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During the past two years, I drove a dozen times or more past a sign near where U.S. Highway 79 crosses the Neches River, each time reading the words “Neches River National Wildlife Refuge.” It is, after all, the regular route for my wife and me between our Austin home and our cabin in the woods a few miles west of Jacksonville.
One morning I decide to slow down and check out the refuge. The entrance road leads me to the head of the 4.5-mile River Road Trail. Armed with bottled water and bug spray, I stroll the wide, flat dirt trail that once carried log trucks when timber companies owned the land. By the time I reach the banks of the Neches, the traffic sounds of U.S. 79—and most evidence of civilization—have faded away. Officially, this may not be wilderness, but it seems pretty wild to me.
I’m showered with the ambient sounds of cicadas droning and birds chirping from trees as tall as nine-story buildings. Signs of rising and falling water lie all around. Watermarks reach 4 feet high on giant oaks, even though today’s river level lies 6 feet below the top of the banks.
Indeed, recent floods downed a tree or two across this 30-yard-wide stretch of the river and floated branches across its broad flood plain. Woody debris and residue lodges in piles at the base of tree trunks. Mounded deposits of fine-grained sand reveal fresh footprints of raccoons, deer and bobcats. As I walk, a sudden rush of air surprises me—a great blue heron bolts skyward not 50 feet away. As I pause beside the gently flowing river, a big splash breaks the glassy surface—a large bass snaps up a floating bug. An owl hoots at me from somewhere downriver.
By nature, the Neches River has always been fickle—rising and falling through cycles of flood and drought, replenishing the land and the wildlife that live off it. The power of its water carves ever-deepening banks and even changes its course, leaving oxbow lakes detached from the main channel.
Few towns or developed areas border the river’s upper stretches. In fact, 90% of the refuge is forested; the rest, a mix of small lakes, shrub swamps, beaver ponds and marshes. My two-hour hike confirmed what I’d heard about this place: The upper Neches River nurtures some of America’s finest hardwood habitat and a staggering array of plants and animals.
Conservation groups and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service singled out this unique ecosystem for protection back in the 1980s. Many studies chronicled its myriad natural wonders. But this stretch of the upper Neches was almost permanently flooded in 2005 when Dallas proposed a reservoir here to serve the city’s future water needs.
At the time only two major lakes—Lake Palestine and B.A. Steinhagen Reservoir—inundated the Neches River on its 416-mile flow from its headwaters in Van Zandt County to Port Arthur and the Gulf. And that’s the way local and state conservationists wanted to keep it.
“I grew up fishing and hunting along the Neches with my dad,” recalls conservationist and Jacksonville dentist Michael Banks, who in 2006 mobilized a group called Friends of the Neches River. “The reservoir would’ve covered up all that prime bottomland, so we gathered thousands of petition signatures to show politicians we wanted to save this for future generations.”
By mid-2006 the USFWS established the refuge with a projected acquisition boundary of just over 25,000 acres in Cherokee and Anderson counties. The city of Dallas immediately challenged the designation in court. As the battle to save the Neches played out in headlines and court cases, two books came out to heighten public awareness. Lufkin realtor Richard Donovan and daughter Gina Donovan paddled the Neches in canoes, and Richard recorded their experiences in his 2006 book, Paddling the Wild Neches. In 2009, Gina followed up with a detailed river guidebook, the Neches River User Guide.
“We believed that the river would sell itself if people only knew how and where to connect with it,” she says, fondly recalling days with her dad, now 85, “canoeing, portaging over fallen logs, camping, seeing amazing birds and other wildlife, listening to the sounds of the river and bottomland forests.”
By 2010 the legal squabble ended when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the refuge. Opened to the public in 2019, the refuge now boasts 7,200 protected acres, 20 miles of hiking trails and 11 miles of riverfront. Leo Gustafson, refuge manager, expects another 1,500 acres to be added by the end of this year, all acquisitions coming from donations and purchases from willing sellers.
Located 11 miles west of Jacksonville on U.S. 79 and open daily from sunrise to sunset, the refuge serves three primary purposes, says Gustafson. First, it protects habitat for hundreds of species of migratory birds that seasonally travel south, and then north, across North America’s Central Flyway. In fact, the refuge attracts the largest population of migratory waterfowl in the upper Neches River basin.
“The refuge is a primary corridor for almost 3 million dabbling ducks each season,” says Gustafson, adding that other migratory and overwintering waterfowl include mallards, wood ducks, green-winged teal and the northern pintail.
Secondly, this protected realm of water and woods provides permanent homes for a complex biodiversity of flora and fauna. The numbers are impressive—273 bird species, 45 mammal species, 54 species of reptiles and amphibians, plus 116 fish species. These critters thrive across a flood plain that also acts as a natural sponge to filter floodwaters and improve river quality while helping to mitigate downstream flooding.
Finally, the refuge offers the public a range of recreational opportunities, from hunting and fishing to wildlife observation, photography and environmental education. “Our goal is to give folks a healthy place to get outside and enjoy nature,” Gustafson says.
Miles of easy, wide trails take visitors across flood plains, alongside the serpentine Neches and past open water where otters frolic. Various kinds of oak, hickory, pecan, elm and gum trees dominate the plains. Understory trees include yau-pon, possum haw, American hornbeam and red maple. A more demanding trail climbs a few hundred feet above the bottoms to an upland pine forest that’s home to several kinds of woodpeckers.
This year the refuge opens its first hunting season in cooperation with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Bow and gun hunters will have access to most of the refuge, based on TPWD rules, to hunt ducks, white-tailed deer, feral hogs, squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, and incidental beavers and coyotes. The refuge will close to the general public on hunting days in late fall and early winter.
Next to come will be a fishing program for the refuge, says Gustafson. Anglers already use public ramps to fish the wild Neches, and the fishing is good, according to Banks, who also helped start the Friends of the Neches River National Wildlife Refuge in 2013 to support the refuge as it grows. “TPWD stated that the Neches River is one of the cleanest rivers they survey, making fish from it great table fare,” Banks says.
In winter he fishes the spawning run of sand bass (white bass) above Lake Palestine. In summer he loves kayak fishing between Lake Palestine and the refuge in search of spotted bass (smallmouth bass). “They are tenacious fighters, having lived in the current of the river,” he says.
Perhaps the most tenacious group of people on the river is the Neches River Runners. On the first Saturday in August, the paddling enthusiasts stage the Neches Wilderness Canoe Race, a 22-mile competition of 100-plus kayaks and canoes from the Lake Palestine dam to the U.S. 79 bridge near the refuge.
“It’s usually very hot, and the water level is low, so you’re paddling all the time. We call it the toughest little canoe and kayak race in Texas,” says Kim Zemer, an avid paddler who lives on Lake Palestine and has helped organize the race for almost half of its 22-year history. The event raises funds for scholarships to Trinity Valley Community College. “It’s really an obstacle course because sometimes you have to paddle under or around fallen trees and even portage around log jams,” Zemer explains.
In fact, just before the race, volunteers float the river with chain saws cutting out sections of timber to streamline navigation. The race’s pro class features paddlers in long, narrow carbon fiber boats that cover the 22 miles in three to four hours. Leisure-class paddlers go in wider, more stable boats, taking most of the day to reach the finish line.
To encourage all paddlers to experience the upper Neches, TPWD designated a 6.6-mile paddling trail that runs from River Run ATV Park at 2001 CR 3315/FM 747 to the U.S. 79 takeout near the refuge. If you want to paddle through the refuge, it’s another 7 miles to the takeout at U.S. 84, Gustafson says. “There’s open water as well as tree snags to deal with. It’s a really wild place. That’s what distinguishes us.”
Another thing that distinguishes the Neches River National Wildlife Refuge is its mussels, says Neil Ford, longtime but now-retired biology professor at the University of Texas at Tyler who has studied river mussels for years.
“Overall, the upper Neches area is some of the most diverse habitat in Texas. I have surveyed mussels in all the rivers of East Texas, and the 37 species of mussels I found in the Neches is far more than any of the other rivers,” he says. “The area has less human disturbance with fewer urban areas, less oil and gas drilling, and fewer dams. The refuge is extremely important in helping protect this area. It is also important in that it is the most scenic of all the East Texas rivers. It is great fun to kayak.”
Zemer couldn’t agree more. “I go out alone, just me and the dog, for peace and quiet,” she says. “In the spring the water is high, so the river rides up over its banks to fertilize the land. Then in the summer the banks are 8–10 feet above your head. You’ll see turtle slides, alligator eggs, deer, otters, beavers and lots of hawks. I saw a family of hogs swim across the river. You’ll see things you won’t see anywhere else. It’s a beautifully protected place.”