Face Of This Place

Julie Shackelford, Big Thicket National Preserve and the Neches River

What do you love about Texas?

I love the diversity of landscapes. Texas is such a huge state, it’s like traveling to six or seven different states and yet you’re still in Texas. One end of Texas looks so completely different from the other. And the sets of issues that you deal with in land protection are completely different from one end of the state to the other. And that means that there’s always something new to learn when you’re working on conservation projects.

I love the wide open spaces of West Texas, totally different bird life, totally different mammal and reptile life. Then you come to East Texas and it’s tall, tall trees and sultry weather and lush with plants and birds. It’s a neat and exciting and always changing place to be.

How did this project come about?

Actually it was right before I was hired by the Fund. In 2003, there was a very large project that became the Middle Neches project; it was 33,000 acres and 66 river miles along the Neches River. International Paper was interested in selling it and all the different conservation groups in Texas realized it was really important to protect this long stretch of river corridor. Groups got together to tour the property and try to figure out how this could be done, such a big project with a big price tag. How could they protect it and conserve it, no one really had a solution until our State Director Andy Jones stood up and said The Conservation Fund would do it!

That was the first anchor project in East Texas, it really kick-started everything else. Much to everyone’s surprise and pleasure, we were able to pull that project off with very creative financing, given the size of the project. Once that was done, the ball started rolling and projects were coming out of the woodwork. We stated working extensively with the Big Thicket National Preserve. There was probably still 20,000 acres of land available within the boundary of Big Thicket that needed to be preserved. The superintendent was very excited to see us active and working on those projects.

It was also at the time when timber companies were starting to divest their holdings and sell to timber investment management organizations or TIMOs. So the time was ripe to be able to pick up some of those large tracts of commercial timberland before they were broken up into smaller pieces and sold to various investors. We were able to add about 25,000 acres of land to Big Thicket. Then up-river things started getting interesting in the footprint of the Neches Wildlife Refuge; that refuge was started and we bought the first chuck of property that was conveyed over to the Neches Wildlife Refuge. Over time, we’ve generated interest from families with properties on the river who want to protect them through conservation easements. It’s led to a rallying cry among funders and people who recognize this river as a resource that is still relatively natural and needs to be protected in order to protect the heritage of East Texas. The work that we’ve done has really raised the profile of the Neches River, of The Conservation Fund, and of the importance of conservation in Texas.

What’s special about the Neches?

It’s not a grand landscape in the sense of huge vistas and rushing waters. It’s quiet and mysterious and a place where you feel you could have traveled back 100 years while going down this river. Time hasn’t changed it. The beauty is in the small things. The beauty is when you see the river otter going down the river or you hear the incredible chorus of singing birds in the spring or you hear the barred owl hooting, the pileated woodpecker calling, you see the deer pop its head up from the banks. It’s in the quiet moments of the river that give it its specialness. It’s a place you can go to just really get away from all the big city stuff and just go back to nature.

What has happened since we’ve started working here?

The story of The Conservation Fund in East Texas is that no one else could do what we did. Other groups have holds on parts of the state but for various reasons and because we were already working with funders and working with partners, the other groups have had a hard time getting a foothold in working in East Texas. That’s why we’ve been successful and how we’ve been able to find $26 million in funding when no one thought it was possible. We’ve come up with creative solutions to get the work done and we are much more nimble and can act more quickly than the other groups working in the state.

Not only have we helped expand the Big Thicket National Preserve significantly but the Neches River National Wildlife Refuge has been created and we’ve been the group that has been working to get land conserved for it.  A great recent example is Boggy Slough – 18 miles of Neches River frontage and 18,000 acres - which we helped acquire on behalf of the T.L.L. Temple Foundation and that we are now working to conserve with. All of these projects built up on each other and if that first project, the Middle Neches project, had not happened, much of this other work wouldn’t have happened either. 

Learn More

The Conservation Fund's 30th Anniversary
Big Thick National Preserve
Neches River
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