Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Encroaching on Sam Houston National Forest

The march of development continues apace.

All over the Texas Piney Woods, along farm-to-market roads and state highways, multicolored signs hawk real estate – small plots of paradise among the tall trees. The billboards offer “gated acreage” and “room to breathe,” promoting rural charm not far from urban amenities.

But in the process of subdividing and selling the woods, fast-growing Houston has found its way into once-remote public lands. The Sam Houston National Forest, 60 miles north of downtown, is suddenly buckled up to the big city, with thousands of new houses sprouting around it and bringing a new set of challenges for forest rangers.

There are more people living here, more people coming for a visit. And more people mean more traffic on two-lane roadways, more off-road vehicles going their own way, more fallen trees on fence lines, more trash and more crime. Just in the last few years, authorities have found three farms growing marijuana for Mexican cartels.

“There are now six lanes to our doorstep,” district ranger Warren Oja said of the recently widened Interstate 45, which cuts through the forest. “More people are finding the Sam Houston (National Forest) who didn’t know it was here before.”

Not that there is anything wrong with people wanting to camp and hike and fish in the expansive forest, which covers 163,000 acres in Montgomery, Walker and San Jacinto counties, and Oja is making plans to create more recreational opportunities.

No, Oja said, what’s troubling about the forest’s growing popularity is the need to do more with less, making its preservation more difficult than ever before. With budget cuts across the U.S. Forest Service, his staff has gone from 40 people in 2010 to 23 now, including one technician to maintain campground facilities and 240 miles of trails.

[…]

Brandt Mannchen, a Houston resident who has volunteered countless hours of labor for the Sam Houston forest, said the federal agency that oversees the area needs to be better funded, with money either for more staff or to buy additional property to fill in the holes in the forest to limit urban encroachment. The forest, for example, didn’t receive additional funding in 2011, when the driest year in Texas history damaged thousands of trees. Some drought-related debris plugged culverts during May’s storms, causing unpaved service roads to wash away.

“The money we are talking about is peanuts,” Mannchen said. “We are being penny-wise and pound-foolish.”

The state’s four national forests and two national grasslands are operating on a $15 million budget, down from $36 million in 2008. Forests managers have supplemented their appropriations through timber sales, which totaled $1.3 million last year. And Oja said volunteers have provided about $400,000 in labor since October at the Sam Houston forest.

Mannchen said it isn’t right that the forest’s trails are open only because of the work of volunteers. The Sam Houston Trails Association, for one, is maintaining trails and constructing new ones through grants.

The story doesn’t examine the reasons for the budget cuts, but if I had to guess I’d say they’re the result of sequestration, which as it happens Congressional Democrats are trying to kill off. That would be good news for Sam Houston National Forest and the people who use it, not that anyone who lives nearby is likely to understand that. One way or the other, I hope the Forest Service can get what it needs. The Sam Houston National Forest is worth taking care of.

Related Posts:

Comments are closed.