by Meghan Monson

East Texas’ Neches River National Wildlife Refuge may get critical funding soon if congressional negotiators keep it in a federal Transportation bill. The bill is currently in conference committee and final decisions are expected this week. Last week, Texas Representatives Lloyd Doggett, Ruben Hinojosa, Gene Green and Silvestre Reyes, joined more than 100 members of Congress on a letter to the conferees urging them to keep the lands funding in the bill.

An amendment to the House version of the transportation bill included $700 million for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), a portion of which would go towards the Neches, and guarantees that the LWCF be funded through the year 2022. The LWCF works in partnership with state and local governments to provide funding for projects whose aim is to protect our natural resources, lands, waters, and wildlife while creating and improving opportunities for outdoor recreation. Texas has received approximately $478 million in funds from the LWCF over the past four decades, which has served to protect some of Texas’ most valuable lands and waters, such as the Padre Island National Seashore and the Angelina National Forest.

Designated in 2006 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (FWS), the Neches River National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) straddles Anderson and Cherokee counties and is bounded by Texas Highway 79 to the north and Farm-to-Market road 747 to the east, following the Neches River. After a coalition of groups including Environment Texas defeated effortsto dam the river in this area, The Conservation Fund (TCF) acquired 6,715 acres of land within the refuge acquisition boundary and transferred 3,336 of these acres to the FWS. All 6,715 acres owned by TCF and FWS are part of the refuge, and a previous waterfowl hunting lodge on the property is set to become its headquarters. In order to obtain more lands within the refuge boundary and to develop refuge headquarters and resources for recreation, the FWS needs funding from the LWCF.

The Neches River ecosystem has been called “one of the last intact ecosystems of the South.” It provides nesting and migratory habitat for the migrating birds of the Central Flyway, one of the four main flyways for migrating birds through North America. Bottomland hardwood forests, whose trees continually improve the river water quality and help control flooding, also thrive in the Neches River ecosystem. As a designated national refuge, the NWR has the opportunity to provide for compatible wildlife-dependent recreational opportunities. Developing outdoor recreational activities, from bird-watching to paddling, would be a tremendous asset to the refuge by investing the interests of the public in the refuge.

The continued protection of the Neches River ecosystem through its establishment as a national wildlife refuge is a great step forward in the interests of preserving the open lands of Texas, free from development. Funding from the LWCF is a necessity to maintain the lands of the Neches River ecosystem and acquire more lands within the refuge boundary, as well as to institute opportunities for outdoor recreation. It is crucial that the conferees on the Transportation Bill committee, including Dallas Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson and Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, preserve the LWCF amendment so that the appropriations for this fund are guaranteed for their intended purpose. Let’s keep Texas a state with wide-open spaces we can be proud of.

Meghan Monson is a senior at UT Austin and Preservation Intern for Environment Texas.