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Photo by Roy Hamric from The Big Thicket: A Challenge for Conservation by Dr. Pete Gunter BOOKS & THE CULTURE “All We Had Was Nuisance Power” BY CHAR MILLER Saving the Big Thicket: From Exploration to Preservation, 1685-2003 By James J. Cozine, Jr. Foreword and Afterward by Pete A. Y Gunter. University of North Texas Press 289 pages, $34.95 ow 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 H 18 THE TEXAS OBSERVER OCTOBER 21, 2005