If this were a movie, his part definitely would go to Dennis Hopper.

The two eerie fishermen depart soon enough, but they are replaced at half-hour intervals by others, most of whom are bank fishermen. They all nod, friendly enough but too intent on fishing to talk. I bet every one of them has fished this spot and every other spot on the river since they were little boys.

The pleasure of Donovan's book is at least as much in its history and lore as in its description of the river. He grew up hunting and fishing out here. He writes that little of this land was fenced until the 1930s and then only because the hunt clubs leasing land from timber companies were trying to keep out poachers.

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.

Donovan worked as a teenager for the precursor to the Parks and Wildlife Department, planting food plots for wild game, putting up fences and releasing trailer-loads of turkeys and deer to protect and boost over-hunted wildlife populations.

Now it's midnight. The fishermen have stopped appearing, and I am in my tent trying to sleep. A cool breeze swirls in through the open flap. Will is in his tent. We are calling back and forth about what we think is going on across the river, where the engine noise and loud music never have stopped.

"I think they have a four-wheeler stuck," I say.

He thinks that happened a long time ago, and they left to get a truck to pull it out, and now they've got the truck stuck too.


If a federal wildlife refuge is coming, it will mean curtains for the guys across the river. Viramontes, the USFWS spokesman in Albuquerque, said the primary purpose of a federal wildlife refuge is not to serve as a place for human beings to "recreate."

"The first-priority use is to protect wildlife habitat," he said. "We're not run like a state or a national park where the emphasis is on bringing people in to recreate and enjoy. Our emphasis is on habitat value.

"However, we do have what are called priority uses, and those include hunting and fishing, bird watching and nature photography."

For the guys across the river, hunting and fishing maybe. Bird watching and nature photography? I don't see that happening. And yet the refuge has enjoyed almost unanimous support from locals, while Dallas' proposed reservoir has drawn united opposition from them.

It's a curious turn of events. Three years ago, attempts to create a federal refuge at Caddo Lake, about 90 miles northeast of here, ran into a wall of local opposition. Some of it was driven by politically connected business interests who wanted the land for development. But they were supported by a motley assortment of anti-federal-government survivalist militia-types who saw creation of a federal wildlife refuge as a slippery slope leading to domination by the New World Order.

I asked people in the area of the proposed Neches refuge why folks here support a federal refuge when people in the Caddo area did not?

Banks, the Jacksonville dentist, said the difference between Caddo and the Neches was that Dallas was coming after the Neches armed with the threat of eminent domain.

The USFWS takes land only from "willing sellers." They buy the land. In creating a reservoir, Dallas would be able to force people to sell. In fact, federal and state habitat mitigation policies and laws would require Dallas to acquire much more than the 23,000 acres for the reservoir itself. That's why Dallas is willing to create a 75,000-acre refuge on the middle Neches below the proposed dam: It has to take at least that much land anyway to meet the mitigation requirements.

Banks, one of the leading local champions of the refuge, told me, "I would have preferred for things to remain exactly the way they are now. No reservoir, no refuge."

Instead, people had to choose: a wildlife refuge of 25,000 acres purchased from willing sellers? Or a lake and mitigation lands of 90,000 acres or more taken by eminent domain?

When I asked Banks why there wasn't more anti-federal feeling around the Neches, the way there was at Caddo, he said it was because there was so much more anti-Dallas feeling. "The bad neighbor was Dallas," he said. "People still see me at Walmart or they'll see me in the street and they'll say, 'Dallas isn't going to get that water from us, are they?'"

Carolyn Salter, a physician, is also mayor of Palestine, a city of 18,000 that lies just 12 miles west of the upper Neches. She told me she thinks East Texas, once easily awed by the glamour of big new lakes, has grown wiser.

She said that with a reservoir, there would be condemnation of "family farms and ranches that have been in the same hands for generations, and that was really, really upsetting people."

But as mayor, she also thinks new lakes near small cities and towns can drain those communities the way a new, far-flung suburb siphons off energy and resources from a big city. "When they build lakes around here, we don't really see a lot of prosperity in the adjoining cities. We see an economic drain from affluence moving to the lake. Some of our leading citizens have moved to [Lake Palestine], and they no longer live in the community."

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