The Fight for the Big Thicket `If it’s their job to destroy the thicket, it’s ours to save it.’ Archer Fullingim The Big Thicket in Southeast Texas contains about 435,000 acres of jungle. In 1750 it was estimated to contain 3,350,000 acres, but civilization and its discontents have whittled away at it. The State Parks Board places it now within an area bounded by U.S. Highway 69, west to Saratoga along Farm Road 770, west from Saratoga through Batson to State Highway 146, then north through Rye to Livingston along Highway 146. Professor B. C. Tharp, the University of Texas botanist, related in The Handbook of Texas that early migrants from Louisiana “found their way effectually blocked by impenetrable thickets rooted in the sandy soils of hillsides bordering almost innumerable streams.” Tharp said the original area supported stands of long-leaf yellow pine which laid down a cover of pine needles and branches that contributed to the almost total absorption of the area’s 50 inches of rain annually. Swampy areas formed and “supported a growth of large and small hardwood vegetation so dense as to merit the name thicket. Since these thickets occupied an intricate network over the whole area, it was impossible for a traveler to proceed far without encountering one. It was small wonder that the notion grew that the whole area was a big thicket. “These virgin conditions have long since disappeared,” Tharp wrote. “Exploitative lumbering methods have destroyed most of the pine forests, and demand for hardwood lumber is causing the decimation of much of that timber also; the difficult terrain, however, has prevented, so far, the wholesale destruction of the hardwood. The pervious nature of the soil continues to enable it to absorb most of the rainfall and thus to perpetuate the swampy conditions within the thicket areas, so that they still support vestigial representative stands of their virgin forest and thicket cover.” The Thicket historically has been a hideout for people on the lam, Civil War dodgers, runaway slaves, escaped convicts. It has been a place for bears and the big cats and beavers, and it is still a place for deer, wolves, foxes, raccoons, civet cats, bobcats, opossums, skunks, squirrels, armadillos, rabbits, minks, and otters. Although the pines dominate, Tharp lists, in the Thicket, oaks of a dozen or more swamp species, ash, gum, magnolia, beech, maple, hickory, bald cypress, persimmon, mulberry, and many smaller trees and shrubs, including 6 The Texas Observer holly, red and black haw, chinquapin, bay, plum, papaw, sweetleaf, wax myrtle, dogwood, mayhaw, yaupon, dwarf palmetto, and cane switch. The trees and plants, animals and birds and fish are numberless, and perhaps some of them are nameless. I When he was governor, Price Daniel proposed that about 5,000 acres of the Thicket be made into a state park, and he appointed a committee of people in the region to see about it. There was a lot of publicity. In March of last year, Ed Kilman of the State Parks Board opposed any action because the governor was seeking re-election. On March 29 about 300 persons attended a meeting in Beaumont called by Daniel to discuss the project. After he lost the election, Daniel appointed a 26-person committee, with Mayor Dempsie Henley of Liberty the chairman, to study the creation of the park. Henley is a big, bluff man, full of fun and full of candor. He has said this about some of the members of Daniel’s committee: “We deliberately appointed men representing timber companies in the area in order that we can reach some compatible plan.” Landowners’ liability as to visitors on any leased property is a worrisome thing, Henley said, and “I am going to urge the committee to recommend to the legislature that the companies be relieved of liabilities existing on the land.” A dissenting voice, Archer Fullingim’s, issued forth from deep within the Thicket itself. The editor of the Kountze News, Fullingim took the position that a 5,000 acre park would be a dinky development, indeed, when what was needed was the preservation of the Big Thicket itself, undisturbed in its natural state, even though this would mean that tenderfeet might not easily enjoy it. The land and lumber companies should keep the Thicket, because they would preserve it, he argued at that point. In I’ll Take Texas, Mary Lasswell wrote, “The handful of people in Texas and the United States who know anything about the region are sick at heart, indignant, and impotent to stop the destruction of one of the world’s treasure houses. The depredations of the oil people and the lumber companies become greater every day.” Pete Gunter, a brilliant young man who was a leader of causes as a student at the University of Texas, read this, and wrote Senator Ralph Yarborough on behalf of preserving the Big Thicket in March, 1961. Gunter asked Yarborough if he would help fight to preserve “the Everglades of Texas the Big Thicket.” ARBOROUGH was indeed interested. “My home being in East Texas,” he says, “I have had a very close and intimate concern for the Big Thicket for many yearsgoing back to the time when as a boy I heard the men from Henderson County return from Big Thicket telling of its fabulous game, its plants, its water, its nature.” Yarborough wrote John Cooper, forest supervisor of the four Texas national forests \(Angelina, Davy Crockett, Sabine, people set out to find a part of the Thicket in the Sam Houston forest suitable for development as a scenic area. Last year they found it, and by the authority given them by the Congress, they just set it aside for public use, ruled out all other uses for it except those specifically approved, and notified Yarborough. “We have finally succeeded in selecting an area of 1,130 acres to be known as ‘The Big Thicket Scenic Area’ and located in the Sam Houston National Forest about five miles south of Coldspring in San Jacinto County,” Cooper wrote Yarborough. “Many acres were reconnoitered intermittently until the final selection of this 1,130 acre tract on Big Creek. It is not virgin timber, but has some of the largest trees we have been able to find in the Big Thicket area and certainly contains the largest variety or number of species of trees and shrubs that we have been able to find any place. A botanist from the Nature Conservancy Club has inventoried and identified 66 tree species, 21 small shrubs, 22 vines, ten ferns and mosses, and 45 herbs and other plants. . . . “It would be almost impossible for the average person to get in this area until we can open up trails, a parking lot, and install appropriate signs.” He hoped that Senator Yarborough, as well as Governor Daniel, who was apprised of these developments, could attend the opening ceremonies ; but the developments depended on available funds, and had not been completed before Daniel left the governor’s mansion. Yarborough has not had publicity given to this new scenic area, because he ‘has been pushing Padre Island as a national
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