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Stories Added - June 2008
Copyright 2008 - Polk Count
y Publishing Company

Big Thicket Preserve expansion no threat to property owners, expand tourism at Polk County attractions
Polk County Enterprise - June 2008

LIVINGSTON – After a public meeting recently held in Spruger to discuss a bill filed by Rep. Kevin Brady (R-The Woodlands) that would expand the Big Thicket National Preserve has been poorly explained to most voters and property owners. Brady has drafted HR 5891 that would possibly allow the preserve to negotiate with willing buyers adjacent to the existing preserve to help protect the preserve from potential future damage as timber companies divest themselves of many of their large real estate holdings. President of the Big Thicket Association Bruce Drury of Beaumont said that news accounts of the public meeting held in Spurger concerning HR 5891 to authorize the expansion of the Big Thicket National Preserve indicates there is a great deal of confusion about what the bill would and would not allow. Some of the Big Thicket assets that are wonderful parts of the Big Thicket include The Beaver Slide Trail and the Birdwatchers Trail in the Menard Creek Unit. “All the Big Sandy Units are fantastic and they’re fairly out of the way compared to the rest of the preserve,” Drury said. The Big Sandy unit includes two streams.

Menard Creek flows southwest to the Trinity River. Birdwatchers Trail comes out at mouth of the creek. Big Sandy Creek becomes Village Creek when it flows into Tyler County. There is a relatively large unit on the south side of the Alabama- Coushatta Reservation, according to Drury. “There’s a lot of neat things there, it just doesn’t get much attention,” he said. There’s also a lovely Woodlands Trail. ”The first concern voiced has been fear that the government might take land from landowners not wanting to sell,” Drury said. “This is emphatically not the case with the Big Thicket expansion.” Governments do take land at times, through eminent domain with compensation, when the need is urgent and no alternatives are present, Drury said.

Early plans for expansion include the addition of a Visitors Center on the north side of Beaumont that would shuttle people further up into the Big Thicket area and have an attraction like a canopy walk above flood plain, according to Drury. The Canopy Walk would an area of flood plain that comes off a bluff area near the visitors center and would provide a short path for guests who are not devoted hikers as well as those who need assistive devices to navigate pathways. The key purpose is to keep the Big Thicket together as much as possible and prevent it from being fragmented. “Once smaller parcels are sold for development into residential or commercial areas, habitat would be lost and it’s hard to bring it back together,” Drury said. “However, HR 5891, if approved, would allow tracts within the area to be bought only if offered for sale by willing sellers,” Drury said. “Congressman Brady is obviously determined to protect people’s property rights.” Transactions that do take place after owner authorization and provided congress appropriates the money, the expansion would help draw tourists to the sections of the Big Thicket that lie in Polk County and would also draw more visitors to the Alabama Coushatta Tribe of Texas, whose property backs up to the Big Thicket Preserve. Much of the land that could be added to the preserve is currently timber land. Timber companies have no use for hardwood bottom land.

“They would probably dump that,” Drury said. Drury added that many residents of Tyler County and the Big Thicket area have expressed valid concerns for residents in the Big Thicket area that if the NPS acquires the additional land, that property will be taken off the tax rolls. Since the property most likely to be added is currently taxed under agricultural rates, the loss would not be critical. Agricultural rate is far lower than the rates for commercial and residential property. That possible loss would be balanced by the PILT program (federal payment in lieu of taxes), which compensates local governments for the tax loss occurring when property is removed from the tax rolls. None of this would affect the state money coming to school districts. In fiscal 2007, state funds accounted for roughly 75 percent of the Spurger ISD budget. Another concern expressed in the Spurger meeting was whether there is the potential for a loss of jobs, Drury said.

“Oil and gas exploration and production will not be affected. The Big Thicket National Preserve does not own the mineral rights within its current boundaries and would not acquire mineral rights within the new boundaries,” he said. “Much of the targeted area for Big Thicket National Preserve expansion is hardwood bottomland, land that is not generally appropriate for logging, agriculture or urban development.” On the contrary, Mr. Brady’s proposal is intended to generate jobs in ecotourism and recreation, according to Drury. “There is already evidence that tourism is increasing in the Big Thicket region despite the fact that few concerted, effective efforts have been made to market the area,” Drury said. Most of the current visitors are outdoor folks like hikers, canoers, birders, hunters, photography buffs, along with scientists and their students. Many foreign visitors come because the preserve is listed in international directories as an International Biosphere Reserve. Congressman Brady expects to widen that audience by adding more attractions that lure tourists. Drury estimates that 180,000 to 200,000 visits are made each year to the Big Thicket’s natural assets. But, the numbers are difficult to calculate how many people canoe down Village Creek or use hiking trails.

The visitors center operated by the National Parks Service has 90,000 to 100,000 guests register each year in a visitors log but many guests who are looking for a chance to explore the area for a few hours or a few days can access areas of the Big Thicket and never come near the Visitors Center. Mr. Brady’s proposal is particularly timely because of the divestiture of timberland over the past seven years by International Paper, Louisiana Pacific and especially Temple-Inland, Drury said. Those companies grew timber for profit, but they also buffered and protected the Preserve. “Fragmentation of those forests, especially the hardwood bottomlands, would be devastating to what is left of the Big Thicket,” Drury said.

HR 5891 would allow the National Park Service to accept up to 100,000 acres of adjacent land by gift or by purchase from willing sellers if funds are available. The struggle to save and conserve this national treasure called the Big Thicket has gone on for almost 80 years. Passage of HR 5891 would give our efforts a big shot in the arm. ”The Big Thicket habitat ought to be preserved to make sure that its there for future of generations,” Drury said.

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