The Big Thicket has always been a unique place. This peculiar patch of forest offers habitat to an amazing abundance of life. Thanks to glaciers that pushed all forms of life south towards livable zones, this subtropical climate now supports a vast array of species. The term “thicket” is used because the woods are so dense with the abundance of plant growth. Historically the woods were a meat market, acting as an ideal hunting landscape for various American Indian tribes. Early European settlers could survive off only what the Big Thicket had to offer, and it would eventually draw industry because of its vastness of riches.
But preservation of the Thicket came late. While conservationists were seeking a national park for the area as early as 1930, no protections from a government agency would arrive until 1974. By this time, the major predators who once found refuge in the woods would be all but gone and the once-impenetrable Thicket would be greatly fractured by the onset of industry into the region. When a National Park Service (NPS) survey team came out in the 1960s, they couldn’t find more than 5,000 contiguous acres that had not been disturbed by roads or altered from its original state. Ironically, though, it was also this industry that brought awareness to the Thicket to begin with.
For a long time, the Big Thicket had no permanent settlers. American Indian tribes relied on the region for hunting and made permanent settlements to the north and south. Even European Americans were slow to inhabit the area and the earliest settlements were small and scattered. It wasn’t until the lumber industry began to extract resources from the area, building roads, rails and townships as they went, that awareness of the Thicket began to take route.
The East Texas Big Thicket Association
R.E. Jackson would observe the wonders of the Thicket because of industry. Jackson was a railroad conductor whose routes would bring him through the Thicket. The railroad operated primarily to extract lumber, and so Jackson also saw this resource disappearing. He wanted to salvage the wilderness. In 1927, he established the East Texas Big Thicket Association (ETBTA) in Silsbee whose goal was to reserve, for prosperity, a portion the Big Thicket in its natural state. Jackson personally leased 18,000 acres in the southeast corner of Polk County for this purpose and pushed for federal action to protect an additional 430,000 acres with his land as the nucleus, encompassing nearly the entirety of Polk County.
Though ambitious, the Beaumont Chamber of Commerce endorsed this plan, excited by the prospect of tourism. Support, overall, was slowly gained. By the mid-1930s, much of the early supporters were botanists and biologists from the Texas Academy of Science. These scientists were enamored of the area for its diversity of life, unseen in any other region of the United States, and wanted to preserve the Thicket as an outdoor botanical library.
A key piece of literature for the ETBTA, used to help promote the importance of the region, was a report completed by botanists Hal B. Parks and Victor L. Cory. Both scientists were first introduced to the Big Thicket through the Texas Academy of Science and, after some careful persuasion on behalf of the association, eventually published a report based on an expedition of the Thicket. The association used the report to help them garner support from the federal government to try and establish a park, with the support of Senator Morris Sheppard.
While this report was highly important to the ETBTA, giving them a means to talk about the region as a defined space and ushering in numerous newspaper articles in regard to the region’s beauty, it was little more than a checklist of species in the region based on incomplete research. Confusingly, Parks also made the decision to define the region based on physio-geological features. The north border was the last shoreline of the Pliocene age, the southern border the shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico during transgression in the previous interglacial period. The western boundary was the bluff line of the ancestral Brazos river and the east was the Sabine River (simply because the report restricted the region to Texas). By this definition, the Big Thicket covered approximately 3,350,000 acres. Many found this an odd choice of defining the region, highlighting an interesting dilemma that would be faced consistently in the quest to establish the park: What and where is the Big Thicket?
Defining the Thicket
The Big Thicket, even to this day, remains a rather ambiguous region. Early European settlers used “Big Thicket” in reference to the dense, nearly impenetrable forest. The rivers and creeks were some of the only early means of moving within the Thicket and those coming through the region by wagon would have to go around the dense woods. As people started to settle, the term “Big Thicket” was already a widespread colloquialism. Locals knew the region based on their traditions and experiences, rather than by any concrete landforms or natural phenomena.
Prior to Parks’s and Cory’s report, there were only two other official reports that addressed the region. The first was a 1904 article by James Gow, a US Forest Service employee. Like Jackson, Gow found himself in the area thanks to the industry as he was surveying holdings of the Kirby Timber Company. He was struck by the flora and identified six ecological regions that separated the Thicket from other Texas forests: pine flats, pine upland, high hammock, swamp, low hammock and hardwood bottom. His article was incomplete but was the first ecological approach to the region that would later be used to define the park.
The second official report was written by Professor Roland Harper in July 1920, while in the Thicket collecting Yaupon samples for the US Department of Agriculture. He was impressed by the longleaf pine region in eastern Hardin County. He also denoted the loblolly region, 12 miles southeast of Kountze, that he called the hammock belt and that locals referred to as the “Big Thicket”. Harper would write to Cory in 1937, indicating his surprise that the longleaf was included as part of the Big Thicket in their report. From Harper’s experience in the region, based on local terminology, he thought the “Thicket” referred to just some of the hammock and expressed that he did not think the longleaf should be included given that the understory growth in the region was not the thick, nearly impenetrable density of the hammock supporting a more literal use of a Big Thicket distinction.
An Ecological Definition
Professor Claude McLeod, a biology professor at Sam Houston State College, attempted to address the issue shortly before the first NPS survey team visited the area in the 1960s. His approach was to delineate the region by vegetation (an ecological approach first seen in 1904). He defined the Thicket as a loblolly pine-hardwood forest with particular types of understory shrubs and trees. He mapped 2,000,000 acres across nine counties that fit this definition. When the survey team arrived, it is that definition they used.
While the Thicket would continue to be defined by its ecological zones, the amount of acreage that this definition encompassed still made the determination of where to put a park difficult to approach. Industry, lumber especially, was already spread across the region, making any location highly impactful on the local economy. Throughout the Thicket’s quest for protection via park status, the struggle of clearly defining the region would continue to arise and create a near constant back and forth in attempts to quell the desires of conservationists and the public while also balancing the economy of industry.
The ETBTA eventually lost momentum and ceased to exist. The discovery of large deposits of oil in Polk County in 1936 and 1942, the onset of WWII increasing the demand for lumber, and the federal government having recently acquired land near the region for a national forest (making it unlikely that they would be willing to acquire even more land) dealt some finishing blows to the association and their mission.
Park Plans in Motion
The second Big Thicket Association would come to be after a failed bid to create a state park in the Big Thicket region. Price Daniel, Governor of Texas and brother of a wealthy Big Thicket rancher who pestered him to create a state park in the region after his election, was originally uninterested in the creation of a Big Thicket park. However, after a 1960 visit to Yellowstone National Park, he changed his tone when he saw how much tourism such sites can draw.
Though Price’s venture would never come to fruition, after being voted out of office in 1962, it was through his actions that the creation of a park was set firmly in motion. Once he left office, it became clear that the region needed a citizen group that was exclusively focused on the preservation of the Thicket if a park was ever to be created. Lance Rosier was appointed as the temporary president until Dempsie Henley was appointed and the Big Thicket Association (BTA) was officially established in November 1964.
Henley was a real estate broker and had working relationships with timber firms. For this reason, Daniels, shortly before leaving office, had selected him to head a Big Thicket Study Committee that would make an official park recommendation to the state legislature. The committee was lackluster, but Henley eventually presented a plan for the park that called for six components totaling 52,200 acres. However, despite the public support for the park, neither the state nor lumber companies moved to support the proposal.
Seeking Federal Protection
Realizing that their movement might need a catalyst, the BTA decided to act on a threat that Governor Daniels had once made: if the state doesn’t do something, the federal government will. Henley invited Senator Ralph Yarborough to tour the Big Thicket in order to add pressure on the state to act on the proposal. In October 1965, Yarborough toured the Big Thicket accompanied by prominent environmentalists and was persuaded to pursue a push for a national park.
This visit and Yarborough’s consequential campaign for a Big Thicket National Park set in motion a nine-year struggle to establish a park in the region on the federal level. Between the years of 1966, when Yarborough introduced the first senate bill to establish a park, and 1974 when the preserve was finally established, 28 bills were introduced in both the House and Senate to create a national park site of some sort.
Yarborough’s original bid was for a national park, but the first survey team to the area was unable to identify even a 5,000-acre tract that did not have a road cutting through it or was unaltered because of the logging, farming, and subdivisions in the area. This led them to conclude that there was not enough wilderness to meet the standards of a national park, but it could still be considered for a national monument. Yarborough was not satisfied with this and replied that, “Monuments are for dead things.” Despite this early assessment, senators and congressman alike continued to submit proposals for a national park, national monument, biological reserve and even a national recreation area.
A “String of Pearls”
Throughout this period, the shape and size of the proposals fluctuated constantly based on numerous stimuli. There were still lingering questions about what and where the Big Thicket was and multiple approaches: should it be one large area that is easier to manage, or a “string of pearls”—multiple smaller units preserving representative samples of the whole region and spreading the economic benefit of the park across the counties. And during all of this, the lumber industry was throwing their weight behind first a state park and then a national monument to try and minimize their loss in the venture.
It was Congressman Charles Wilson of Lufkin, whose congressional district housed almost entirely the proposed park, that would eventually bring all the back and forth to a head. Though Wilson himself was not a very strong supporter of the park, he recognized the public support and desired a quick compromise to the whole affair. His initial bill would not pass as quickly as he originally intended, but after combining and compromising on aspects from other representatives’ proposals, the Big Thicket would finally have its park, a “string of pearls” covering 84,550 acres, in October 1974.
A Preserve is Born
In the end, after nearly a decade of proposed bills and over 50 years of pushing for a park, it was not a national park that was established. Nor was it a monument or recreation area or biological reserve. Instead, something entirely new was born: the national preserve. While a national preserve retains many of the functionalities and protections of a national park, it also allows for a certain level of resource extraction like hunting and fishing. The preserve attempts to balance the needs and desires of both conservation and the people that interact intimately with that space.
Every park is unique in their journey to becoming national sites, the time and complexities of the process varying greatly depending on the communities the park will impact. For the Big Thicket, the character of the community and the challenges that the region presented necessitated the creation of a new designation. The bill that would ultimately be signed by President Gerald Ford was a result of many years of compromise. Industry, locals who both used the land recreationally and professionally, conservationists and political climates all contributed to the tensions.
The creation of America’s first national preserve also opened the doors for other places in the US that might face similar tensions to usher in a park as well. Today, there are 19 national preserves across the country. Conservation is not a one-size-fits-all model and with unique designations like “national preserve”, the differentiating challenges of communities can be more intrinsically accounted for in federal conservation efforts.