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Saving the Big Thicket

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The Big Thicket of East Texas, which at one time covered over two million acres, served as a barrier to civilizations throughout most of historic times. By the late nineteenth century, however, an assault on this wilderness by settlers, railroads, and timber companies began in earnest. By the 1920s, much of the wilderness had been destroyed. Spurred on by the continued destruction of the region, the Big Thicket Association (BTA) organized in 1964 to fight for its preservation. Arguing that the Big Thicket was a unique botanical region, the BTA and their supporters convinced President Gerald Ford to authorize an 84,550-acre Big Thicket National Preserve in 1974. Saving the Big Thicket is a classic account of the region's history and a play-by-play narrative of the prolonged fight for the Big Thicket Preserve. It is a clearly written case study of the conflict between economics and preservation, presenting each side with objectivity and fairness. Originally written by Cozine in 1976, it has been updated with a new afterword by Pete A. Y. Gunter.

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CHAPTER I Introduction





hen the first European pioneers landed on the North American coast, they were greeted by a primeval forest of seemingly limitless proportions. To many, the prospects of living in such a wilderness were frightening beyond comprehension. These would return to the safety of the Old World. Those who remained set about the task of carving a new life in this great forest. There were occasional openings in the woods where settlers could travel with relative ease.

But elsewhere the earth was covered with a thick tangle of berries and shrubs . . . saplings and ferns, and the debris of trees that had fallen to rot. . . . Grape trunks as thick as a man’s thigh flung themselves from the ground to grip the treetops. . . . and the interlocking branches in beech or hemlock woods shut out the sun by day and the stars by night.1

From the very beginning of settlement through the twentieth century, this immense forest—which stretched from the Atlantic seacoast to the second tier of states west of the Great River—has been under a sustained assault by man. The forest, the settlers believed, was an obstruction to civilization, an enemy to man. Where it existed, farms could not. It hid


CHAPTER II The Indians’ Assault



The Indians’ Assault


he first group to assault the virgin wilderness of the Big Thicket were the Native Americans. None of the indigenous peoples of Texas lived within the Big Thicket. However, three principal tribes—the Hasinai, Bidai, and the Akokisa—lived on its fringes. The Hasinai Indians, who were members of the Caddoan linguistic stock, lived in several villages scattered along the upper Trinity and Neches rivers just beyond the northern boundary of the Big Thicket.1 The Hasinai customarily called their friends or allies by the name “Tejas.”2 The Spanish, in turn, applied this name to the Indians of the region. These Tejas Indians were sedentary and followed agricultural pursuits. Maize, pumpkins, watermelons, and peas constituted some of their primary crops. Some writers have hinted that the

Tejas and other tribes were too frightened of the Thicket to live within its confines. This was not the case. The Tejas Indians never established permanent villages in the Big Thicket because the region was ill-equipped to support their agriculture-based society. The redlands where they lived were much more fertile than the sandy soils of the Thicket.3 Also, the Indians would have been required to spend years of arduous labor clearing the


CHAPTER III The Spanish Assault



The Spanish Assault


he white man’s assault on the Big Thicket region began as a small part of the great struggle between Spain and France for supremacy of the southern regions of what is now the United States. Prior to 1685, the area encompassing the region of present-day Texas was uninhabited by white men. Spain, who claimed Texas, had not attempted to colonize the region. Indeed, only a few Spanish adventurers, such as Cabeza de Vaca and Luis de Moscoso, had traversed even a small portion of the realm.

However, in 1685, an event occurred that would drive the Spanish to establish permanent settlements in East Texas.

In that year, Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, established an illfated French colony of 180 settlers in Texas. The settlement was located on the banks of the Garcitas River about five miles inland from Matagorda

Bay. Even the founding of this small colony in the vast unexplored region of Texas was an accident. La Salle had intended to plant this colony at the mouth of the Mississippi River, which he had explored just a few years earlier. Such a colony would have established French supremacy over the fur-rich Mississippi Valley. Unfortunately, a navigation error caused the


CHAPTER IV The Anglo Assault



The Anglo Assault


he Big Thicket had survived the assaults of the Indians, French, and

Spanish with relative impunity. However, beginning in the 1820s the Texas wilderness was subjected to the onslaught of a more vigorous civilization. Land-hungry Americans, at the invitation of the Mexican government, swarmed into Texas by the thousands. At first these early

Anglo settlers avoided the heavily wooded Big Thicket in favor of more open land. However, in later years they began nibbling at the Thicket’s flanks. Eventually a few hardy souls entered the region to hunt, trap, or eke out a frugal living from the soil. By the mid-1830s, the Anglos’ assault on the Big Thicket had begun.

The Anglo migration, which doomed the Texas wilderness, was initiated by the fertile imagination and perseverance of one man: Stephen F.

Austin. In 1820, Stephen F. Austin’s father, Moses Austin, a citizen of

Missouri who had suffered a series of financial setbacks in the United States, obtained permission from Spanish officials in Mexico to establish a colony of 300 Anglo-American families in Texas. In return for colonizing the region, Austin was to receive a large grant of land, which he hoped would relieve his personal financial crisis. The colony was to be established on a grant of land mutually agreeable to both parties. Austin’s plan held great appeal because it offered the government an inexpensive method of popu-


CHAPTER V A Timber Bonanza



A Timber Bonanza


lthough the development of bonanza timber operations in the Big

Thicket only began when railroads traversed the region in the 1880s, lumbering activities had been a part of the economic life of the Thicket almost from the beginning of the Anglo settlement of Texas. Stephen F.

Austin quickly recognized the importance of the lumbering industry to the growth and development of his adopted home. As early as 1828, Austin predicted that timber operations would be very extensive throughout all of East Texas within a few years. One sawmill was already operating on

Buffalo Bayou, while another was being constructed on the east bank of the San Jacinto River.1

Austin’s expected timber boom in East Texas failed to materialize for several years. Inadequate transportation retarded lumbering activities. Mill machinery had to be shipped up the waterways and then dragged over land to the construction site by a team of oxen: a costly and time-consuming operation. The absence of transportation facilities also made it extremely difficult to ship the lumber from the interior to the markets on the Texas coast. Early timber operators in the region depended almost entirely on river transportation. Steamboats and flatboats were used to haul lumber and firewood to the cities on the Gulf. Other operators in the Thicket


CHAPTER VI Oil Exploration in the Big Thicket



Oil Exploration in the Big Thicket


n addition to timber, the Big Thicket also contained vast deposits of a natural resource that was to become synonymous with the name of Texas: oil. During the first decade of the twentieth century, thousands of wildcatters, roughnecks, and roustabouts poured into the Big Thicket searching for petroleum deposits. When oil was discovered, boom towns sprang up over night. The crude early drilling methods, combined with the neglect of the operators, spelled disaster for several acres of the Big Thicket wilderness. Oil spills killed trees and polluted waterways. The social institution of the Thicket was also strained by the influx of loose women and gamblers who followed the oil workers. Indeed, it was a tumultuous period, marked by a lack of concern for the wilderness. Men were determined to extract the precious fluid even if it meant destroying the wilderness. The mania of large-scale oil exploration in Texas dates from the discovery of oil at Spindletop, just a few miles south of Beaumont. On January 10,


CHAPTER VII The Drive for Preservation



The Drive for Preservation


n 1831, Stephen F. Austin proclaimed that his sole ambition was “The redemption of Texas from the wilderness.”1 In less than one hundred years, Austin’s dream for the Lone Star State had been nearly fulfilled.

During the last half of the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth century, hundreds of thousands of people poured into Texas.

Railroads and highways crisscrossed the state. Bonanza timber operators, oil explorers, farmers, and cattlemen had whittled away sizable portions of the wilderness. By 1920, the Big Thicket was being depleted as were other wild regions of the state.

Some residents of the Big Thicket began to react against the wanton destruction. In 1927, R. E. Jackson, a railroad conductor whose route carried him through a portion of the Big Thicket, organized the East Texas

Big Thicket Association at his home in Silsbee, Texas. The Association’s motive was not the redemption of Texas, but rather the salvation of the wilderness. Their goal was simple. They merely wished to preserve for posterity a sizable portion of the Big Thicket in its natural state.2 Jackson, a man of strong conviction, personally attempted to preserve a portion of the Thicket by leasing 18,000 acres of land in the southeast corner of Polk


CHAPTER VIII The Yarborough Years



The Yarborough Years


enator Ralph Yarborough had heard tales about the Big Thicket during his childhood days in Henderson County just north of the Big

Thicket region. As a youth, Yarborough listened to his father spin yarns about his hunting exploits in the Thicket. The Big Thicket became an almost legendary land to the impressionable boy. Fired by these stories, young Yarborough envisioned the Thicket as the “Bali Hai land.”1

However, as his youth passed, the vision of the Big Thicket faded as other pursuits captured his interest. At age eighteen, Yarborough left Texas and journeyed to Europe on a cattleboat. One year later he returned home, entered college, and eventually graduated from the University of Texas

Law School. An appointment as assistant attorney general by Governor

James Allred whetted Yarborough’s political appetite, and in 1938, he ran for attorney general. During this campaign, Yarborough renewed his acquaintance with the Big Thicket. As he drove along the unpaved roads of the region, he was awed by the beauty and solitude of the woods. It was during this campaign that the Big Thicket “physically impressed itself” on his conscience.2


CHAPTER IX Urbanites and Intellectuals



Urbanites and Intellectuals


ollowing the general Big Thicket convocation in Silsbee in December

1968, the Big Thicket preservation movement experienced a transformation. The talk and controversy began to resolve into clear legislative proposals. By 1970, it had become eminently clear that federal Big Thicket legislation would occur. When, how much, and where, were questions that would remain unresolved. Preservationists and timber interests had distinct versions of what the Big Thicket Preserve should be, but the important thing was both sides agreed that a preserve should be established.

Senator Ralph Yarborough almost secured legislation for a Big Thicket

Preserve, but the vagaries of politics left the issue still in the lap of Congress by the close of Yarborough’s term.

The meeting in Silsbee had been called by Edward C. “Ned” Fritz, chairman of the Texas Committee on Natural Resources and a seasoned environmentalist. He had summoned all interested conservation and preservation groups to send representatives to the meeting to decide which areas of the


photo gallery



CHAPTER X Consensus and Compromise



Consensus and Compromise


espite the confusion of plans and motives, and the apparent lack of success by environmentalists or legislators to create a Big Thicket

Park, by 1970 there had been a decision. A portion of the Big Thicket would be preserved. Who would initiate it, when, and in what shape, form, or size had not been established. Over the next few years, a multitude of proposals, numerous compromises, countless hours of public hearings, and an untold quantity of print, film, and conversation finally resolved into the passage of an act of Congress to establish the Big Thicket National


The struggle to pass the bill represented an example of the controversy between preservationists and business interests over the use of the nation’s dwindling natural resources. For in the Big Thicket controversy, as is true with many modern environmental issues, the champions of preservation were the urban groups removed from the wilderness environments.

Furthermore, the Big Thicket issue illustrated the gulf between preservationists and conservationists. Timber interests, depicted as villains by the preservationists in the Big Thicket struggle, were in fact ardent conservationists dedicated to the concept of multiple-use forestry. The preservationists, however, sought to preserve the wilderness not because it was good business, or even exclusively to preserve the natural environment,


CHAPTER XI Conclusion





he Big Thicket National Preserve now moved from the legislative to the administrative phase, but it was a stage no less critical. A shortage of federal land acquisition funds delayed the purchase of all the Preserve units for a number of years. Meanwhile, timber interests, hunters, fishermen, cattlemen, land developers, farmers, and oil prospectors continued to compete for the natural resources of the Thicket until title to the land passed to the federal government. Nevertheless, by creating the

Big Thicket National Preserve, Congress ensured that the Big Thicket would continue to exist and to influence, as it always has, the way man lives in southeast Texas.

More than any other group, the Texas congressional delegation must shoulder the responsibility for permitting the struggle over the Thicket to last for nearly a decade. Both the timber industry and preservationists desired to save the timber resources of the Big Thicket, although for vastly different reasons. The desire to conserve the timber resources of the region was a common denominator, which the Texas congressmen could have exploited to forge a compromise solution.





Notes to Chapter I


Richard G. Lillard, The Great Forest (New York: Alfred A. Knape, 1947), 4.

Berton Roueche, “The Witness Tree,” New Yorker, August 31, 1968, 64.


Texas Observer 70 (November 27, 1970), 18.




The New Encyclopedia of Texas, ed. Elias A. Davis and Edwin H. Grabe,

2 vols. (Dallas: Texas Development Bureau, n.d.), I:32; The Handbook of Texas, ed. Walter Prescott Webb, 2 vols. (Austin: TSHA, 1952), I:160–61.


Frederick W. Simonds, The Geography of Texas, Physical and Political

(Boston: Ginn and Co., 1914), 52; U.S. Department of Agriculture, Division of Biological Survey, Biological Survey of Texas, Vernon Bailey. Bulletin No. 25

(Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1905), 107; Texas, University of Texas, The Natural Regions of Texas, Elmer H. Johnson. University of Texas

Bulletin No. 3113 (Austin: University of Texas, 1931), 62.


Hal B. Parks, Victor L. Cory, et al., The Fauna and Flora of the Big Thicket

Area (n.p., 1936), 4, 6, 10. The fourteen counties were: Newton, Jasper, Polk,




Bibliography to Chapters I–XI

———. Bureau of the Census. The Seventh Census of the United States, 1850,

Embracing a Statistical View of Each of the States and Territories Arranged by

Counties, Towns, Etc. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office,


———. Bureau of the Census. Twelfth Census of the United States Taken in

1900. 10 vols. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1901.

U. S. Congress. Congressional Record. 1966–1975.

U.S. Congress. House. Alabama Indians of Texas: Report of William Toker and

Letters to the Indian Department Relative to the Alabama Indians of Texas. H.

Doc. 866. 62nd Cong., 2nd Sess., 1912.

———. Subcommittee on National Parks and Recreation of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs. Hearing on H.R. 12034, Big Thicket National

Park, Texas. 92nd Cong., 2nd Sess., 1972.

———. Subcommittee on National Parks and Recreation of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs. Hearing on H.R. 4270 et al. Proposed Big

Thicket National Reserve, Texas. 93rd Cong., 1st Sess., 1973.






hat follows is an effort to complete James Cozine’s narrative, taking off roughly from the point at which he ends his account and bringing it up to the present time. To write such a concluding narrative is to confront serious problems. The creation of the Big Thicket National

Preserve was a single event, one which tied together innumerable strands of history. The development of the Preserve was, and is, a many-sided series of events, which branch out, grow, and only occasionally interact. In the first case, one has many strands of history becoming a single strand; in the second, one has the Preserve becoming many strands of events.

It would seem at first glance that these events could be approached as a simple chronology: that is, as a series of dates of significant events listed according to the order in which they took place. The apparent simplicity of such a rubric, however, conceals its weakness. The history of the Big

Thicket National Preserve is too complex to be constructed as a single series. Too many of its factors are contemporaneous, taking place at the same time but without affecting each other. Too many take place in areas outside the Preserve. Too many culminate at different times—if they do indeed culminate. All of these must be described in the present essay. Their sheer diversity in time, place, and character forbids their being nailed down on a “time line.” Inevitably what follows must be like the Neches River: a





1. Maxine Johnston, “Twenty-five Years of Milestones: Big Thicket National Preserve,” manuscript found in Big Thicket National Preserve Library,

Big Thicket National Preserve, Beaumont, Texas, 1999, p. 1.

2. See above, pp. 162–64.

3. Johnston, “Twenty-five Years,” 1–3.

4. “Complete the Preserve,” Beaumont Enterprise, November 11, 1981, sec. A.

5. Joe Fohn, “Big Thicket Group Upset by Stalled Land Acquisition,”

San Antonio Express, November 26, 1982, sec. B.

6. Richard Connelly, “Out of the Thicket,” Texas Lawyer, April 20, 1992, p. 16.

7. Steve Moore, “Title Hassles Snag Thicket Land Sales,” Beaumont Enterprise, October 8, 1978, sec. D.

8. “Jewell Honored,” Big Thicket Bulletin, no.11 (September 11, 1994): 8.

9. Pete A.Y. Gunter, The Big Thicket: An Ecological Reevaluation (Denton,

TX: University of North Texas Press, 1993), 99–100.

10. Geraldine Watson, Reflections on the Neches, Temple Big Thicket Series 3 (Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press, 2003), 248–50.

11. National Park Service. Briefing Statement for Jennifer Yezek, aide to





Abernethy, Francis E., ed. Tales from the Big Thicket. Temple Big Thicket Series 1. Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press, 2002. First published 1966 by University of Texas Press.

Ajilvsgi, Geyata. Wild Flowers of the Big Thicket, East Texas, and Western Louisiana. College Station, TX: Texas A& M University Press, 1979.

Baxter, David. Nature of the Forest: Temple-Inland’s Timberlands in the Twentyfirst Century. Diboll, TX: Temple-Inland, Inc., 2002.

Cozine, James J. “Defining the Big Thicket: Prelude to Preservation.” East

Texas Historical Journal 32, no.2 (1993): 57–71.

Fountain, Michael S., and R. Lee Rayburn. Impact of Oil and Gas Development on Vegetation and Soils of Big Thicket National Preserve. Technical Report,

No. 5. College Station, TX: National Park Service Cooperative Park Studies Unit, Texas A & M University, 1987.

Gunter, Pete A. Y. “The Big Thicket: A Case Study in Attitudes toward Environment.” In Philosophy and Environmental Crisis, edited by William



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