The Texas Observer. SEPT. 15, 1967 A Journal of Free Voices A Window to The South 25c The Last Wilderness Beaumont Indians went there from as far away as Colorado and New Mexico to hunt its abundant game; they called it the Big Woods. Spanish padres described it as a forest so thick that it could not be travelled afoot and reported that Indians hunting there went by canoe, since there were no paths by land. The first pioneers, unable to penetrate the dense thickets, turned back and sought a new route west. East Texas appeared to them to be a gigantic jungle, halting them wherever they Settlers soon came to realize that the Big Thicket was not a single, massive jungle. Impenetrable thickets, it is true, closely followed the banks of innumerable streams; but above the swampy bottomlands sloped hillsides forested with longleaf pine, where deep shade and pine needles choked out undergrowth. Further north were open beech forests and broad savannahs, still easier to traverse. The Big Thicket was many diferent kinds of country; it was as diverse as the legends that were to grow up around it. In spite of plentiful supplies of lumber, water, and game, the region was never densely settled. For over a century it remained wild and remote, a last refuge for bear, panther and hunted men. Sam Houston planned to hide his army there if his attack on Santa Anna failed. Indians, runaway slaves, bandits, and thieves were safe in its cypress swamps and cane brakes. Deserters hid out in the Thicket during the Civil War, easily evading Confederate troops sent in to capture them. Convicts still stand a fair chance of escaping if they can reach the Thicket Mr. Gunter is a Texan who teaches at the University of Tennessee. He holds a BA degree from the University of Texas at Austin, 1958, was a Marshall Scholar, and has earned a bachelor’s degree at Cambridge and a PhD at Yale. He was reared largely in Houston and, as a boy, used to hunt in the Big Thicket out of Livingston. “When my family moved to Houston in 1947,” he recalls, “we lived east of Memorial Park, at the very outskirts of town. At night we could hear owls call and foxes bark; we never smelled air pollution. Now Houston sprawls literally 15 miles beyond the park. In 20 more years, will all of southeast Texas be one gigantic city-suburb? It might turn out that way unless_someone starts taking steps in the oppdsite direction pretty soon.” ahead of the bloodhounds. The Big Thicket’s precise location is hard to pinpoint. There are at least ten maps locating the Original Big Thicket; doubtless more will be produced before controversy . over the region dies down. Most authorities agree that the Thicket initially contained 3.5 million acres in southeast Texas, centering in Polk and Liberty counties and spreading almost to Houston and Beaumont; all concede that less than one-tenth of this acreage remains today. In his recent Farewell to Texas William 0. Douglas concludes that Pete Gunter the Big Thicket now contains 300,000 acres and pleads for its inclusion in the national park system before lumber companies and real estate speculators destroy it entirely. Douglas is not alone in his concern. For decades the Big Thicket Association has struggled to bring the area to the attention of scientists an’ conservationists and to make its poten i . value known to political leaders. Over; e last five years these efforts have begun to bear fruit. The Audubon Society, the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club and other conservationist organizations have begun to show a serious interest in the Big Thicket, and public interest is growing. Senator Ralph Yarborough’s recent introduction of Senate Bill 3929 to establish a Big Thicket National Park climaxes years of effort on the part of conservationists. But it also begins a struggle against lumber companies and other interests who bitterly oppose any effort to make the region into a national park. In some ways this opposition is understandable. The Big Thicket contains no lofty mountains, deep canyons oillad lakes. It is too hot for hiking from e through September and too wet for camping out much of the rest of the year. It contains few sites otorical importance, and is almost ilheard of outside Texas. What, then, jus lies the expense of turning it into a natio 41 park? THE UNPARALLELED rich , ness and diversity of the region’s e , n t life provides one of the most convincing replies to this question. ‘Almost all the trees and plants common to the deep South flourish in the Thicket. Yet Lance. Rosier, the region’s officig, self-taught naturalist, points out that only typi cally Western vegetation not found there is sagebrush, which he has tried unsuccessfully to grow. Magnolia, tupelo, sweet gum, bald cypress, and palmetto palms grow in the Thicket, alongside yucca, mesquite, several species of cactus and even tumbleweed. At the same time, a 60-inch annual rainfall and gulf climate make the Big Thicket a meeting-point of subtropical and temperate vegetation. At least 21 varieties of wild orchids grow in the area, as well as four of America’s five insect-eating plants; but the Titlet also boasts trees and plants native to,ihe cool Appalachian highlands. The Big Thicket Association advertises the area as the “Biological Crossroads of North America.” The slogan is certainly justified by the Thicket’s plant life, for no other region of comparable botanical diversity can be found in the United States. While the extraordinary variety of its vegetation has drawn na t iuralists from every leading American uhiversity, it is less generally known that the Thicket produces some of the borld’s largest trees. In or near the present Big Thicket grow the world’s largest holly tree, eastern red cedar, Chinese tallow, red bay, yaupon, black hickory, sparkleberry, sweetleaf, and two-wing silverbell. All of these “champion” trees are fairly recent discoveries, and it is probable that more will be found. Less than a year ago the world’s tallest cypress tree was discovered in bottomlands along the Trinity River. A cypress said to be still larger stands back in an inaccessible swamp, but no one has gone back in to measure it: salt water overflow from oil wells killed it over a decade ago. Game laws were not enforced in the Thicket until 4964, and poaching will for a long time remain a way of life there. It is something of a miracle, therefore, that the region continues to support innum erable varieties of wild life. -,B,ar and c ? panther, once common, are no Vgeen only / ‘ rarely. Ocelots and jaguars, ,, native to Mexico, were once reporte. -Thicket, but none has been sigh .,s recently. Nonetheless, thick woods produce an abundgit crop of deer and smaller game, including red and grey fox, grey squirrel, fox squirrel, flying squirrel, mink, otter, muskrat, nutria, bobcat, lynx, raccoon, possum, swamp rabbit and many others. Dempsie Henley, president of the Big Thicket Association; ,insists there are still rarer animals in the Thicket. In his forthcoming book, The Big Thicket Story, he recounts the story of a Houston busi
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