Energy & Environment

Concerns About State Forest Development Plan Lead to Changed Legislation

Texas A&M wants to use part of Jones State Forest for “new educational purposes.” Locals who frequent the forest worry about what that could mean.

Just north of the Woodlands, there’s a dispute brewing about the future of a rare expanse of public lands hidden among the area’s sprawling suburbs.

Jones State Forest is owned by Texas A&M. Since the 1920’s it’s been an active forestry lab, a place where researchers, landowners and loggers have explored ways to both use and protect the ecosystem here. It’s also home to a federally-protected bird, the “red-cockaded woodpecker.” In more modern times, Boy Scouts and afternoon hikers take to the woods to hide away from the region’s more familiar noise and concrete.

A&M wants to use about 10% of the forest for what the university calls “new educational purposes,” and that’s got area residents like Mark Bowen worried.

“I love this forest,” he says while walking to his favorite spot near a small pond. “This is like part of my family.”

He and other locals heard about the plan through Senate Bill 1964, filed at the state legislature this session. As originally written, the bill would’ve allowed A&M to build in the forest – for educational or research purposes – but that wasn’t what got folks talking.

“When local neighbors started seeing that this bill included the possibility of commercial development, that caused quite a bit of concern,” Bowen says.

Commercial development? Who knew what that could mean? And that’s what worried people.

“I felt a little bit uncomfortable with how vague that language was,” says the bill’s author, Conroe State Senator Brandon Creighton.

Senator Creighton told News 88.7 that even though A&M asked him to file the bill, he had his own concerns from the get go. But he says he filed it so locals would be able to weigh in on the plan, and people did.

“We really heard feedback,” he says, “let me tell ya, it rolled in.”

Creighton has promised to make fundamental changes to the bill, and the way he wants to do that evolved in recent weeks.

He promised to take out the line about “commercial use.” He also said he’d consider adding language that would protect the 90% of the forest A&M was not asking to build on. A&M supported both ideas, but some said that still wasn’t enough. Now, the senator’s going a step further.

“The language that I will amend into the bill will require that the entire forest to remain in its current, natural, scenic, undeveloped state,” Creighton says.

So – is there a compromise here?

“No,” says Bowen. “We believe the bill should be pulled, and then we should start from square one with a dialogue with a community-wide conversation, and then go from there.”

Creighton argues that the legislative process is the community process some are asking for – after all, he is changing the bill – but Bowen says his group just wishes the university had come straight to locals with this plan first.

“Area residents consider themselves stewards of this community, and we’re all Texans, and we’re all taxpayers,” he says. “There are a lot of unknowns, we’d love to see a community engagement process where we can look into some of these details and work through them together, as a community.”

The details of A&M’s plan for the forest are likely to stay unknown for now. A university spokesperson says they won’t be saying any more about the plan until Creighton’s bill comes up for a committee hearing. The senator says that could happen within the next couple weeks.

What is clear is that the university has gone from asking to develop part of the forest, to now potentially being blocked from touching it at all.

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