Now “Thirtysomething,” Big Thicket National Preserve Has Matured Nicely

Morning on Pine Island Bayou, Big Thicket National Preserve. Jim Burnett photo.

Big Thicket National Preserve in Texas and Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida are not identical twins, but they share a common history. Created on the same day, October 11, 1974, they became the first National Preserves in the park system. Together they represent a whole new (and somewhat controversial) branch on the National Park System family tree.

Like its Florida cousin, Big Thicket National Preserve has put on some years and is now a mature “thirtysomething” park. Despite a recent battering by Hurricane Ike, the majority of the park has reopened in time for today's anniversary celebration.

You won't find sweeping mountain vistas, spectacular waterfalls or rugged canyons in Big Thicket, but those willing to take the time will discover attractions of a different and delightful kind. This is one of the most biologically diverse places on earth, a quality recognized by UNESCO’s designation of Big Thicket as an International Biosphere Reserve in 1981.

A park publication provides a good summary of the area's natural features:

Major North American biological influences bump up against each other here: southeastern swamps, eastern forests, central plains, and southwest deserts. Bogs sit near arid sandhills. Eastern bluebirds nest near roadrunners. There are 85 tree species, more than 60 shrubs, and nearly 1,000 other flowering plants, including 26 ferns and allies, 20 orchids, and four of North America's five types of insect-eating plants. Nearly 186 kinds of birds live here or migrate through. Fifty reptile species include a small, rarely seen population of alligators. Amphibious frogs and toads abound.

People have called the Big Thicket an American ark and the biological crossroads of North America. The preserve was established to protect the remnant of its complex biological diversity. What is extraordinary is not the rarity or abundance of its life forms, but how many species coexist here.

Birders love this park, which was designated a Globally Important Bird Area by the American Bird Conservancy in 2001. Several hundred nesting and migratory species have been recorded in the park, including some rarely seen elsewhere in this country.

This is a place that people want to explore. Like any park, you can enjoy this one on many levels.

For the casual visitor, there are several short trails that provide easy access into the fringes of the Thicket and provide a sampling of the area's forests, bogs and those fascinating carnivorous plants.

Those willing to venture deeper into the park, whether on foot or by boat, can find a degree of solitude that is surprising in an area within a two-hour drive of Houston, America’s fourth-largest city.

There's a special magic to be found on a cool late autumn morning as your canoe glides quietly between giant trees in a bottomland hardwood swamp. Except for the occasional whine from an aircraft passing overhead or a boat on the distant river, you might as well be on the far side of the earth.

Don’t get careless, though. For those unfamiliar with the terrain, this is a place where it's very easy to get lost once you leave a maintained trail. An exhausted settler wrote in 1835: "This day [I] passed through the thickest woods I ever saw. It...surpasses any country for brush."

If you plan to hike or boat, it pays to get good information, let someone know your travel plans, and be prepared with the standard emergency gear. The combination of flat terrain, heavy vegetation and lack of readily discernible landmarks can test your outdoor navigation skills, and in the depths of the Thicket, your trusty GPS unit will be sadly lacking in useful reference points.

Big Thicket's designation as a national preserve presents some unusual management challenges.
Unlike a traditional national park, a Preserve's enabling legislation typically allows activities such as oil and gas exploration and development, sport hunting, and trapping. Logging and most other commercial activities are banned.

Those compromises recognized political and economic realities if the area was to receive NPS protection at all. Purchasing the underlying mineral rights (for oil and gas) as well as the surface acreage would have been exorbitantly expensive. In 1974 the country was facing a depressed economy and chronic energy shortages due to the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo. The push was on to rapidly increase domestic oil production and reduce dependence on oil imports, and the idea of "locking up" potential new energy sources in oil-rich East Texas was not a popular one. Can you say déjà-vu?

How has the national preserve concept worked thus far, at least for the Big Thicket? The vast majority of resources in the park are now protected, and a drive around the region confirms that development has continued at a steady pace on much of the land outside park boundaries. There's no doubt that at least some prime areas have been saved from destruction.

Oil and gas development does disrupt the natural scene in places, but NPS oversight of those activities creates reasonable controls. The overall oil and gas "footprint" in the Preserve is about 920 acres, or about one percent of the total park area.

The park's 97,500 acres are divided among nine land units and six water corridors spread over approximately 50 square miles. Some of the units are contiguous, following waterways such as the Neches River and Pine Island Bayou, while others are separate tracts, islands in a choppy sea of commercial and residential development. Maps of the park are helpful in understanding the geography.

If you enjoy an uncrowded park experience and fascinating natural history, this is a park to consider for a future visit, especially between late fall and early spring. Time your visit wisely, since this part of the country can be difficult to love in the humid heat of summer. This is a park that's much more pleasant during the cooler months
of the year, when the resident insect population is less active.

Big Thicket National Preserve is located in southeast Texas about 100 miles northeast of Houston and near the smaller city of Beaumont

Post script: For those of you keeping track, a third park also has an October 11 birthday. First Ladies National Historic Site in Canton, Ohio was created on October 11, 2000.