The Palestine Herald, Palestine, Texas

October 24, 2012

Neches River National Wildlife Refuge celebration draws crowd

Staff Reports
Palestine Herald-Press

— More than 125 people from Dallas, Austin and across East Texas participated in the special Neches River National Wildlife Refuge celebration Saturday hosted by Friends of the Neches River, Texas Conservation Alliance, The Conservation Fund and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Several visited the refuge, many canoed a stretch of the Neches River, then all gathered at the Neches River Ranch to eat barbecue, listen to music and have a celebration.

The Neches River Refuge in Anderson and Cherokee counties was first approved in 2006 by the USFWS. Over the past year, 3,300 acres have been added to the refuge. Another 3,000 acres is anticipated in the coming months. In time, the refuge could be as much as 25,000 acres.

“The Neches River National Wildlife Refuge has been a dream for many of us for a long time and now this refuge is a reality. This is a wonderful asset to our region,” said Dr. Michael Banks of Jacksonville, co-chair of Friends of the Neches River. “There’s no place on earth like the Neches River. And it was a thrill for me today to see the look on the faces of the first time paddlers when they realized that really and truly there is no place like the Neches River. I’ve been telling folks about the Neches for years and they can come experience it themselves.”

Refuge manager Mark Williams told visitors that the Neches River Refuge sports some of the best bottomland hardwood forest habitat in the southeast United States. The Neches River is in the heart of the North American Central Flyway, with millions of ducks, geese, and songbirds migrating up and down it each year. The refuge will be managed as wildlife habitat for all native animals and the migrating birds.

“The Neches River Refuge has national significance and local significance,” Janice Bezanson, executive director of Texas Conservation Alliance said. “The quality of the wildlife habitat is of national importance to protect. Having the refuge here will provide hunting and other outdoor recreation opportunities for local people and dollars to the local economy from visiting tourists.”

Kelly McDowell, supervisor of refuges in Texas and Oklahoma for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, described what East Texans should expect. 

“It’s going to be a while before we have sufficient funding to get the refuge generally open to the public,” McDowell said. “We’re in the planning stages for how we can improve the wildlife habitat on the refuge and expect to have a staff member on site within the next year. In the long run we expect to have hunting programs, hiking trails, and other public facilities.”

Banks described the history of establishment of the Neches River Refuge and thanked participants for the tremendous support the refuge received from local people.

 “Friends of the Neches River and Texas Conservation Alliance gathered up letters and signatures from more than 15,000 people, urging USFWS to create the Refuge,” Banks said. “This was one of those special grassroots efforts that come along every once in awhile.

“It was fun to ask the canoeists and refuge visitors what they thought,” added Bezanson. “Everyone gave a glowing report of the beauty of the Neches River and the bottomland forests.”

Hosts for the event were Friends of the Neches River, Texas Conservation Alliance, The Conservation Fund (who has donated land to the Refuge) and USFWS.

Sponsors included Cavender’s Neches River Ranch, the Texas Rivers Protection Association and a number of individuals.  Assistance with canoes was provided by Neches River Run Park.

To learn more about the Neches River, contact Texas Conservation Alliance at TCA@TCAtexas.org or ask to be added to the Friends of the Neches River email list by emailing Banks at mdbanksdds@gmail.com