Saving the Big Thicket: From Exploration to Preservation, 1685-2003
By James J. Cozine, Jr.
How to put this politely: Pete Gunter, a key figure in the preservation of the Big Thicket Preserve and, during the most intense phase of the struggle for its salvation, a frequent contributor to The Texas Observer, could be a real pain in the ass. By design: In 1971, when he became president of the Big Thicket Association, the young academic, schooled in the ways of movement politics, was convinced that he needed to “raise hell” on behalf of the endangered landscape. His agenda, James Cozine reports, was to unleash a stream of inflammatory rhetoric, hoping it would “irritate people into irritating their congressmen.” Fusing sectionalist resentments with a Populist suspicion of big business, he savaged the powerful timber companies for intensifying harvests in the Big Thicket, absentee landlords who by clear-cutting vast stands signaled their disdain for East Texas and East Texans. “These guys are carpetbagging,” he declared before any garden club or chamber of commerce that would give him a dais. “They are northern companies, they’re destroying our wilderness, a unique Texas area.” This carefully crafted appeal came conjoined with a media blitz that made Gunter a ubiquitous figure on regional radio and local and national television, and every bit as omnipresent in small-town newspapers and big-city dailies; lucky audiences even got to hear this one-man band pluck out a bluesy tune, culminating in a plaintive eco-wail: “What are you going to do with your quiet hours, when there’s nothing left but plastic flowers?”
This multi-media attack put the Big Thicket right where Gunter wanted it, at the center of public debate and popular consciousness. As he drew national interest to the cause, he also got certain people’s backs up, most notably the timber companies and their flacks. Their angered response, he reasoned, was to the good, for their blundering kept the story of this imperiled rural terrain before urban environmentalists who would pressure their representatives, expanding the numbers committed to the Big Thicket’s preservation. “Please understand,” Gunter said in a 1998 oral history taken by the Texas Legacy Project, “[I] didn’t save the Big Thicket. It was Pete Gunter plus Bob Eckhard, plus Ralph Yarborough, plus Maxine Johnston, plus Lance Rosier, plus Alan Steelman, plus all kinds of people, even John Tower.” That diverse list of players, which included sportsmen’s groups and women’s clubs, is a major reason why in 1974 President Gerald Ford signed off on an 84,550-acre Big Thicket National Preserve, the first such biological preserve in the National Park Service; and why, seven years later, UNESCO added its imprimatur by naming the Big Thicket an International Biosphere Reserve. Participatory democracy had carried the day.
Or at least it carried that day. As Cozine, and Gunter, in his afterword to Saving the Big Thicket, make clear, the fight simply to gain a hearing for the unique landscapes and complex biota in southeastern Texas was matched, after the preserve’s creation, by an ongoing need to secure funds necessary to make it more than just a “paper park.” It took 26 years for the long-touted visitors’ center to open its doors, while extending the preserve’s protections to an ever-widening buffer zone has required Herculean effort and increased costs. In July 2005, Congress provided another two million dollars for additional purchases. Gunter details each step of these post-1974 engagements, and although his catalogue-like account of how (nearly) every new parcel was secured does not make for light reading, it is important for two reasons. No national park or preserve is sacred, none is inviolable. Part of what to date has secured the Big Thicket is that most of the adjoining land was in the hands of timber companies. But as the National Parks Conservation Association pointed out in January 2004, when it added the Big Thicket to its list of endangered national parks, 1.5 million acres of timber-company lands surrounding the preserve were up for sale; the organization worried that if it were sold to housing developers or new lumber companies, which might be much less committed to long-term sustainable management of abutting woodlands, these changes might undercut the preserve’s capacity to serve as a repository for biological diversity. The other reason why Gunter’s listing is so essential is that it testifies to the need for sustained partnerships, both local and national in constituency, that cross partisan boundaries (note Yarborough’s and Tower’s role in the preserve’s creation) and that, now and again, deflect the inevitable clash between capitalists and conservationists. Gunter and the timber beasts, for instance, went after one another publicly, but at critical points each knew how to compromise. Arthur Temple, of Temple-Inland, one of the region’s biggest landowners, did not oppose the preserve, and Gunter and his peers curried the powerful owner’s favor, who in turn chastised them for lambasting the lumber industry as “Robber Barons.” Saving the Big Thicket‘s very publication is a byproduct of the unusual political alliances and personal relationships that the book depicts: a grant from the Temple Foundation to the University of North Texas Press has underwritten the Temple Big Thicket Series, of which this is the fourth volume.
Yet why publish this particular manuscript? That seems an especially relevant question, given Gunter’s two major books on the subject, The Big Thicket: A Challenge for Conservation (1972), and The Big Thicket: An Ecological Reevaluation (1993). One blurb makes the case, breathlessly: “Cozine was on the scene while the smoke from the big battle still hung in the air, talking to both conservationists and timber industry people.” That Saving the Big Thicket’s relevance depends on its one-time contemporaneity might suggest that it’s dated. Certainly it is an odd book, in form and focus. A 1976 Texas A&M doctoral dissertation, it seems not to have been revised for this published version. Its dedicatory words (“This dissertation is dedicated to my wife Sharon…”), like its chapters denoted in Roman numerals, attest to its unaltered state. So too does the difference between the current and original title, “Assault on a Wilderness.” The latter is far more consistent with the book’s intellectual tone and temper, revealing as well just how much wilderness studies have evolved since Cozine first ventured into the Big Thicket war zone.
Then, the human presence in nature was inevitably styled in oppositional terms: We had no place in wilderness, which by definition was a landscape devoid of all human impress. The proof text for this assertion is Genesis: Unable to live in a perfected state, Adam and Eve were tossed out of Eden and into an imperfect world of their creation. We’ve been wandering ever since, lugging along those Romantic redactors (Wordsworth and Keats), and their Transcendental acolytes (Emerson, Thoreau, and Muir), whose paeans to the wild, free of humanity’s depravity, updated the Biblical narrative. Offering sophisticated revisions of this Edenic formula were the most influential postwar scholars in American Studies, Henry Nash Smith (Virgin Land, 1950) and Leo Marx (Machine in the Garden, 1964). Cozine does not cite them, but he has absorbed the enduring argument about original sin. How else can you explain the first three chapter titles—The Indians’ Assault, The Spanish Assault, The Anglo Assault—which presume a uniformity of environmental impact that is swiftly undercut in the first two instances when the author’s evidence indicates that by “assault” he means mere presence, for neither the native peoples nor the Spanish modified in a sustained way the lands they inhabited.
Anglo occupation of southeastern Texas did not come with such a light touch. Initially settlers bypassed the region seeking easier ground to break; Gideon Lincecum, for one, noted the Big Thicket’s impenetrability: “I[t] perhaps surpasses any Country in the world for brush … and is so thick that you could not see a man 20 yards for miles.” By 1850, though, more than 10,000 people, of whom a third were slaves, had settled in the area, a number that swelled upward to 26,000 by 1870; timber started to fall as homesteads and communities arose. But the 1880s arrival of the railroad sparked a “timber bonanza,” marked by grand fortunes, oppressive company towns, and restive labor, a boom-and-bust cycle, accompanied by social inequities and resource exploitation, that was replicated in the early twentieth century when oil was discovered. In the Big Thicket, some had made good on Stephen F. Austin’s 1831 vow to redeem “Texas from the wilderness.”
Only a few wanted to rewild the state: Cozine unearths a clutch of early preservationists who in 1927 established the East Texas Big Thicket Association, and whose advocacy of a nature preserve slowly gained political support and scientific interest, even catching the eye of the Beaumont Chamber of Commerce, which yearned for recreational tourism. But it was not until 1965 that a potent organized effort to secure a park came into being, with Ralph Yarborough and William O. Douglas as the new movement’s lightning rods. For all the public electricity their presence created, and later that of gadfly Gunter, much of the heavy lifting occurred in quieter hallways, hearings, and conferences, as draft after draft of legislation moved back and forth between the House and Senate. “In all, twenty-eight Big Thicket bills had been presented in Congress between 1966 and 1974,” Cozine notes, and despite all the dramatic personalities involved, it was “consensus and compromise” that preserved a small portion of what once had been a two million-acre bioregion.
But if the Big Thicket Association, like its historian, believed that by this political victory it had preserved an untrammeled wilderness, which would now “develop its own unique characteristics without the intrusive influence of man,” it missed the larger point about just how entangled humanity is with nature. This “wilderness,” like the “biodiversity” it contained, had gained its new-found status by legislative fiat, was protected on the basis of budgetary outlays, and was surveyed, inventoried, and managed via a bureaucratic apparatus. On these terms, as an idea and institution, the Big Thicket is a social construct, a realization curiously enough that frees us to better care for and integrate with the natural world of which we are a part.
Contributing writer Char Miller teaches at Trinity University and is author of Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism and the forthcoming Ground Work: Conservation in American Environmental Culture.