The Big Thicket Tangle

Politicians, lumber companies, and even Time, Inc., are maneuvering to tell us what kind of park, if any, we'll have. That is, if there is any Big Thicket left by then.

Eastex’s heavily political role in the Thicket controversy has, unavoidably, made them some
enemies. Barefoot Sanders, the 1972 Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate, and Alan Steelman, a
Republican congressional candidate in Dallas, both took strong campaign stands on the side of a
large park and both were denied permission to tour Eastex holdings in the Thicket. Another
politician they have opposed in the past, though not so frantically, has been Charlie Wilson, who
says “I don’t owe them [Eastex] anything; they’ve never done anything for me except hit me over the
head when they felt like it.”

When Wilson entered the new Congress conservationists were hopefully optimistic that he would
support their new, whittled-down, 100, OOO-acre compromise proposal. During the congressional
interim, Eckhardt had sat down with the Big Thicket Association and other members of the Texas
delegation, to arrive at what he felt was a bill most everyone could support. The stream-bed
corridors were narrowed and some of them removed, the standing units pared in size. To the
conservationists, it represented their ultimate compromise, an effort to pass a bill before the
Thicket disappeared altogether.

Eckhardt took the bill around to Bentsen, to Wright Patman, the dean of the Texas delegation, to
other Texas congressmen. “I wasn’t going to compromise beyond the 100,000 acres,” he remembers,
“but nobody ever said that was in question. I didn’t get the impression that there was anybody at
all opposed to it.”’

Eckhardt went to see Wilson: “I showed him our compromise bill and we talked it over and he
never said a word about being opposed to 100,000 acres. I told him that, since it was in his
district, he could take the initiative and I’d just sign his bill [as a cosponsor] if he had one.”

Wilson’s own recollection of the meeting is fuzzier but essentially the same: “I told him to
just go on ahead with his own bill.”

Wilson admits that, at the time of the conversation, he had an advance inkling of an event of
some import to East Texans: in February, Temple Industries and Eastex, Inc., announced their intent
to merge. Between them, the newly enlarged Time, Inc., subsidiary would hold over a million acres
of Texas land. Rumors abounded as to the terms of the proposed merger (eg., the Temple family was
to become the largest single stockholder in Time, Inc.) but one solidly factual nub stared
balefully at horrified conservationists: Mike Buck1ey would be the operational head of the combined operation.

The announcement, or advance word of it, may also have had repercussions in Washington. A man
who is both a constituent and a close friend of Charlie Wilson’s contends that up until that time
Wilson was committed to a 100,000 acre park, but “the day they announced that merger, that park
lost 30,000 acres.” Reports came sifting out of Washington that Wilson was going to introduce a
bill of his own, a park of 75,000 acres with only a Neches River corridor. They were accurate reports.

Although less than joyful (“it’s unfortunate”) , Bob Eckhardt admitted that “they kind of have
Wilson in the middle somewhat.” Wilson was getting what he called “one helluva lot” of pressure.
Mike Buckley sent him a telegram which termed the park proposals “shockingly discriminatory against
Eastex,” and predicted “the future of this corporation would be severely damaged with the passage
of your bill as I understand it, and as a representative of all the people in this district I do
not understand how you can justify discriminating against one company to the proposed degree.”

Ollie Crawford followed that up with a letter even less marked for subtlety: “Certainly Mike
Buckley’s position is easy to understand as president of one of the largest corporations in your
district which employs more than 1900 people. ..I would suggest you set up an appointment with him
on your next trip to Texas to discuss the Big Thicket.” It was not the kind of correspondence that
freshman congressmen are pleased to receive.

There were other pressures as well. Wilson had, like all marginally liberal Texas politicians,
sought and received the support of organized labor in his campaigns. When both the Sabine Area
Building and Trades Council and the Beaumont Teamsters, two of the largest union locals in his
district, denounced the park, Wilson started feeling a little boxed in.

There was little offsetting pressure from park proponents. Said Eckhardt, “There are a lot of
selfish interests who are against the park and bringing a lot of pressure to bear. But there aren’t
any powerful lobby groups on the other side to counter that.”

Another curious reversal was in progress. In mid-1972, Bob Eckhardt, then five long years into
his labors in behalf of a park, had seen his first hopeful glimmer of a powerful ally. The National
Park Service, which in typically bureaucratic fashion had been studying the proposals for seven
years, showed him the working plans that would precede their own recommendations.

“I was very pleasantly surprised,” he recalls. “It was almost identical with our own [100,000
acre] compromise proposal. They had everything in there we did, the corridors, all of Village
Creek, everything. And it was laid out in exquisite detail, with maps and color overlays, aerial photographs.”

In February and March of this year, Eckhardt met with Nathaniel “Nat” Reed, the Nixon-appointed
Assistant Interior Secretary and the Administration figure most directly responsible for developing
the Park Service recommendations. “He was very encouraging,” says Eckhardt. “He told me he was very
concerned about preserving the watercourses. He was very adamant, very strong, about it. We were
undecided about including Turkey Creek in our bill, and it was at his urging we did so.”

By April, however, it was apparent that the Park Service recommendations, still not made public,
had plummeted to less than 70,000 acres and all of the stream-bed corridors had been removed.
Charlie Wilson was saying he has to “fight tooth and nail” just to get them to include a Neches
River corridor. They have yet to notify Eckhardt of a change in plans, and no one at the Park
Service or Interior Department is willing to speak for the record on what caused the switch. As
Eckhardt says, “there’s a helluva lot of double-talk going on here.”

It is dificult to say what caused the Nixon Administration to back off so far from all those
strong words


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