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Conventional wisdom doesn’t work at Big Thicket National Preserve. Logic, ecological understandings, park boundaries, National Park Service protection, floral roles; throw these things out the window. Nothing here is as it seems. Everything collides in the thicket.

The land itself is a dark stew of mysterious swampland caused by the convergence of the southeastern swamplands, eastern deciduous forest. the Midwestern prairie, and the Southwestern desert. Flooding is common and necessary; it regulates the diversity of life. Brown bear and mountain lions hunt feral pigs and exotic nutria alongside alligator and bobcat. Fifty species of reptiles hunt insects alongside Venus flytraps, pitcher plants, and sundews.

The Bachman’s sparrow calls these woods home. She is found only in the continental United States, the only sparrow to hold this distinction. Could we find her? “Not a chance,” we thought. We’re only novice birders and sparrows are difficult to pinpoint. We headed out into the swamp and onto a boardwalk trail. Rain fell above us, caught on the floral canopy above. The dark black waters of the surrounding swamps dutifully reflected the large oaks and beech trees. Despite the overwhelming visual evidence, Big Thicket did not feel like the swamps of the south. There are few palmettos, less green and more browns. It felt like a wet, overrun Pennsylvania forest. But unlike our northeastern forest land, the Big Thicket’s mucky earth holds a vast liquid treasure: oil.

Admittedly, the world’s first oil strike, in 1859, did happen in a Pennsylvania forest, but that black gold was in very short supply. America’s next major oil discovery wouldn’t happen until 1901 at Spindletop, a hill a few miles south of Beaumont, Texas and a few miles south of the lands now preserved as Big Thicket.

Big Thicket’s parklands do not connect. Some of the land follows rivers, some follow creeks and some protect important habitats. When you look at a map the Park’s boundaries looks haphazard and non-nonsensical. Suburbs, towns, oil sites and private Texas land strangle the park’s deceivingly large 97,000 acres. Each disconnected Park Unit has a different purpose. Some are for hikers, some are for canoers, and some are for hunters. However, by 2001 Big Sandy Creek, a hunting Unit, had become increasingly poached for its oil. The land was being destroyed, the animals were fleeing because of the unending noise and the hunters weren’t happy. Who were the poachers? Who was harming the land? The National Park Service.

It is hard to believe that the Park Service would harm the land for its own profit. But it happens. As a result, the Sierra Club sued. And in 2006, a U.S. District judge ruled that the Park Service was in the wrong; they had not done enough to address the environmental impact. Their drilling decisions were “not supported by reasoned explanations, and hence are arbitrary and capricious and an abuse of discretion.”

Big Thicket’s boardwalk dips, takes many turns and is under constant attack from flooding. One break in the wood required a running start and a determined long jump. Gab’s leap cleared the muck below by mere inches. We were ready for a rest. Luckily, there was a wooden bench nearby. We sat mesmerized by the sounds of birds and the rain above. Then, in the underbrush ahead, Gab spotted a bird. She kept her binoculars fixed while Michael read from the Sibley Guide:

M: Found in open pinewoods with patchy understory of brush and palmetto.
G: Yes, yes, that’s where we are.
M: Solitary and secretive; difficult to see except when singing.
G: Well, he’s singing now from the bottom limb of the brush!
M: Does he have a buffy, er orangish, breast that constrasts with a whitish belly?
G: I’m pretty sure.
M: Is there reddish stripes on his head and one that stripes from his eye?
G: I think, he’s got to turn..oh, darn. he just flew away. I’m sure it was the Bachman’s sparrow. It had to be it had to be. Can you believe we just saw one?
M: Not really. But if you say so than, wow, that’s some kind of sighting. You think we can spot another one?
G: Why not?

So we sat for a little bit longer enjoying our time in the most unlikely of places.

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southern Florida
Visited: January 2, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 132 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Sunset View Over the Lake

WHAT IS IT?
729,000 acres consisting primarily of cypress forests. This large expanse of land serves as a watershed to the Everglades National Park, Big Cypress N PRES’ neighbor to the south.

BEAUTY (7/10)
The wild beauty of lurking American alligators dominates the Park’s murky canal water. These magnificent ancient beasts are everywhere. The surrounding bald cypress forests teem with sunning anhinga and every native North American wading bird. Even the wretchedly ugly and endangered wood stork soars above. The wet prairie landscapes are uneventful but therapeutically calming after time spent driving through Miami.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (4/10)
Big Cypress swamp’s primary role, both ecologically and as a National Park Unit is to be an unspoiled source of water into the Everglades. It was designated a Park Unit in 1974 shortly after an explosion of land development, oil speculation and economic exploitation severely threatened Big Cypress and in return, the health of the Everglades.

Since then, the Park has been the main location of the Florida Panther’s rise from near extinction. Dozens of Panthers now roam the Preserve.

Hello FriendCROWDS (8/10)
We always feel giddy while driving on the Tamiami Trail through the Preserve. Anglers and giggly tourists line the canal. Gators and wading birds are everywhere. There is a constant air of enjoyment. Nearly everyone driving the route stops at the Visitor Center asks questions about wildlife and wonders about the mysterious Florida Panther. We found the VC as crowded as any park we have been to.

The nearby Monument Lake campground, however, was not crowded at all, amazing given that the nearby Collier-Seminole State Park campground was full and cramped to Andersonville-esque proportions. We had a lovely time at Monument Lake. Campsites along a paved road circle a modestly sized, gator-infested lake. Once the sun starts sinking, the entire campground starts walking around the road, which at this point resembles a giant running track. Smiles and light conversation abound. This was the most pleasant and friendliest campground yet.

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (4/5)
The Park is simultaneously very accessible and uniquely prohibitive. South Florida’s two primary east-west routes pass through Big Cypress N PRES.

Interstate 75 (a/k/a the Everglades Parkway c/k/a Alligator Alley) passes through the Park’s northern section but offers no access to the Preserve. It is a toll road, no exits are allowed and tall barbed wire fences prevent any spur of the moment excursions.

If you want to enter the Park, you must take the southern route, U.S. 41 (a/k/a the Tamiami Trail). The Visitor Center stands at the road’s halfway point, 50 miles east of Naples and 50 miles west of Miami. You can hike the Florida Trail from the VC to both the north and south. Ask ahead about how much water covers the Trail.

The Tamiami Canal parallels the two-lane Tamiami Trail through the length of the Park. The Canal provides visitors with constant bird watching, fishing and alligator spotting. A few unpaved roads provide access to more remote section of the Preserve. ORV use is allowed in parts and is the primary vehicle used for people who choose to hunt in the Park.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (3/5)

Conveniently separated into three main shelves: flora, fauna and history and children’s. Birders and those in search of wildlife get primary attention here. Big Cypress knows its audience. Also among the selection are River of Grass and Voice of the River, tributes to Florida’s wilderness written by Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

Relaxing by the LakeCOSTS (4/5)

The Site is free.

Sites at the lovely Monument Lake campsite cost $16 per night. The campground is 8 miles west of the Visitor Center and only a few hundred yards north of the Tamiami Trail.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (4/5)

During our half dozen or so trips into the Visitor Center, there have always been at least two volunteers and one Ranger on duty. Often two and even three Rangers have been there to help out and answer questions. The most interesting staff member posted behind the desk was a firefighter taking a break from administering prescribed burns at the Park.

While we were stamping our National Park Passport Book, a staff member saw a Jimmy Carter NHS stamp and asked about that Site. We told the person how wonderful the Site was and how much respect we had for the president. Their response was, “well, I’m not supposed to tell you this but everyone seems to know anyway.” “What could it be,” we imagined. “President Carter is here today. He’s just a mile down the road at Clyde Butcher’s Gallery on vacation.” “Thanks.” we said as we rushed down the Tamiami Trail hoping to catch our second glimpse of Jimmy in two weeks.

But it was not to be. He was in the back having lunch. We asked the Secret Servicemen to tell the president how much we enjoyed his Sunday school lesson two weeks ago. We are sure they obliged.

TOURS/CLASSES (5/10)
We enjoyed the 15-minute introductory video shown at the Visitor Center. The film packs a strong educational punch even though it must have been made just a short time after the Park’s opening in 1974. Charts explain the watershed and short clips identify many of the Site’s wildlife. The film tells you what you will see and shows you things you are hoping to see. Michael heard loud gasps from everyone in the theater, even his wife, when the legendary ghost orchid appeared on screen. Who knew it was such a big deal?

Frequent Camp VisitorWe have found that many of the older films, Big Cypress’ included, focus on educating the public. The newer films tend to be fancy public relations-oriented pieces short on information and long on pretty pictures.

While the older films stand the test of time, the older museum exhibits do not. Big Cypress is no exception. The Museum displays are woefully inadequate given the large amounts of tourists the Park receives. We had little room to move. The centerpiece display is a stuffed Florida Panther that was tragically killed along the Tamiami Trail by a speeding car.

Rangers give sporadic talks and walks during the season. The crowds at Big Cypress N PRES are mostly transient spur of the moment visitors. The Park is not a destination Site, more of a place to break up the drive from Miami to Naples. The lack of Ranger activities is not surprising.

FUN (9/10)
The drive through Big Cypress on the Tamiami Trail is one of our favorite things about Florida. Where else does a major highway take you straight through otherwise untouchable swamps and forests? Driving through Big Cypress N PRES reminds you that despite all the development and expanding civilization, at its heart, Florida is totally wild.

When we came to Florida a few years ago for a cousin’s wedding, we took this drive almost every day. We couldn’t stay away. Little has changed this time around.

Cold-BloodedWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (9/10)
It is the middle of winter and gators and green vegetation are everywhere basking in the sun, as are we. Do you really need convincing? When you do come, be sure to drop into Clyde Butcher’s Photo Gallery and Shop located just a mile east of the Visitor Center. Known as the “Ansel Adams of the Swamp”, his black and white photos perfectly capture the many moods of south Florida’s wilderness. You will be following in the footsteps of a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

TOTAL 57/80

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near Beaumont, Texas
Visited: November 29, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 120 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

The Big ThicketWHAT IS IT?
Biological crossroads where the southeastern swamplands, eastern deciduous forest. Midwest prairie and pine savannas meet. The Park consists of nine distinct land units, a few of which are connected by two river corridor units. Roads and towns weave through the parklands; it is hard to believe that there are 97,000 acres of parkland among the outer reaches of suburbia.

BEAUTY (7/10)
In some of Big Thicket N PRES, the result of the clashing eco-zones is a dark stew of mysterious swampland. We were enchanted on are walk along the boardwalks of the Kirby Nature Trail in the Turkey Creek Unit of the Park. Rain fell above us, caught on the floral canopy above. The dark black waters of the surrounding swamps dutifully reflected the large oaks and beech trees. Despite the overwhelming visual evidence, Big Thicket does not feel like the swamps of the south. There are few palmettos, less green and more browns. It almost feels like a wet, overrun Pennsylvania forest.

UNESCO named Big Thicket a World Biosphere Zone in 1981 because of its unique floral and fauna diversity and also because its existence remains severely threatened by oil exploration. The Park contains four of North America’s five species of carnivorous plants and is a birding hot spot. We were lucky to see the elusive Bachman sparrow. Gab is confident of our spotting, Michael is doubtful.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (4/10)
The discovery and drilling of oil is tantamount to Big Thicket and the surrounding area. Oil was first discovered at the famed Spindletop site, located a few miles from the park, on lands that were probably once similar to the site’s environs. Presently, Big Thicket has become the centerpiece to a Sierra Club lawsuit that accuses the Bush Administration of surreptitiously changing the drilling rights in the National Parks.

SwampCROWDS (6/10)
We enjoyed a wonderful solitary walk through the marshes. We might have enjoyed hikes through other Units had the specter of gun-wielding deer hunters not frightened us away. A team of SCA, a conservation Peace Corps, youth lingered in the Visitor Center while waiting for Park Service canoes to do scientific testing. We were jealous. It was refreshing to see the SCA kids doing environmental research instead of their usual NPS perch as fee collectors. Research work rather than customer service should be the emphasis of their internships.

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (3/5)
The Big Thicket N PRES Visitor Center is located about 30 miles north of Beaumont, Texas and Interstate 10. Beaumont is 80 miles from the sprawling metropolis of Houston. Parts of Big Thicket are as close as 4 miles from Beaumont. Other Units are as far away as 60 miles.

This may sound confusing. Big Thicket is not one park. Its 11 spindly units resemble gerrymandered congressional districts; they all hug creeks, rivers and bayous. If you have a canoe, the Park is your oyster. Silent sojourns through the dark marshes sound spectacular to us. Without a canoe, your choices become somewhat limited. The hikers unit, Turkey Creek, provides a wonderful boardwalked path through the Big Thicket. Hiking is possible in only three other units. Be sure to bring mosquito repellent.

Since the park is a National Preserve, hunting is allowed in the other units. We arrived during deer season and did not dare travel outside of the safe Turkey Creek haven. Oil drilling occurs in the Big Sandy Creek area and has become a flashpoint. The companies have breeched their contract by taking too much oil. The hunters are angry and want their peaceful park back.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (3/5)
Standard fare at the Big Thicket bookstore: books identifying local plants and birds, a children’s section and some regional information on Texas. Nothing exceptional, except for the stuffed toy armadillos.

COSTS (4/5)
Park entry is free. Hunting, backcountry camping and fishing are all free with a permit.

Four nearby outfitters provide canoe rentals.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (2/5)
How come we always seem to arrive at sites on the Rangers’ day off? Big Thicket was no exception. Nonetheless, we received gobs of attention from a cheery, knowledgeable volunteer. We are sure the Ranger in the back room, who had come to do computer work on her day off, would have verified the volunteer’s able answers.

Large Carniverous PlantTOURS/CLASSES (7/10)

The Big Thicket N PRES VC does a terrific job at explaining the complex ecological crossroads that is the Park. Numerous fun, interactive displays highlight each of the biological regions. The exhibits are delightful and educational for kids and adults alike. Michael especially enjoyed sticking his hand in the massive human-sized Pitcher Plant replica. For a second, he felt like he was in a Star Trek episode and was in grave danger.

The Visitor Center also provides tons of mimeographed handouts whose topics include birding hot spots, carnivorous plants, hiking trails and even an auto tour. A number of videos are available for viewing. The only downside to the Park’s educational opportunities is the lack of Ranger talks. We had seen pictures of a canoe-led Ranger talk and got excited. These tours no longer take place.

FUN (7/10)
We are really enjoying our time spent at the National Preserves. Big Thicket is no exception. The ability to hunt on the land is one of the things that sets Preserves apart from Parks. The ability to utilize private contributions in creative ways seems to be another. Trails through Big Thicket are primarily over boardwalks. Almost every boardwalk has been dutifully maintained by a local Boy Scout group or business. A wooden plank below one’s feet commemorates each effort.

We contemplated canoeing, but there were thunderstorms in the forecast. The boardwalks got us plenty close to the dark, swampy waters. No feral pig or javalina sightings for us, which is just as well. They look pretty mean.

Did we mention Gabby’s spotting of the Bachman sparrow? It doesn’t take much to get us novice birders excited.

WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (7/10)
Communities around Big Thicket N PRES know what a treasure they have in their back yards. Hunters rely on Big Thicket for bountiful game; the Park relies on the hunters to control the nutria and feral pig populations and to canvas the sprawling units and report on the wildlife they encounter. “We couldn’t do it without them,” remarked the volunteer. A hunter reported the first brown bear in the Preserve last year. Hikers and canoers both enjoy hunt-free areas set aside for their use. Two hikers spotted a panther (local speak for a mountain lion) on a hike earlier this year. The Preserve’s doubting wildlife expert went out for a closer look and was not disappointed.

There is a wonderfully symbiotic relationship between the Preserve, hunters, hikers and canoers. There is room for everyone who respects the land and helps to preserve it. Let’s hope they can all unite to combat the latest drilling intrusions. Update: They did!

TOTAL 50/80

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