By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
I'm slow. I thought the age-old question was: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? He says, yeah, but now we know what it sounds like if someone is there to hear it. Fine.
For some years I was peripherally aware of the controversy over Dallas' proposed reservoir on the Neches. But I never got interested in the river itself until recently, when I read Richard M. Donovan's 2006 book, Paddling the Wild Neches.
Donovan, a retired wood-buyer for a timber company, grew up fishing and trapping on the Neches. He wrote the book, his first, as his personal contribution to saving the river from more dams. Wrapped around the saga of his 235-mile solo-paddle down the river in 1999, the book is an entertaining history of a region where the American frontier culture extended well into the first half of the 20th century.
The Neches is dammed in two places now—one at Lake Palestine 20 or so river-miles above where Will and I are canoeing, the second about 215 river-miles southeast of us near Jasper at B. A. Steinhagen Lake.
The city of Dallas wants to build a new dam about 13 miles downriver from where we are, midway between Alto and Elkhart, to flood about 23,000 acres. Dallas says it needs the water and insists the wildlife in the region can be protected even after the river disappears beneath a new lake.
The USFWS says a refuge is needed "to protect some of the last remaining high-quality bottomland hardwood habitat in Texas."
In court papers the USFWS identifies the Neches as "important nesting, wintering and migratory habitat for migratory birds" along what biologists call the "central flyway," a kind of super-highway for birds migrating between Alaska and Southern Mexico. The USFWS calls the region in which we are canoeing "an area of extreme importance to the diversity of wildlife in East Texas...which is being adversely affected by the expansion of urban populations and other types of development."
Dallas has included a possible Neches reservoir on its list of future projects since 1961, but has taken no steps toward acquiring land. On January 10, 2007, the city filed a federal lawsuit in the Northern District of Texas, asking the court to enjoin the USFWS from proceeding with the refuge, claiming the USFWS had short-circuited a legal process by failing to obtain an environmental impact statement. The USFWS claimed no impact statement was required, since a refuge will not change the land in question but preserve it.
In the summer of 2008, U.S. District Judge Jorge Solis ruled for the USFWS, and last March 12, his ruling was upheld by a panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Will and I are not out here in the canoe to settle the lawsuit. Last winter when I read Donovan's book, it occurred to me I had no real idea what was at stake. I think I'm like a lot of Dallas types. I tend to view nature as something you find at the other end of a long plane ride. What kind of unique natural treasure can be two hours by car from Dallas?
Right now I'm at a point in our journey where I believe it's time for a beer. He agrees and waves me to a deep cut in the bank on my right. We pop open a couple cold ones. He gets a real beer and I an O'Doul's, yet more proof that life is not fair. An eddy turns us around in slow circles in the same spot while we sip. We both gaze out in silence at this rotating universe of trees and water as if from inside a snow globe.
We are at the heart of a natural system feeding hundreds of square miles of some of the most sensitive and important natural areas in the country. Downriver from us is the Big Thicket Refuge, property of the National Park Service. Covering almost 100,000 acres between Lufkin and Beaumont, the Big Thicket has been called the Noah's Ark of North America for its incredible diversity of wildlife, including 186 species of birds and 1,000 types of flowering plants.
Gina Donovan, daughter of Richard Donovan, is executive director of the Houston Audubon Society. She's been concerned about the Dallas litigation because she fears the harsh impact a reservoir would have on the Big Thicket and on marine life in Sabine Lake at the rim of the Gulf of Mexico, all of which the Neches River feeds.
"The Big Thicket Refuge is dependent, to the strongest definition, on the fresh water flows of the Neches River to keep its ecological diversity," she told me. "During the winter months when we have all of the rain, the Neches gets out of banks and goes up into the bottomland areas, which it basically fertilizes."
She believes a reservoir would spell ecological disaster. "You would in essence stand to lose the Big Thicket National Refuge.
"Then we talk about the Sabine Lake estuary. Sabine Lake is right there on the coast. It too is dependent on the fresh water flows of the Neches to keep its brackish water balanced. That's where a lot of the marine life spawns.