Get lost with Jim Schutze while canoeing the Neches River and find the wildlife refuge Dallas wants to dam to secure its water supply

Can't budge. My 22-year-old son, Will, is standing in the bow of the canoe breaking branches to allow us to go forward. I'm trying to paddle backward so we can turn, but the stern of the canoe is locked in a fist of vines and trunks, meaning we have managed to lodge both ends of the boat at the same time. A first for me.

We are no longer on the river. We are lost in floodwater in the middle of a forest. The world around us is a dense puzzle of trees and undergrowth. We know we are at least a quarter-mile from the main river channel. It's late afternoon. We should be far from here by now. Spiders literally are raining down on us from a thick canopy of trees and vines.

My son, Will, loaded the canoe at U.S. Highway 79 between Palestine and Jacksonville. On our trip down the Neches River, we paddled through
idyllic scenes of nature,
but we also saw signs of the “undesirable social elements” we had been warned to avoid.
My son, Will, loaded the canoe at U.S. Highway 79 between Palestine and Jacksonville. On our trip down the Neches River, we paddled through idyllic scenes of nature, but we also saw signs of the “undesirable social elements” we had been warned to avoid.

The worst is this: Will tells me we've been in this very spot before. He says we have been going in circles. That makes me mad. I tell him he's starting to imagine things. He says no and points to particular fallen trees. He reminds me this is where, when we passed the first time, he had told me that the spiders falling on us, which had been long-legged and slender up to that point, were becoming "fatter and hairier."

Damn. He's right. This is, indeed, the fatter, hairier spider place. I thought I was steering us due east through the flooded forest, back to the river, but somehow in trying to find clearings through the trees I have caused us to go in a pointless circle.

We've been on the Neches River (pronounced NAY-chez) in East Texas for two days, mostly having a wonderful time until about an hour ago. Now it's not so good.

The Neches originates in underground springs just east of Colfax, about 60 miles east of Dallas on Interstate 20, and flows 420 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. We put in yesterday where the river crosses U.S. Highway 79 between Palestine and Jacksonville, about 130 miles southeast of Dallas.

Some of the land along the Neches is in old family farms, but most of it, tens of thousands of acres in Anderson and Cherokee counties, is undeveloped because it was held for the better part of a century by timber companies and leased by hunt clubs. Weeks before we made our trip by canoe, Andy Jones, director of the Texas office of The Conservation Fund, a private environmental group that buys natural areas to protect them, told me that the combination of timber companies and hunt clubs may have been the best thing that ever happened to land in East Texas.

"These large forest products companies like Temple-Inland managed the land better than anybody could ever manage it," Jones said.

Turmoil on Wall Street and unfavorable tax policies are forcing these timber companies to dump land, Jones added. In some ways, he said, it's a good thing, giving the conservation community the chance to purchase land, but in other ways, the piecemeal selling off of large holdings in East Texas is bad for nature, because fragmented land is more likely to be developed. "What once was a 4 million acre landscape now is being fragmented at a rate that is unprecedented in our lifetime."

The Neches River, which lies at the heart of that rapidly changing landscape, is also at the heart of a legal battle between the city of Dallas and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Dallas wants to dam the river to create a reservoir in exactly the same area where the USFWS is seeking to create a national wildlife refuge.

Dallas city manager Mary Suhm told me that Dallas just needs more water. Population is slated to soar, and for that there must be water. The city has an aggressive water conservation program, she said, "but that won't get us there."

Chris Bowers, Dallas' first assistant city attorney, told me Dallas' search for water is the same basic quest for survival of all cities throughout history. "This practice goes back to ancient times when the Romans built more than 600 aqueducts to convey water to some cities, including Rome itself," he said. An entire body of law authorizes the city to go far away and acquire land by eminent domain for water, Bowers added.

The USFWS has argued in court, successfully so far, that this part of the Neches is a unique national treasure that should be protected—and that the USFWS has first claim to the land. The USFWS says it began proceedings to create a refuge before Dallas launched its process to acquire land for a reservoir, and therefore Dallas is out of luck.

Both ideas—the refuge and the reservoir—are focused on the part of the river where Will and I are now lost.

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We're not novices. On my last outing with my son, we canoed and portaged the lakes of Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario. He has canoed other Texas rivers. I have canoed the rivers of Michigan and the Intracoastal Waterway and Everglades in Florida. But neither of us has ever seen anything like this.

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