Wilderness Areas

By: Edward C. Fritz

Type: General Entry

Published: February 1, 1996

There are five protected wilderness areas in Texas, covering some 37,000 acres: the Big Slough Wilderness Area, 3,000 acres in Houston County near the northeastern tip of Davy Crockett National Forest; the Indian Mounds Wilderness Area of 12,000 acres in Sabine County; the Little Lake Creek Wilderness Area, 4,000 acres in the southwestern corner of Sam Houston National Forest in Montgomery County; the Turkey Hill Wilderness Area, 5,400 acres in Angelina County; and the Upland Island Wilderness Area, 12,700 acres in Angelina and Jasper counties. In 1936 the United States Forest Service acquired 634,000 acres from private owners, mainly timber companies. Funds were provided as part of the New Deal to rescue owners from financial difficulties and to renew payments to counties and school districts because many owners had been unable to pay their taxes on these lands. The law required the Forest Service to pay 25 percent of all receipts from timber sales to the counties and school districts. When the Forest Service acquired these lands, they included many stands in excess of 100 years old. Those under 100 years old were mainly aged five to twenty-five. A few were open fields. Much of the cutting had been clearcutting, removing all merchantable trees; but before 1936 the loggers had abandoned their clearcuts, permitting the native vegetation to return. Therefore, regardless of motivation, the early loggers did less lasting harm to our natural heritage than modern clearcutters who follow up with bulldozing all remaining vegetation and planting a single species on each stand, loblolly or shortleaf pine.

The citizens who nominated wildernesses generally proposed areas that contained the oldest trees. In the five areas that ultimately were designated as wildernesses, there are several stands that appear never to have been cut. The national champion longleaf pine in Upland Island is estimated to be over 400 years old. It grows near swamp chestnut oaks up to seventeen feet in circumference, not far from the state champion shagbark hickory. Beginning with the Carter administration in 1977, the new assistant secretary of agriculture inaugurated a national evaluation of potential wildernesses. Logging and burning were deferred on fourteen inventoried areas in Texas. In 1979 the secretary of agriculture announced his final wilderness recommendations to Congress. In Texas he recommended only 10,712 acres in only three wildernesses, part of Big Slough, part of Little Lake Creek, and part of Turkey Hill. Everything else was to be opened to clearcutting. Citizen groups immediately began to look for a congressman from Texas who would file a bill covering ten areas totaling 65,000 acres. The Forest Service opposed anything over 10,712 acres. In 1983 the proponents finally found a sponsor-John Bryant, newly elected in Dallas County-and two cosponsors, Steve Bartlett and Martin Frost of Dallas County. Even with the help of John Seiberling, highly respected chairman of the House subcommittee on parks and public lands, the bill got nowhere until citizen support expanded in the district of Congressman Charles Wilson, where three of the wildernesses lie. He agreed to a compromise of five wilderness areas totaling 34,700 acres. That compromise was made possible by the willingness of Temple-Eastex to trade some of its land inside Upland Island and Indian Mounds for Forest Service land outside. The compromise passed the House unanimously. In the Senate, Lloyd Bentsen and John Tower cosponsored the measure. It passed and was signed by President Ronald Reagan on October 30, 1984. Shortly after the bill had passed, an opportunity arose to straighten out some irregularities in the wilderness area boundaries resulting from timber and oil drilling contracts granted prior to the 1984 legislation. In 1985 the price of timber fell, and the driller hit a dry hole. Also, some private owners decided they were willing to sell or trade for their enclaves that jutted into the wildernesses and caused irregular boundaries. In response to legislative lobbying by citizen groups, including Sierra Club, Texas Committee on Natural Resources, and the Wilderness Society, President Reagan signed a bill adding 1,200 acres to be protected wilderness areas in 1986.

The Forest Service leases portions of the wildernesses for grazing of cattle from March through November, but the number of animals is relatively small. Since the Forest Service never acquired the oil and gas under most of the wilderness land, it permits seismographic exploration by private mineral owners. In 1988 no wells were producing, and none had been drilled for three years. Only one or two seismic explorations were taking place. However, the East Texas Wilderness Act split two wildernesses in order to maintain a pipeline and roads leading to human dwellings. Indian Mounds is split three ways. Upland Island is in two segments. Fortunately, these are the two largest wildernesses of the five, so that the segments are still substantial. The other roads have been closed off by piles of sand, and are becoming vegetated, except along foot-paths. By careful routing a person can walk through any of these wildernesses all day and, with rare exceptions, see only nature and a few other nature lovers.

Edward C. Fritz, Realms of Beauty: The Wilderness Areas of East Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986). Edward C. Fritz, Sterile Forest (Austin: Eakin Press, 1983).

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Edward C. Fritz, “Wilderness Areas,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 17, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/wilderness-areas.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

February 1, 1996