KOUNTZE, Texas – When the trees start to bud and the wildflowers burst into bloom, Maxine Johnston will adjust her hearing aids, strap on a backpack and set off into the heart of the Big Thicket National Preserve.
Ms. Johnston has hiked for decades in the East Texas forest described by some as "America's Ark" for its astonishing array of life: all manner of creatures and plants, including mushrooms, fungi, wildflowers and four of the five carnivorous plants found in the United States.
But this year, Ms. Johnston feels an urgent need to visit her favorite remote places. Not because she's 76 and wonders how many more seasons she'll be healthy. But because even if her body lasts, she fears that her beloved Big Thicket won't.
Defenders of this swath of towering woods and murky, primeval swamp fear that the battle has turned against them because of quickly approaching exurban growth and a land ownership turnover that began a few years ago when large timber companies unloaded huge tracts.
And there are other concerns, such as an increasing number of oil and gas rigs operating in and around the preserve because of streamlined federal restrictions. Not to mention a state highway expansion that skirts the preserve.
Last year, the National Parks Conservation Association named Big Thicket to its most endangered parks list for the second year in a row.
Ms. Johnston, part of a group that lobbied to establish the preserve in the 1970s, fears the onset of diesel trucks and off-road vehicles and is trying to get others behind preventative measures such as private land purchases.
But not everyone shares her sense of urgency.
Like many conservation efforts, this one is caught in the sometimes-opposing gears of environmental desire and economic need.
"We're terribly depressed economically," said Huntley Kenesson of J.B. Best and Co., owner of a clothing store established by his grandfather in 1919 in the Tyler County town of Woodville. "There's just hardly any economic activity at all."
In Woodville, population 2,400, a marquee welcomes a new Super Wal-Mart, and the downtown shopping area still boasts several longtime businesses. In some stores, however, clerks can outnumber customers.
"If we don't get some industry in here, we're going to be like all these other little towns," one woman warned while picking up a prescription at Jarrott's Pharmacy. "We're going to be a thing of the past. ... We need something to give our young people a reason to stay."
Some residents think their economic salvation might be in their back yards: the Big Thicket itself, which has been named an international biosphere by the United Nations.
"We feel like we're kind of sitting on the edge of a gold mine so far as tourist opportunities are concerned," Mr. Kenesson said.
But while 3 million visitors trekked to Yosemite last year, just 100,000 people visited the thicket. On a recent weekday, the introductory movie at the Big Thicket Visitors Center played to an audience of one.
Truth be told, the Big Thicket has an image problem. Its climate and geography – more Deep South than Old West – run against Texas' mythic grain. Instead of bright, endless horizons, the thicket is a damp, sometimes dim world of dense beech, magnolia and pine forest as well as swamps, bogs, orchids and azaleas. Buffalo don't roam here, but bobcats and beaver do, along with occasional alligators and cougars. And, in the summer months, a plague of mosquitoes.
The Texans who thrived here weren't cowboys but hardscrabble backwoodsmen, called "Dog People" because they hunted the tough terrain with dogs. And the thick woods were home to outlaws on the run and fugitive slaves.
"It's a sanctuary for the dispossessed," said Peter Gunter, a philosophy professor at the University of North Texas who has worked to preserve the thicket for more than 40 years.
The thicket is "an acquired taste," acknowledged Ms. Johnston. She recalled that when she first came to East Texas, "I thought it was the most monotonous-looking country I'd ever saw."
But after awhile, "you readjust your sights," she said, "and you start looking for the unusual and the significant. ... After you've got your sights readjusted, you become absolutely enchanted."
Chuck Hunt, management assistant for the National Park Service, said appreciating the Big Thicket often involves looking down.
"We don't have the grand vistas that make wonderful calendars," he said. "We have the micro-vistas which are these ... fascinating little mushrooms, fascinating fungi, fascinating wildflowers."
In the thicket, you can find the carnivorous pitcher plant and both the bladderwort and butterwort. And the sundew, a coin-sized plant with leaves covered in red hair-like glands that help it catch insects.
Mr. Hunt notes the region's rich history, too. "This is the birthplace of Texas, this is where it all started," he said, noting that many of Texas' early settlers entered from the east.
On historical maps, the Big Thicket is designated as a giant oval running from just north of Beaumont almost up to Tyler. Some experts estimate it covered 3.5 million acres, but settlement – farms and ranches, houses, railroads and oil exploration – whittled it down to about 300,000 acres today.
"The thicket was threatened as soon as the white man came to Texas," says Ellen Buchanan, regional parks director for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in Tyler, and president of the nonprofit Big Thicket Association.
In 1974, the association thought it had won the conservation battle when the federal government set aside 84,000 acres in a dozen or so patches of land scattered across southeast Texas.
Members wanted a larger, contiguous chunk of land. But carving public land out of a state owned almost entirely by individuals was not easy. "Texas is not an environmental state," Dr. Gunter said. "We just had to do what we could."
Timberland protection If supporters of the Big Thicket couldn't have one big park, they took comfort in the knowledge that most of the land connecting the pieces of the preserve at least was owned by timber companies.
The land, they reasoned, would be logged, but replanted trees would provide a buffer. Civilization would be kept at bay.
"We always thought the timber companies were going to be there forever," said Ms. Johnston.
But in 2001, Louisiana-Pacific and International Paper announced they would sell more than 1.5 million acres to reduce debt and be more financially flexible.
Temple-Inland, which has long owned hundreds of thousands of acres, has said it is committed to keeping its East Texas holdings. However, the company is in the midst of battling a possible hostile takeover attempt by corporate raider Carl Icahn.
The sale announcements in 2001 caused "red flags and cardiac arrest," Dr. Gunter said. Supporters feared the result of piecemeal land sales, a countryside dotted with fast-food joints, storage units and strip shopping centers.
Unlike logging, "What you can't recover from is concrete," said Mr. Hunt.
And the concrete has come.
Particularly along U.S. Highway 69, out of Beaumont, acre after acre formerly owned by timber companies, has been paved over for small businesses and homes. Locals who remember driving quickly through the small town of Lumberton have grown accustomed to sitting in traffic.
Signs of more to come are tacked to trees and utility poles. "For Sale." "Will subdivide." Twenty acres here. Fifty acres there.
And observers expect the pace to pick up as U.S. 69, which runs north-south through the historic thicket, continues its expansion. Fifty-eight miles of new four-lane highway is being built in an abandoned rail corridor between Beaumont and Lufkin.
Another 14 miles of the existing U.S. 69 will be expanded from two to four lanes. The $400 million project is scheduled for completion in 2015. Another proposed project is the Trans-Texas Corridor, or Interstate 69, which may also catch the perimeter of the Big Thicket.
Local officials and park employees have been working with the Texas Department of Transportation to reduce the potential impact of road expansion.
For example, on-off ramps will be concentrated near towns to focus growth while leaving natural areas relatively untouched. Longer, elevated bridges will allow wildlife to traverse the area without crossing the road, and construction materials will include "quiet pavement" that absorbs much of the sound of traffic.
Because no state money is available, private donations will be required to buy land from developers. U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and other lawmakers have shaken some federal dollars loose – but that money is designated to fund a 1993 commitment to expand the preserve by about 11,000 acres.
Conservationists have tried to buy as many parcels as private donations will allow, but raising funds to buy big parcels is difficult.
In Texas, a state known for large individual fortunes often wrested from the land, "you'd think... that'd be easy to do," said Andy Jones of the Conservation Fund, "but it ain't."
So far, the Conservation Fund has purchased a few thousand acres, mostly land within the boundaries marked for preservation before the timber companies started selling land. Of the land put on the market by timber companies four years ago, about 400 acres have been saved for the preserve, Mr. Hunt said.
Eco-tourism, the locals say, could provide answers to economic problems, if only the Big Thicket would fulfill its promise.
"We don't see a strong economic benefit because the traffic's not that strong," said Hardin County Judge Billy Caraway. He and area business leaders would like to see the preserve add amenities such as campgrounds and promote activities such as bird watching and trail rides.
He said the government has not followed through on even basic amenities. A permanent visitors center wasn't built until 2001, more than a quarter century after the preserve was created and only after the town of Kountze, population 2,000, pitched in $150,000.
The 100,000 visitors annually generate an estimated $7 million in sales and support 155 area jobs.
Big Thicket Superintendent Art Hutchinson agrees the preserve could be promoted to a wider audience. He points proudly to a recent article about the thicket in Gourmet magazine as a sign that word is spreading.
Maxine Johnston certainly hopes so. If the Big Thicket survives but remains Texas' best kept secret, others will miss an experience that "rewards your senses and your spirit," she said.
"I've spent 40 years hiking in the Big Thicket. And it's all glorious."
A shadow of its former self: The Big Thicket region is believed to have covered more than 3 million acres in the early 1800s. Through the years, settlers, railroads and other development ate away at the virgin territory. Today, only 300,000 acres remain, most of it unprotected.
Government action: In 1974, the federal government created a preserve of 84,000 acres in 12 noncontiguous units. In 1993, Congress authorized the purchase of 11,000 additional acres in three new units. That land is still being acquired.
Units large and small: Preserve areas range from the 551-acre Loblolly Unit to the 25,000-acre Lance Rosier Unit.
Flora: The preserve includes a spectacular assortment of plants and trees, including pine, cypress and hardwood forests, meadows and blackwater swamps. There are 85 tree species, 60 shrubs and about 1,000 flowering plants, including 20 orchids.
Fauna: Wildlife includes more than 180 types of birds; 50 reptiles, including a few alligators; mammals including cougars, coyotes, bobcats and armadillos. Black bears are increasingly sighted.
Creepy legend: Big Thicket hunters since the 1930s have told of eerie lights dancing through the trees on the Ghost Road outside Saratoga, Texas. Legend says it's the lantern of a decapitated railroad brakeman looking for his head. The lights, once featured by National Geographic, remain unexplained.
Meat-eaters: Four of North America's five carnivorous plants live here: the pitcher plant, bladderwort, butterwort and sundew. The only nonresident: the Venus flytrap.
SOURCE: Big Thicket National Preserve, Dallas Morning News research