Deep in the heart of the Land of Bears and Honey

In 1984, Joe Truett and Daniel Lay, authors of “Land of Bears and Honey: A Natural History of East Texas,” put to paper what many old-timers in East Texas had quietly observed for decades—the ebbing of a Garden of Eden at the hands of humans: 

“When white people first came to the country of the longleaf pines, there were many old trees.Young trees sprouted in the spaces cleared of old ones by lightening and wind.  Middle-agedtrees waited to get old.  There were many red-cockaded woodpeckers. The woodpeckers had lived there for thousands and thousands of years, because the supply of old trees was never-ending. 

As the years went by, the trees fell more and more rapidly, much faster than the young onescould get old.  Axes, crosscut saws, and finally chain saws leveled them…Now the woodpeckershave to search hard to find old trees…As surely as sun follows rain, the woodpeckers will thrive where old pines grow.  It seems such a simple matter, then, to have the woodpeckers. Leavesome old trees. But ours are the times of youth.  Old people are put away; they have no use. Old trees are cut down, there is no space. Old woodpeckers die, and it makes no difference.”  

East Texas was once defined as a Garden of Eden, the land of bears and honey, for the rich resources it gave freely—clean and abundant water, never-ending forests and dense river bottoms teeming with wildlife.  

In fact, John James Audubon, on his trip to Houston around 1837, said, regarding the ivory-billed woodpecker, “I found it very abundant along the finely wooded margins of that singular stream, called ‘Buffalo Bayou,’ in Texas, where we procured several specimens.” 

Less than a hundred years later, the ivory-billed woodpecker was gone. This is a species that needs huge expanses of diverse forests—roughly 10,000 acres per pair.  Due to habitat destruction and to a lesser extent hunting, it is unlikely whether any remain, though there have been reports that it has been seen again.  Sadly, almost no forests are large and diverse enough today to maintain an ivory-billed woodpecker population.

The ivory-billed woodpecker, red wolf, black bear, buffalo, passenger pigeon, jaguar, Carolina parakeet, Bachman’s warbler and nearly the entire functional longleaf pine ecosystem have all been lost through overhunting and habitat destruction. And this all happened before 1940.

What else disappears when we lose a forest? A way of life. The loss of jobs dependent on a forest-based economy, and with it, a workforce.  Our water, as thirsty Texans elsewhere look to East Texas for drinking water as they drain their own supply.

Fast forward to the year 2040—the state’s population will increase by 71.5 percent between 2000 and 2040 to over 36 million people, all requiring space, water, food and clothing.  And East Texas forests can provide folks with these things they seek, but it comes at a cost—clean air, water, wildlife, quality of life and space. Already, we have seen an acceleration of land fragmentation. For example, across the southeastern United States there are 15,000 new forest landowners each year, and the average tract size is now less than 100 acres. Lands managed in small tract sizes and different ways means a loss of good contiguous habitat.

The forest industry has changed so much that as of today all traditional timber companies have sold their land to investors in the last 15 years, totaling over 4 million acres in Texas and comprising 32% of East Texas’ land base. And if we understand that the timber investors who now own so much land are roughly midway through their investment and thus ownership period, then we can understand that we have a small window of opportunity, maybe 10 years, to bend the curve and accomplish something significant with the several hundred thousand acres of prime longleaf and bottomland habitats that remain in East Texas.

The good news is that these lands are still relatively intact—the bone structure is there to make something great happen. For example, the Neches River provides a ribbon of protection along the entire 416 mile river corridor, including the Angelina and Davy Crockett National Forests, the Neches River National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), the Big Thicket National Preserve and 60,000 acres of private lands protected by conservation easements.  The Conservation Fund has set a goal of protecting 250,000 acres of the best of East Texas. We are on our way—with over 100,000 acres protected through acquisition or conservation easements since 2003—to an intact Neches River corridor to provide ecosystem services forever.

The Cook’s Branch Conservancy is the perfect representation of the tipping point we as a nation are at when considering the fate of our resources.  The spectacular habitats are today but an island of diversity in the midst of devastation, from a habitat standpoint.  If we can’t act, special places like Boggy Slough, the Neches River NWR and the Big Thicket National Preserve will become their own islands of diversity surrounded by nothing as development and fragmentation encroach.  

Or, we can protect an entire ecosystem. These forests won’t stay unless we decide to make it so.

We can ensure that the red-cockaded woodpecker, the Louisiana pine snake, Bachman’s sparrow and paddlefish are not the next to be gone forever.

Again, from the “Land of Bears and Honey,” the authors are referring to the ivory-billed woodpecker, but the statement applies to the whole ecosystem: “Is it gone?  Most think so, but only time will tell for sure. One day when we look across the bottomlands of East Texas and see nothing but pastures, pines, and blue lake water, then we can say with finality: ‘It’s gone.’”  


Julie Shackelford is The Conservation Fund’s Texas Programs Director. In 2007, she opened the East Texas office in Nacogdoches where she works on land protection projects up and down the Neches River. Julie has assisted in over fifty land acquisition transactions for federal, state and private partners that have protected 90,000 acres of land throughout Texas, including land added to the Big Thicket National Preserve and the Neches River, Anahuac and San Bernard National Wildlife Refuges, private conservation easements and state parks and wildlife management areas. Julie holds a Masters of Environmental Management degree from Duke University and a B.A. in Biology from Carleton College.  

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