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.

MIKE BUCKLEY IS READING Sports Illustrated. Strictly business. He had glanced through this particular issue before, but it had only been a cursory look. As a corporate officer of Time, Inc., the publishers of Sports Illustrated, he feels he needs to know what it’s doing; he doesn’t take the time to read very much, but feels uncomfortable at board of directors meetings if he can’t talk about the magazines like everyone else. When this issue first came in, he hadn’t even noticed the article that now engaged him more completely than anything he had read in years.

The Union Camp Paper Company, said the article, had donated to the federal government 50,000 acres of Virginia’s Great Dismal Swamp to be used as a park. Sports Illustrated lauded the company for their generosity and environmental consciousness and, it seemed to Buckley, provided them a wealth of free publicity. Besides, he surmised, they could probably write off the donation for more than the land would be worth if sold outright. It seemed like The Answer, a grand-slam solution to the one great nagging problem that had been looming over his shoulder for a decade.

Mike Buckley is the president of Eastex, Inc., a timber, pulpwood and paper company that is one of the largest single landowners and employers in Southeast Texas. It is, as well, the most profitable subsidiary of that same Time, Inc., that publishes Sports Illustrated, Fortune, and Time. He is 63 years old and has spent the bulk of his life in the timber industry, transforming Texas pine trees into what must by now total a half-million houses and a billion tons of plywood, newsprint, cardboard and all the other incarnations of cellulose. He loves the woods and the outdoors, hunting and fishing, and he is proudly convinced that his company is doing its level best to preserve that environment, to utilize its recreational potential while harvesting its trees. In the years he has been in the industry he has helped to introduce modern techniques of hybridization, conservation, tree farming, game and forestry management, that seem to him a perfectly American blend of profitable private business and public-spirited concern for a national resource.

That’s why he laughed when he first heard the proposal for a Big Thicket National Park, now more than ten years ago. He still hasn’t changed that opinion much but he won’t say it in public anymore. It just seemed ludicrous to him, to take woodland wilderness and protect it, in its natural state, when those same lands could be used to build homes and the Gross National Product. His friend and fellow timber executive Arthur Temple had called the Thicket a “varmint-infested swamp,” and he privately agreed with him, could see no value in maintaining it.

Despite Mike Buckley, though, the idea of preservation had grown over the years, and support for a park had spread well beyond laughing distance. Americans are all caught up in this crazy environmentalism, he thinks, and politicians who ought to know better are scared not to pander to it. It’s been steadily closing in on him, this problem of taking a park out of the middle of his woods, and in recent years it has occupied more and more of his time. He has continually given ground, he feels, been willing to compromise, first with the “String-of-Pearls,” then this fool moratorium on cutting, other things, and now the board of directors is even willing to endorse a 75,000-acre park. Since the first of the year he has been to meetings in New York, Acapulco, Austin, Chicago, Washington, some of them several times, and at all of them the dilemma of the park has been a principal topic. And now, after ten years of retreat from “a silly idea,” virtually on the edge of defeat, he sees in the article a solution.

Mike Buckley hurriedly makes phone calls. New York, Washington, Diboll, Houston. Support from other timber companies is quickly secured. He calls in Ollie Crawford, his right hand, the front man for the timber industry, and prepares to dispatch him to Washington to confer with the National Park Service. About 30,000 acres, they finally decide, just given to the government for that crazy park. He can see it, a last-gasp come-from-behind victory over those damned conservationists. (Jesus, Sports Illustrated will have to give us a story like that other one; we’re both owned by the same company…)

Buckley writes letters, one to John Tower, the one U.S. Senator he knows he can count on (and a Republican, to help grease the rails with the Administration), and to the two congressmen he feels will aid him, Charlie Wilson and Jack Brooks. He xeroxes copies of the article and sticks them in the letters.

In Washington, Fred Bonavita, the bureau chief of The Houston Post, gets wind of the deal…

IT COMES ROLLING IN FROM the north and east, a great green cloud welling up from the gray sandy soil, rich green tiers billowing up one upon another, then cascading down again, occasionally gathered in the shape of loblolly pine or sweetgum, maple or beechwood, a soft, thick foam of green, chlorophyll gone wild. Pin oaks and massive yellow pines strain for release from the dense, dark underworld of laurel, yaupon and magnolia while the world’s greatest cypresses march jaggedly, like the soldiers of Oz, down the banks of secret streams past baygalls and palmetto bogs.

Within the soft ambience of the Thicket exists an encyclopedic range of nature’s permutations, botanical anachronisms found little or nowhere else in North America, refuged in a whirlpool of green. And, perhaps, nested somewhere in the recess, lives one of the world’s rarest creatures, the ivory-bill woodpecker, its staccato pleas in prophetic harmony with the dread cries of the Southern Pine Wolf, the Caddo and the Tonkawa Indians, the Tennessee trappers and Alabama emigrants, all those who sought to live in the Thicket’s green fastness.

Resting hard on the western edge of the Southern Pine Forest, the Big Thicket has been called “the

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