the Cherokee County Courthouse told me recently her father and grandfather were both born within sight of the Neches and she was proud that section of the River was being protected.

Many of the same virtues of the upper Neches River which makes it special also make it deserving of protection. I never go on the River that I don’t experience its specialty and sense its worthiness to be protected as an asset to the future of Texas.

Damming of the Neches River to create Fastrill reservoir was a threat because to diminish the environmental flow of the Neches would have threaten the entire ecosystem the River supports.  The flow of the Neches River supports not only the hardwood forests of East Texas but also the Big Thicket National Preserve and the Sabine/Neches estuary. Our diverse wildlife of East Texas is dependant upon healthy hardwood forests which are rapidly disappearing.

Just as important, Fastrill reservoir was a threat to the people of East Texas. It was estimated that over 150,000 acres of privately owned land would have had to be condemned to build Fastrill, using eminent domain. No land is condemned to create the Neches River National Wildlife Refuge.  Its potential 25, 281 acres would all be accepted by donation or purchased from willing sellers.

So Fastrill reservoir was more than a threat to the upper Neches River, Fastrill was a threat to the entire River, the forests, the wildlife and the people of Texas.

by Adrian Van Dellen

4) Is there any chance Dallas or any other entity could still dam the Neches?

Yes, there is a chance the Neches River will be considered for another impoundment.

There is a long-standing proposal to build Rockland Dam and periodically the proposal comes up to raise Dam B, which impounds B.A. Steinhagen reservoir.

Already there are two dams on the Neches which create Lake Palestine and B.A. Steinhagen reservoir.  Also on the Angelina River, a tributary of the Neches, there is Sam Rayburn Reservoir and potentially Lake Columbia. It would seem the water planners of Texas need to look elsewhere.

For this reason, many East Texans, led by Texas Conservation Alliance and Friends of the Neches River, are supporting to have the Neches designated as a National Wild and Scenic River. Adding the Neches to the Wild and Scenic Rivers System would prevent future damming and be a big tourist draw for the region.

 

5) What is the status of the wildlife refuge?

The details of the progress of the Neches River National Wildlife Refuge will have to come from the US Fish and Wildlife Service. But I will tell you what I know.

The Refuge is officially established, but so far only about thirty acres have been acquired. Several thousand acres are in the works to become part of the Refuge as soon as the assessments and paperwork can be completed. The Service has been busy countering the Gulf oil spill and I expect them to get back on the Refuge soon.

The Neches River Refuge will be a great asset to Texas. Texas’ increasing population is stressing our state park system and the limited public lands available for recreation.

We look forward to having the Refuge right here in the middle of East Texas!

 

6) You’re pushing for the Neches to be designated a National Wild and Scenic River, which would provide for some additional protections. However, the Texas Forestry Association and the Texas Farm Bureau, as I understand as a distant observer, have been stirring fears over how such a designation could affect private property-owners. What’s going on here?

The Texas Forestry Association has a policy statement against the damming of rivers, so we agree on the position, but disagree on the method to protect our rivers from damming. The National Wild and Scenic designation for the Neches River would prevent damming and also bring national recognition which would increase tourism to the region.

In meetings here in East Texas experts on Wild and Scenic Rivers from the National Park Service and the U.S Forest Service assured landowners that designating the Neches as a Wild and Scenic River would NOT infringe on private property rights and that the federal government will not be given any authority to direct management on private land. They said activities such as logging, agriculture, and hunting would not be affected by designating the River. No one is proposing that tributaries, streams or even runoff be subject to this Rivers Act and therefore would not be subject to management. Private, commercial development will continue as normal along the River.

The process for a river to be designated as a National Wild and Scenic River starts with the introduction of a Study Bill in the US Congress by a Congressman who represents a district along the river. The study period is usually 2-3 years and is administered by an agency, in this case, probably jointly by the National Park Service and the US Forest Service. The study bill brings together everyone involved with the river to develop a voluntary management plan for the river.

If the study results in a recommendation that the Neches be designated, it would have to go back to Congress a second time for the river to be named as a National Wild and Scenic River. 

 

7) Why are these organizations opposed to Wild & Scenic River designation?

It would seem these organizations do not trust or have faith in the federal government. But in this case, the federal government would protect the Neches, its landowners and people from dams proposed by state and local entities.

There are a handful of people in the Texas Forestry Association, and one man in particular, who apparently do not understand how the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act works. If a bill is passed designating the Neches, that bill actually amends the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Provisions added to the Neches bill, such as a prohibition of any condemnation of land, would become law.

Texas Conservation Alliance, Friends of the Neches River, Citizens for Protecting the Neches River and others held public forums this past July in Beaumont and Lufkin, bringing in expert authorities on Wild and Scenic Rivers from the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service, to give people the facts. These meetings were very well attended (125 to 150 each) and were attended by representatives of the Texas Forestry Association. The majority of those in attendance did have an understanding and support for this project.

Designating the Neches River as a National Wild and Scenic River will protect private property by preventing condemnation for a future new reservoir. No private property will be taken for the Neches River to become a National Wild and Scenic River, now or in the future. On private property the boundary can be the current boundary of the private property.

 

8) And, from your point of view, what sort-of inaccuracies or misinformation is circulating in East Texas on this issue?

Among the inaccuracies and misinformation being circulated is the statement that development on private land would stop with the designation of the Neches as a National Wild and Scenic River.  This is not the case; development will continue to be subject to the same rules as before. Also being spread is that every drop of water in the watershed of a designated river would be affected by this Act. This is ridiculous; no effect of this act would occur in the watershed without specifically being addressed in the bill.  It is inaccurate that condemnation of land by eminent domain would be used in this designation.  Condemnation of land would not be used.

It is also ill conceived that the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act would not be amended to apply to the Neches River designation.

As an East Texas property owner, I am looking for practical methods to protect our properties and way of life here. The Fastrill reservoir lawsuit by the City of Dallas and the Texas Water Development Board shows the length that water developers will go to in order to build new reservoirs.  Having the Neches River designated as a National Wild and Scenic River would not adversely effect private property along the river but it would stop water developers from condemning our land.

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.