New Study Says Development Big Threat to Big Thicket

Date:   July 19, 2005
Contact:   Andera Keller Helsel, NPCA, 202-454-3332

New Study Says Development Big Threat to Big Thicket

Washington, D.C. - A new report today by the nonpartisan National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) says that the health of Big Thicket National Preserve in East Texas will be compromised by unplanned development and lack of funding if greater attention is not paid to this national treasure.

“Despite the efforts of Texas’s congressional delegation, Big Thicket is not out of the woods yet,” said NPCA Vice President for Government Affairs Craig Obey. “More money is needed to purchase the land that surrounds Big Thicket’s scattered units to protect this treasure from the effects of reckless development.”

Over the past few years, more than 2 million acres of timber-company land surrounding the preserve have been put up for sale. NPCA’s new State of the Parks report reveals that ad hoc commercial, industrial, and residential development of this land enables non-native and invasive plants and feral animals to invade the preserve; subjects the preserve’s delicate ecosystem to pesticides and fertilizers; interferes with fire management; and cuts off wildlife migration routes.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) requested $3.6 million for land acquisition needs at Big Thicket in the fiscal year 2006 Interior Appropriations bill to purchase the Village Creek Corridor, which was added to the park in 1993 as part of the Big Thicket National Preserve Addition Act. It is estimated that at least another $8 million is needed for the National Park Service to acquire all of the remaining lands provided within the 1993 legislation.

However, land added to the park as part of the 1993 legislation does not include 2 million acres of former timber company land surrounding the park that was recently sold to developers and other private interests. Big Thicket does not have the authority to purchase lands or hold conservation easements outside its congressionally authorized boundaries, so for the sake of protecting the park, NPCA is advocating that this change.

“More must be done to enable the Park Service to add threatened lands beyond Big Thicket’s current boundary,” Obey added. “Time is running out to protect this national treasure for our children and grandchildren.”

The report also calls attention to the potentially destructive effects of expanding U.S. Highway 69 to a 72-mile, four-lane highway near the preserve. The proposals to construct Fastrill Reservoir and Rockland Dam would affect water flows in the Neches River, which runs for 85 miles through Big Thicket. The preserve’s ecosystems depend on healthy flows in the Neches. NPCA believes that such urban development could be devastating for wildlife and would compromise the experiences of visitors, as wildlife watching and hunting opportunities would be negatively affected. The public has been invited to comment on the Neches River proposals, which are part of regional plans that the State of Texas is developing to address water needs throughout the state.

According to the report, Big Thicket is also plagued by a lack of sufficient annual funding. The park has just three law enforcement rangers to patrol the park’s 15 units to ensure visitors are safe, plants and wildlife are not poached, and illegal dumping is halted. Experts are needed to manage the park’s archival and museum collections and maintain historic buildings and sites that tell the stories of Big Thicket’s human history. Currently the park’s dedicated staff provides educational opportunities for 4,000 schoolchildren annually; with greater resources the park could reach many more of the children in Houston, Beaumont, and other communities within 100 miles of the preserve.

Rep. Kevin Brady (R-8-TX) is considering legislation that would provide greater protection to the preserve and aid the National Park Service in its efforts to teach visitors about Big Thicket’s natural wonders, human history, and educational and recreational opportunities.

The 97,000-acre Big Thicket National Preserve—consisting of 15 small units scattered across seven Texas counties—was created in 1974 to protect the precious remnants of a vast and unique landscape of incredible biological diversity that once covered more than 3.5 million acres of East Texas. The park was named to NPCA’s 2003 and 2004 lists of America’s Ten Most Endangered National Parks.

“The Big Thicket Association and Texas conservation community believe that the NPCA report accurately and compellingly diagnoses problems and suggests logical remedies,” said Big Thicket Association President Ellen Buchanan. “We are deeply indebted to the NPCA. The organization played a major role in the establishment of Big Thicket as the nation’s first national preserve, and they continue to support protection of this magnificent resource—as well as all of our national park treasures.”

Conferees are expected to meet in the next two weeks to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions of the fiscal year 2006 Interior Appropriations bill, which include funding for National Park Service operations and land acquisition needs at Big Thicket. The bill is expected to pass Congress and be on the president’s desk for his signature before the beginning of August.

NPCA launched the landmark State of the Parks program in 2000 to assess the health of national parks across the country. The product of a year-and-a-half-long analysis, “Big Thicket National Preserve: A Resource Assessment,” is the 24th NPCA State of the Parks report.

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