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Walker County

The lack of regional consensus on I-45

This is really frustrating.

Regional transportation officials on Friday reaffirmed their support for a planned $7 billion widening of Interstate 45 in Houston, over strong objections from city and Harris County officials that the resolution passed was a toothless enabling of design plans that continue to divide neighbors, elected officials and various interest groups.

“I think we can do better than this and we ought to try,” said Carrin Patman, a member of the Transportation Policy Council and chairwoman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

By the narrowest possible margin, the policy council — which doles out federal transportation money as a part of the Houston-Galveston Area Council — approved a resolution stating that the plan to rebuild I-45 from downtown Houston north to Beltway 8 remains a priority for the region and has local support.

The approval came over objections from all members of the council appointed by Houston and Harris County officials, including those at Metro and Port Houston. It passed solely with support from members representing suburban counties, leading to a 14-11 vote with three absences. Fourteen is the minimum needed for approval.

In addition to voicing support, the resolution calls for parties to continue working to refine the project to address the concerns of critics, but has no binding impact on the Texas Department of Transportation that would keep it from proceeding as planned to add two managed lanes from downtown northward to the freeway as part of a total rebuild of the highway.

All work on the project, the most expensive highway project in the region’s history, however, remains in limbo, following a lawsuit filed March 11 by Harris County and a March 8 order by the Federal Highway Administration to pause the awarding of contracts. Washington, D.C. officials, citing concerns raised about the project’s impacts on minority groups, are examining whether TxDOT adequately complied with federal policy.

Suburban officials, chiding the decision by Harris County to sue, said it was vital the region keep working with TxDOT or risk the project losing state funding, a position supported by some advocates.

“With no project and no money, our region is left to suffer with no solutions,” Andrea French, executive director of Transportation Advocacy Group – Houston Region, told transportation council members. The group is a coalition of engineering firms and business officials who support both transit and highway investment.

Groups critical of the project plans called it a setback, but not unexpected given the sway TxDOT has with suburban officials who favor freeway expansion to travel into the city.

[…]

State highway officials have said they continue to refine plans, and want to address the concerns, but must do so within the confines of their environmental process, said Eliza Paul, head of TxDOT’s Houston office. She said prior to the issuance of a record of decision TxDOT could not make agreements to solve some of the issues without delaying that approval — which TxDOT grants itself under an agreement with federal officials. Since its issuance last month, Paul said discussions have been constricted by the county lawsuit.

Additionally, some of the suggestions focused on not adding any lanes to the freeway are counter to the objectives state officials set for the project a decade ago, Paul said.

See here for the background. I’d argue that the “suburban” adjective here is inaccurate. The H-GAC Board of Directors includes members from rural counties like Waller and Austin and Colorado and Matagorda and Wharton, none of which have any direct stake in I-45. Walker County is on I-45, but it’s more than fifty miles north of the construction zone; the number of people commuting into downtown Houston from Huntsville has to be in the single digits.

I get the need for regional cooperation in transportation planning and in general I approve of it, but it just seems inappropriate to me that these decisions are being made by people who don’t have anywhere near the stake in the outcome. It just doesn’t feel like a good balance of interests. I don’t know what to do about that, and again I don’t advocate for taking a less regional approach since we do all have related issues and concerns, but this is frustrating.

As much as anything, the problem here is that the residents of Houston feel that their concerns have been ignored or minimized by TxDOT, and now they are being ignored or minimized by H-GAC. This is exactly why Harris County filed that lawsuit, because it had no other way to get its point across. The fact that these plans have been in place for literally decades is part of the problem. Public opinion has changed, but TxDOT and the other interests supporting this project have not kept up. And once we start construction there’s no turning back. It’s now or never

Precinct analysis: Appellate courts, part 1

Introduction
Congressional districts
State Rep districts
Commissioners Court/JP precincts
Comparing 2012 and 2016
Statewide judicial
Other jurisdictions

My next two posts in this series will focus on the 1st and 14th Courts of Appeals. These courts are a little strange electorally, as the elections cover ten counties in all, and over the past few elections they have proven to be pretty darned balanced. As we know, turnout in Harris County has gone up a lot in recent years, and the county has gone from evenly split to strongly blue, yet the balance in these ten counties persists. In this post, I’m going to do a bit of a historical review, to look at the trends and see if we can spot the underlying metrics.


2008 - 1st CoA Pl 3 (50.58%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,111,642  70.74%   585,249  52.65%
Others     459,704  29.26%   209,510  45.57%

2012 - 14th CoA Pl 3 (47.74%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,137,580  69.82%   580,356  51.01%
Others     491,673  30.18%   197,511  40.17%

2016 - 1st CoA Pl 4 (48.95%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,273,638  69.00%   671,908  52.76%
Others     572,258  31.00%   231,702  40.49%

2018 - 1st CoA Pl 2 (50.93%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,187,403  68.63%   647,398  54.52%
Others     542,765  31.37%   233,693  43.06%

2020 - 1st CoA Pl 3 (50.76%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,575,122  68.23%   856,056  54.35%
Others     733,364  31.77%   314,644  42.90%

2020 - 1st CoA Pl 5 (50.10%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,573,903  68.24%   845,951  53.75%
Others     732,455  31.76%   309,497  42.25%

2020 - 14th CoA Chief Justice (49.97%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,575,801  68.23%   841,923  53.43%
Others     733,698  31.77%   312,231  42.56%

2020 - 14th CoA Pl 7 (49.57%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,573,716  68.25%   833,925  52.99%
Others     732,057  31.75%   309,115  42.23%

A couple of points of explanation here. For 2008, 2012, 2016, and 2018, I picked the top Democratic performer among the appellate court candidates. For 2008, that meant the one Democratic winner. In 2018, as every Dem won their race, I went with the candidate with the narrowest victory, since what I’m most interested in is the threshold needed to win. For 2020, I included all four candidates.

In each table, I separated out the total votes cast in that race from Harris County, and from all the other counties. “Share” is the share of the vote that came from Harris County, so in the 2008 race 70.74% of the total vote came from Harris County. “DemVotes” is the total number of votes the Democratic candidate got, in Harris and in the other counties, and “Dem%” is the percentage of the vote that Democratic candidate got.

We see that the share of the vote from Harris County has dropped every year, from over 70% in 2008 to a bit more than 68% this year. That doesn’t appear to be predictive of anything, as Dems swept these races in 2018 and won two out of four this year, with the lowest-performing Dem having (by a tiny amount) the largest Harris County vote share. The rise of Fort Bend County as a Democratic bastion has no doubt mitigated the shrinking contribution from Harris, but that points out again the importance of counties around Harris, as the reddening of Galveston and the smaller counties has kept these races competitive. One thing I hadn’t realized till I went through this exercise was that Waller County was quite close to even in 2008, but gave Republicans a 7K vote edge in 2020. Indeed, Dem candidates in Waller in 2020 were getting about the same number of votes as Dem candidates in Waller in 2008, after two cycles of failing to meet the 2008 number, as the Republican vote steadily climbed. As we have discussed before, Jane Robinson lost her race by 0.06 percentage points, or a bit more than a thousand votes out of over 1.5 million votes cast. In a race that close, you can point to many, many ways in which a small difference would have changed the outcome.

That’s one reason why these races interest me so much. For one, the appellate courts were a place where Dems made numerous pickups in 2020, yet still fell a bit short of expectations – I at least thought we’d win all four of these, given how well we’d done in 2018. But as you can see, it wasn’t quite to be. I don’t want to downplay the races we did win – Veronica Rivas Molloy and Amparo Guerra are both terrific candidates, and they are now the only Latinas on that court – I’m just greedy enough to have wanted more.

What’s frustrating to me is that I can’t tell what I think is the magic formula here. The difference between Guerra, who won by four thousand votes and 0.20 percentage points, and Robinson is tiny enough to be rounding error. The main difference is that Guerra won Harris County by ten thousand votes more than Robinson did, while Robinson did five thousand votes better in the other counties than Guerra did (she lost them by 421K while Guerra lost them by 426K). We know that Latinx candidates generally did better in Harris County this year than their peers, but that wasn’t the case outside Harris County. And even if it was, that’s not much of a lesson to learn. It was a game of inches, and we won one and lost one.

Ultimately, I think the path here is the same as the path I’ve described in the various “key counties” posts. We’re starting to move in the right direction in Brazoria County, and if we can keep that going that could be enough to tip the scales to the blue side on a longer-term basis. Basically, if we keep doing what we’re doing we’ll likely be at least competitive in these races, and if we can step it up a bit, especially but not exclusively in Brazoria, we can do better than that. Maybe not the deepest insight you’ll ever read, but it’s what I’ve got.

(Assuming that the judicial districts don’t get redrawn, which I suppose they could. In 2004, the First and Fourteenth districts included Burleson, Trinity, and Walker Counties plus the current ten. We’d have zero chance of winning these races if those three were added back in. I have no idea what the process or criteria for defining the judicial districts is. I’m just saying that if Republicans decided to do something about this, they probably could.)

Next up, I’ll do the district breakdown for these four races in Harris County. After that, more judicial races and then on to the other county races. As always, let me know what you think.

Counties of interest, part five: East Texas

Part 1 – Counties around Harris
Part 2 – Counties around Dallas/Tarrant
Part 3 – Counties around Travis
Part 4 – Counties around Bexar

The next three entries in this series will look at regions, and counties of interest within them. For the sake of simplicity, I’ve labeled these regions East Texas, Central Texas, and West Texas, though in a strict sense some of the counties I’m including in them would be called something else – Jefferson County, for example, is usually considered Southeast Texas. Try not to take that too seriously, and just assume I’ve split the state into three vertical sections.

Within those sections I’ve identified counties that have enough voters in them to be worthwhile. Again, this is all arbitrary, but I’ve generally aimed for places with cities or other features of interest. We begin with East Texas:


County       Romney    Obama    Trump  Clinton    Trump    Biden    Shift
=========================================================================
Angelina     20,303    7,834   21,668    7,538   25,070    9,136   -3,465
Bowie        24,869   10,196   24,924    8,838   27,053   10,692   -1,688
Gregg        28,742   12,398   28,764   11,677   32,352   14,657   -1,351
Hardin       17,746    3,359   19,606    2,780   23,806    3,449   -5,970
Harrison     17,512    8,456   18,749    7,151   21,318    7,812   -4,450
Henderson    21,231    6,106   23,650    5,669   28,816    7,048   -6,643
Hunt         21,011    6,671   23,910    6,396   29,135    8,879   -5,916
Jefferson    43,242   44,668   42,862   42,443   47,535   46,022   -2,959
Nacogdoches  13,925    6,465   14,771    6,846   17,359    8,989     -910
Orange       23,366    6,800   25,513    5,735   29,170    6,354   -6,250
Smith        57,331   21,456   58,930   22,300   68,546   29,343   -3,328
Van Zandt    15,794    3,084   18,473    2,799   22,126    3,419   -5,997
Walker       12,140    6,252   12,884    6,091   15,368    7,875   -1,605

As you might imagine this is not friendly territory for Democrats, and it’s getting less so as we go along. These counties are pretty small for the most part, but they contribute a lot of votes to the Republicans’ bottom line. Just since 2012, that gap has grown by more than 50K in the GOP direction. This is the point I’ve been trying to make lately, because while it may seem easy to write off this part of the state, these counties collectively pack a real punch. Look again at that Michael Li chart I embedded in this post about where the vote comes from in Texas. We can either do something to reduce the growing gap we face in the smaller counties, or we can accept the fact that the hill we’re pushing this boulder up gets steeper every cycle.

Let me remind you, there are cities and metro areas in these counties. You know that Jefferson County is home to Beaumont, and Smith County is Tyler. Other cities include:

Angelina County – Lufkin
Bowie County – Texarkana
Gregg County – Longview
Harrison County – Marshall
Nacogdoches County – Nacogdoches, home of Stephen F. Austin State University
Walker County – Huntsville, home of Sam Houston State University

I see three avenues to improve performance in this part of the state. One is as I’ve noted several times an effort to organize and build infrastructure in the smaller cities in Texas. We know what we can do in the big urban areas, and the formerly-small towns that are now part of big urban areas – think of places like Katy and Sugar Land – are increasingly strong for Dems. I believe the potential exists in the smaller cities that are not proximate to the big urban areas, and that more effort needs to be made, and more resources provided, to help them reach that potential. It has to be organic to these cities – surely, a helicopter drop of volunteers and/or paid staffers from Houston and Austin would not be received very well. I know the TDP has done some work along these lines, I’m just saying we need to continue it.

Second, there are as noted above universities in some of these towns. Anything we can do to grow the Democratic student groups and help them register and turn out voters is well worth it.

Finally, we can take a page from Stacy Abrams’ playbook and recognize that there’s a substantial Black population in some of these counties, and get to registering and organizing and empowering them in local and state politics. To wit:

Jefferson – 33.7% Black
Harrison – 24.0% Black
Walker – 23.9% Black
Bowie – 23.4% Black
Gregg – 19.9% Black
Smith – 17.9% Black
Nacogdoches – 16.7% Black
Angelina – 14.2% Black

All that is from those Wikipedia pages I linked above. I will freely admit here that I don’t know what is already in place in these counties – maybe we’re already doing all we can. I kind of doubt it, though.

Again, my bottom line is that we make an effort to narrow the gap in these places, or at least keep that gap from growing ever wider, or we make the task we’re already working on in the big counties that much harder. I’m not saying any of this will be easy, but I am saying we can’t shrug it off because it might be hard. This is the choice we face.

The rest of the H-GAC region

As long as we’ve been talking about Waller County and Montgomery County, I thought I’d check in on the other members of the Houston-Galveston Area Council region. Harris County and six of its seven neighbors – Brazoria, Chambers, Fort Bend, Galveston, Liberty, and Montgomery, but not Waller – have issued stay-at-home orders. What about the other five counties in the region?

Austin County says the following on its website:

UPDATE 02.24.2020

We have been advised by authorities of one confirmed Covid-19 case in Sealy. The family is self-quarantining and is complying with guidelines. Any potential exposure is being investigated. Our recommendations have not changed. Continue to practice good hygiene and social distancing. Stay home if you are sick. If you have symptoms, even if they are your usual allergies, flu, etc., call your doctor first. Only go to the doctor’s office or hospital if directed by the doctor. We need to isolate the virus. Stay home as much as possible. Limit your exposure. Tell this to your kids if they are running around on their extended spring break. Stay calm and be safe. As the governor says, we can defeat Covid 19 in Texas.

Here’s a news story from Brenham that basically recapitulates this information. One thing you find when you go looking for news about these smaller counties is that there ain’t much out there. For now, this is what we know.

Colorado County has a disaster declaration by its County Judge and the Mayors of three towns (Columbus, Eagle Lake, and Weimar) that “shall be read to comply” with the initial executive order from Greg Abbott, which closed bars and gyms and schools, limited public gatherings to a maximum of ten people, and limited restaurants to take-out only. The Colorado County order says it continues till March 27, but I presume there has been an extension since then; the Abbott order was through April 3, anyway. As of March 25, there were no confirmed cases in Colorado County.

Matagorda County has been under a disaster declaration since March 16, and has closed county parks, community centers, fairgrounds, and county beach access, in addition to restricting access to county government buildings. They reported eleven positive cases as of Saturday morning.

Walker County has a COVID-19 information page, where I learned that they have a midnight to five AM curfew as of March 23, and they report two confirmed cases as of Friday. Walker County is the home of Huntsville, and thus the Huntsville Correctional Unit, and I sure would like to know what their plan is for when the first inmate tests positive.

Finally, there’s Wharton County, which has this press release stating that there have been five positive COVID-19 tests for county residents (out of 50 total, with eight still pending as of Friday), and little else.

Far as I can tell, none of these counties has a stay-at-home order similar to what the big counties have been doing. These five counties combine to have nineteen confirmed positive cases, though given that test results are taking up to ten days to return, who knows what the actual number is. It’s surely higher now than when I drafted this post on Saturday. I have no idea what is informing Greg Abbott’s decision-making process, but at least now you know.

UPDATE: From the Trib, a note on the larger picture: “As of Friday, the Texas Department of State Health Services said 105 of the state’s 254 counties had reported cases. A week earlier, there were only 34.”

Larry Nasser indicted in Walker County

It’s something, but it’s not enough.

A Walker County grand jury Friday indicted two former USA Gymnastics officials, disgraced physician Larry Nassar and athletic trainer Debra Van Horn, in conjunction with Nassar’s sexual abuse of gymnasts at the Karolyi Ranch in the Sam Houston National Forest.

Investigators, however, said they had no evidence on which to base charges against famed coaches Bela and Martha Karoyli, whose secluded ranch served for two decades as the women’s national team training center and where Nassar is accused of abusing world class gymnasts, including Olympic gold medalists, for two decades under the guise of medical care.

Nassar, who is serving the equivalent of a life sentence after pleading guilty in Michigan to state charges of sexual abuse and federal charges of possessing child pornography, was indicted on six charges of sexual abuse of a child, a second-degree felony punishable by two to 20 prison years, a maximum $10,000 fine or both.

Van Horn, who worked for USA Gymnastics for almost 30 years through last January, most recently as director of sports medicine services, was indicted on one charge of sexual abuse of a child. She is not in custody, but her attorney, Philip Hilder of Houston, who also is representing USA Gymnastics in two Walker County lawsuits, has been informed of the indictment, officials said.

[…]

The decision to indict Nassar and Van Horn but to spare the Karolyis was greeted with greeted with thanks by the Karolyis’ attorney, David Berg, and with disdain by John Manly, who represents several dozen of Nassar’s victims and has filed lawsuits against USA Gymnastics and the Karolyis for failure to protect athletes from Nassar’s abuse.

“The Karolyis are grateful to the Texas Rangers and the Walker County DA’s office for reaching the only conclusion they could have reached, that this exonerates them and removes a terrible cloud,” Berg said.

“They will continue to cooperate, but this investigation could go on until the end of time and there will never be charges against Bela and Martha Karolyi because they have done nothing wrong.”

Manly, in contrast, said the decision to indict Nassar, in light of the lengthy prison sentences already handed down, made as much sense as “digging up Lee Harvey Oswald and indicting him for the murder of President Kennedy.”

“Walker County made it clear to the survivors that they the Karolyis were never going to be a target of the investigation. This is a classic example of insiders protecting insiders,” he said.

“Their universal response of the survivors and their families is they feel nauseous about the way this was handled. I am convinced if this were a high school football team in Walker County, they would have gotten better treatment than these women did. … I’ve seen police departments take speeding violations more seriously.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I mean, maybe there wasn’t sufficient evidence to charge the Karolyis with a crime, despite all of the criminal activity happening at their ranch that they apparently failed to notice or take action on, but it sure seems like there ought to have been. It’s hardly out of the question that the Walker County DA might have given them more courtesy than they deserved. Perhaps we’ll find out more as the various lawsuits work their way through the courts. But for now, this is what we have. Deadspin and ThinkProgress have more.

Will the AG get involved in the Karolyi case?

The gymnasts who were victimized by Larry Nasser at the Karolyi Ranch would like to see a higher level of action.

The Texas Attorney General’s Office should take the steps of the Michigan attorney general in aggressively pursuing charges against the men and women who enabled Larry Nassar — the former doctor for the U.S. women’s Olympic gymnastics team — to sexually assault more than 200 young female athletes, a group of survivors and their lawyers said at a press conference Thursday morning.

Standing in the sunshine and wind outside the office of Texas’ top attorney, five women who say they suffered abuse at the hands of Nassar asked Attorney General Ken Paxton to take action against the couple they say allowed that abuse to continue — action Paxton’s office has said it does not have the power to take.

The women and their lawyers claim that Martha and Bela Karolyi, owners of the famed Texas Karolyi Ranch north of Houston, knew about the abuse at the longtime official training site of the team but took no steps to prevent it from continuing. They point to a May 2017 deposition in which Martha Karolyi answers “yes” after being asked whether she was aware of molestation accusations against Nassar.

The Karolyis have said through their lawyer that “Martha misunderstood the question and misspoke.”

[…]

The Texas Rangers, in consort with the Walker County Sheriff’s Office, have been investigating Karolyi Ranch since January at the request of Gov. Greg Abbott. That investigation is ongoing, the Texas Department of Public Safety said Thursday.

Lawyers for the women called that investigation insufficient, saying there have been no search warrants or charges yet issued. And there’s no indication that that probe is “seriously looking into the Karolyis,” said California attorney John Manly, who’s representing more than 100 survivors in the Nassar case.

Michelle Tuegel, a Waco attorney representing many of the Texas survivors, said a case of this scope requires action from the state’s top attorney — and, perhaps more importantly, the resources his office brings with it.

But in a statement shortly after the press conference, a spokesman for the Texas Attorney General’s Office said the investigation is “outside of our jurisdiction” but that the office would “gladly and immediately assist with this investigation and prosecution” if asked by local law enforcement.

See here and here for some background. The Texas Rangers have been working on this and I’d say it’s probably a little early to say that it’s taken too long for anything to happen. That said, Martha Karolyi’s “misstatement” deserves closer scrutiny, as does the entire history of the Karolyi Ranch, to be honest. It’s certainly fair to say that if either Karolyi didn’t know what was going on with Larry Nasser, they should have, and any professed ignorance on their part doesn’t excuse their culpability. Whether that translates into legal liability or not I don’t know, but the moral case is clear. The Chron has more.

Investigating the Karolyis

I’m fine with this, but I feel like we’re overlooking something.

Nearly a week after prominent USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to prison for the sexual assault of several female gymnasts, Gov. Greg Abbott has asked the Texas Rangers to investigate misconduct allegations at the famed Karolyi Ranch, the U.S. Olympic training facility in southeast Texas, north of Houston, where Nassar treated athletes.

“The public statements made by athletes who previously trained at the Karolyi Ranch are gut-wrenching,” Abbott said in a statement Tuesday. “Those athletes, as well as all Texans, deserve to know that no stone is left unturned to ensure that the allegations are thoroughly vetted and the perpetrators and enablers of any such misconduct are brought to justice. The people of Texas demand, and the victims deserve, nothing less.”

The Walker County Sheriff’s Office confirmed last week that it was looking into the ranch.

Abbott added that the Texas Rangers, the state’s top criminal investigative unit, and the Walker County Sheriff’s Office must collaborate on the case because of the far reach of the allegations, which are spread across jurisdictions and state lines.

There’s more in the Chron, where we find out that Simone Biles is ready to speak to investigators about the assaults she endured. It’s appropriate ti have the Rangers help out with this investigation, as I’m sure they have more resources and experience than the Walker County Sheriff’s Office, and of course we want all of the facts to come out so that everyone responsible can be held to that responsibility.

At the same time, though, I think we need to look past the criminal aspect of this and really ask ourselves how this was happening for nearly 20 years without anything being done about it. Among other things, maybe we need to have a good hard look at how the Karolyis operated for all these years and ask ourselves why we didn’t see the potential for problems all along. The isolation, the dictatorial methods, the extreme pressure on young girls to conform and submit to an absolute authority – is it any wonder a monster was able to flourish under those conditions? Yet as recently as 2016, in the runup to the Summer Olympics, the Karolyis were still the subject of fawning coverage; a lawsuit alleging they had a role in the Nasser scandal – he was forced out of US Gymnastics in 2015, you know – followed a couple of months later. But even before that, former gymnasts led by Dominique Moceanu had been sounding an alarm about their training methods; she was vindicated by an investigator last year. We were warned, well ahead of this recent news. We need to understand why we didn’t heed those warnings.

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.