INTERVIEWEE: Ike McWhorter (IM)
INTERVIEWERS: David Todd (DT)
DATE: October 8, 1999
LOCATION: Silsbee, Texas
TRANSCRIBERS: Lacy Goldsmith and Robin Johnson
REELS: 2054 and 2055
Please note that videos include roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the recordings. Boldfaced numbers mark the time codes for the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” refers to various off-camera conversation or background noise, unrelated to the interview.
DT: My name is David Todd and I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. And we are here, outside of Silsbee, Texas, in the Larson Sanctuary. And we have the good fortune to be talking with Ike McWhorter who is Director of the Piney Woods Program for the Nature Conservancy of Texas. And we’re looking forward to visiting about his work in conservation in East Texas and elsewhere. And I wanted to take this chance to thank you for taking the time to be with us.
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IM: Glad to be here.
DT: Thank you. We wanted to start with the beginning. Could you tell us about your childhood and any early interests or influences that may have lead to such an interesting role in conservation?
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IM: Okay. Well, actually I grew up here in Silsbee, so this is my hometown. And these are the woods that I played in—and—and—and enjoyed, as a—as a youngster growing up here in Silsbee. So, it’s—they’re not new to me and they’re very dear to my heart. I think I was very fortunate to—to—I’ve grow up in a place like Silsbee, a small town where we did have access to the outdoors. And I was fortunate to have parents who supported that kind of activity and—and encouraged me in—in the outdoors. My dad worked in the oil field. I remember going to work with him as a boy, going out in—into the—the oil fields, out into—into the forest. And that was always exciting for me. And my mother always supported, well she actually worked with the—the Girl Scout and the Campfire Girls. And—and there were always camping trips and outings. And she encouraged me in my—Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts. So I always had that scouting background. She always tried to—to interest us in—in doing camping and cookouts. In fact, she’d take the family on picnics and we wouldn’t go out and eat out of a picnic basket. We’d go out and cook our meal over an open fire in the—in the woods. So, that was always interesting and I think that kind of ingrained in me a—a some of my—a love of the outdoors. It was always there. And like I say, I was always fortunate to be in an area that I could get out and enjoy the forest like I did. In fact, this area here, when we
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were very young, this is where my mother brought us and all the cousins and—and the aunts and uncles and we’d come out on family outings and have a little picnic right out on the creek bank. And so I’ve been coming here all my life, actually.
DT: Could you describe the area you grew up in?
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IM: Well, we’re in an area that’s referred to, many times, as the Big Thicket of—of Southeast Texas. Of course, that means a lot of different things to different people. Growing up here in Silsbee, to us, it—it meant an area of a relatively undisturbed wilderness area. It was pretty inaccessible in the early days. I guess the—the timber bonanza era, the early part of this century, brought people into this area. Because there was so much forest to—to cut. So, but, rela—a very wooded area, very remote, inhospitable to—to most types of settlement. And so we had a lot of forest and—and creeks and bottom lands and just a real mix of natural habitats and a lot of places to go that you can get away from sights and sounds of civilization. It’s a—it’s a very unique area, I think.
DT: Was there anyone in particular that helped you as a teacher or a guide to help you understand this area?
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IM: Well, I—of course I grew up here, and I had friends and—and acquaintances and did a lot of hunting and camping. I was with the scouting program. So, I always had a—a sense for the forest and—and how to, you know, how—how to get along in the woods. I went off to school though, and studied biology. So I got kind of a scientific background. And then when I came back to the area in the—I think it was 1977, where I’m—I’d gone off to school to college and I’d come back to Silsbee to try to get into conservation work. Because that was where my heart was. I didn’t know exactly who or where to go to. So coming back to Silsbee, at that time, there was a lot of interest in the Big Thicket National Preserve. It had just been established and people were—were—were really focusing on what it was going to be. There was a lot of political controversy. A lot of people didn’t want it here, growing up, being from—from a rural area, people didn’t want government intervention in their lives. They were afraid the land would be locked up, they would hurt jobs. But there was another element that saw that this was a really unique area. And so I—I thought that this may be an area to get me started in—in my conservation profession. Of course, I always envisioned maybe being somewhere in—in the mountains of Montana or Northern California somewhere, or Alaska, maybe. I never thought that my conservation path would keep me right here in my hometown. But it—but it did. But, anyway, during that period I—I—I sought out people who were in the field, who were doing work. I think one, probably, the one person that had the
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most influence on my work in Big Thicket was Geraldine Watson. She was a noted naturalist, here in the area and she was a—was a very strong proponent of the Big Thicket National Preserve. And she had done a lot of work, a lot of talks and—about conservation and—and establishing the Preserve. And I went to Geraldine and—and asked her if I could be of assistance, if there was anything I could do, a way that I could get involved. And she said, “Well, I can’t get you a job here, but I can introduce you to people that maybe can.” And so I started working with Geraldine, giving tours, and—and going to Houston, giving presentations. I followed her around. And she’s a very, very good botanist and knew most of the vegetation. And just going with her I learned so much about the natural history of the—of this area. And then again, I also met the people that she was talking about, basically the Nature Conservancy. At that time, she was a Volunteer Coordinator for the Nature Conservancy. And she just worked on their behalf on protecting small little remnant preserves that—that they had identified. And, about that time, in 1977, Temple Inland—well it was Temple Eastex, at that time, they donated the—the Roy E. Larson Sandylands Sanctuary to the Conservancy. And that’s the area that we’re at now, of course. They gave us 2100 acres. But there wasn’t anybody here to manage it. There was no Conservancy staff in Texas. Geraldine was just a volunteer for them. And she recommended to them that they hire me as the manager of the property. So, I stepped into a position. I had not even heard of the
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Nature Conservancy at that time. But, Geraldine was very influential, not only in teaching me about the natural habitats and the plant life here, but also introducing me to the Nature Conservancy and the—and the Sandylands Sanctuary.
DT: Can you tell us about what she taught you that was unique about the Big Thicket and about the Larson Sanctuary?
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IM: Well, mainly just the diversity, that—that Big Thicket was—a lot of people call it the biological crossroads. To me, it’s just a—a—a great area of diversity, of plant life, animal life, different habitats, natural communities and it was nice to go with Geraldine because she knew all the plants. So, if I had a question, “What is this?” or “What is that?” she had the answer for it. And she also had a good perception of the—the different associations, the different communities and ecosystems and—and the processes that—that maintained these systems. So, she gave me a lot of background—of course, I had a biology degree so I knew some of the science. And I—I had, I was a—self-taught in a lot of areas, particularly in ecosystems and—and—from a broader ecological perspective, so, that—that I think helped me out.
DT: I understand that right here at the Larson Sanctuary you’ve got examples of Baygall and the Pine Sand Hills and other ecosystems. Can you describe those communities?
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IM: Well, Sandylands is really a unique area. And it—we were very fortunate to get it preserved. We were very fortunate that the Nature Conservancy got it. And, because we’re able to do things here that no other unit of—of the Big Thicket National Preserve was able to do, and that we were more proactive in our management. Sandylands is very unique. There’s a lot of different habitats, Village Creek, the bottom lands along Village Creek, the Upland Sand Hills, the Baygalls and the pond communities all made a complex—that was very, very, very important, very significant ecologically. I think the most critical habitat and one which we have really focused a lot of our management has been the Long Leaf Pine Sand Hill Community that occurs here. This, now, Long Leaf Pine, of course, is one of the most endangered systems in the—in North America. It’s one of the most highly diverse systems also, although people don’t always recognize that. They think a pine forest is a pine forest and a pine tree is a pine tree. But Long Leaf is—is very unique. And here at Sandylands it’s—it’s got some very interesting components. And, a lot of rare plants like the Texas Trailing Flocks and the White Fire Wheel and the Scarlet Catchfly. These are all plants that are endemic to that system. And—and one of the challenges here has been to restore that system, because it’s gone through a lot in the last hundred years. The early cutting, in the—in the early days when the forests were just practically clearcut, the big pines were cut. Following that there was a period that—that the grazing element kept the forest burned. But eventually that was cut out and—and fire was suppressed. And then these areas that were once open Long Leaf forests and woodlands now became very thick with hardwoods and shrubs,
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which really shaded out all these understory plants and this open environment that Long Leaf thrives in. And so our goal was to try to restore some of these areas. If fact, some of them had been converted to Slash Pine plantations. Slash Pine, of course, is not a native tree to—to East Texas. And, but our challenge was to restore these systems and to—to maintain that open character that Long Leaf needs. And, of course Long Leaf is a fire-adapted system. And natural fire regimes no longer operate so we have to use prescribed burning to restore and maintain these areas. So, it was my charge to put together a program of prescribed burning to—to restore these areas. And that was real interesting because I had no experience in it. I—I knew some about it, somewhat. But, nobody else was doing it. It was something that was sorely lacking in our management. It was really the only way that we could really get these areas back in shape. So, I began a burning program here, just by the seat of my pants. We’d go out and—and start burning and bring friends in who—who had experience in it. And, we started out very small and I was very fortunate to get through those early years of burning without any catastrophes. But—but we did have a—a succ—we started a successful program. It’s grown through the years. Now we have a very professional prescribed burning program in the Nature Conservancy here in Texas. And we’re getting the job done. And—and those early years, I think, were—were very exciting, getting the burning—we also, we didn’t stop at burning. Because s—we also recognized that to restore these areas that had gone so long, and particularly the ones where Slash Pine was planted, we would also need to utilize forestry to—to bring these areas back. In—in fact, we would do selective thinning of Slash Pine to make room for—for Long Leaf regeneration and to bring them
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back. So, that was real exciting to, to actually start lumbering operations here at the Sanctuary to—to get rid of these non-native species to make room for Long Leaf. In fact, we’re now even doing Long Leaf plantings in some of these areas. So, it—it’s been a very exciting project. I think it’s—it’s really kind of been on the front end of conservation here in the Big Thicket. Through our example here I think others that I’ve seen the—the advantages of—of an active burning program. And—and even timber to—to help restore these areas. So, I think we’ve made a lot of headway and—and hopefully we’ve set a model here that can be util—utilized throughout the Southeast.
DT: Can you talk a little bit about how you do a prescribed burn and maybe some of your adventures with fire?
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IM: Oh yeah, well, prescribed burning is basically utilizing fire as a management tool. You have a defined area. You have a specific objective that you want to achieve. And you prescribe your fire to—according to the conditions of weather and fuel and moisture to achieve a specific objective and to stay within the designed boundary. And, of course, the early days, we were—here again we didn’t have a lot of equipment. We didn’t have a lot of manpower. I think one of the early burns actually started out as a wild fire. I came out on the Preserve one day and saw where a huge area of—of the area had been burned, very hot, I mean the trees were just scorched up to the tops. And there was still smoke out there one the ground. It had actually jumped a railroad track and it was moving into another huge area with nothing to stop the fire. I had no equipment of any kind, and so I went and got a couple friends of mine who came, we came—went out onto the Preserve. We cut a few Pine saplings to use as spotters to control the fire. And we s—there was a pipeline through the area. And we decided we would stop the fire at the pipeline. And so to do that we created a backfire, along the pipeline to—to create a burned out area where the fire could not advance any further. And to do that we used hand fulls of Pine straw that we would light and walk along and drop along the—the boundary there to—to ignite the backfire. And used the—the Pine saplings to swat the fire as it moved out into the pipeline and to keep it out confined into the unit. It was very successful. We had a nice 80-acre prescribed burn that started as a wild fire. From there, things got better. We finally got equipment. We got backpacks, sprayers and flappers and drip torches, things like that, that are—are nec—necessary tools for prescribed burning.
DT: What is the idea behind prescribed burning? Are you trying to emulate…?
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IM: (talking over David) Exactly. We’re trying to emulate the nature fire regimes. See, in—before European settlement here, natural fires were—were rather frequent. And they were as a result of—of lightning strikes. Probably, Indians had some effect on the burning too. But definitely fire was a part of the ecosystem. Long Leaf Pine has adapted to that. It—it evolved in a fire-frequented landscape, along with all the other plants and animals that occur in this system. But when man came on the scene he built roads and houses and—and broke up the landscape, agricultural fields. And—and cut the forest down, which changed the fuel structure. Natural fires were then no longer really operable. They—they—there weren’t enough of them. They didn’t spreading across the landscape. They didn’t do what they did in nature. And so now you’ve got a system that’s one of the major processes it had gone. To restore and maintain these systems, we’ve got to reintroduce that process. We can’t just let fires just go without any types of controls because there’s people that live out here and there’s towns and houses and—and things like this. So—so we use prescribed burning to reintroduce, to emulate, as you said, the—the natural fire regime. It’s important for these species to survive. Long Leaf Pine cannot regenerate without bare mineral soil. And it doesn’t produce seeds but every, oh, five or six, seven years. So, it’s got to have this—this fire regime to—to be able to—to re—regenerate the seeds. And plus, it can’t compete with the other woody plants that would shade out the young Long Leaf. The fires will kill those, but the Long Leaf is so fire-adapted that it can survive the fires, even the young seedlings. So it’s a very important process in the system.
DT: Could you talk about some of the other restoration and management tools that you use? You mentioned selective cutting some pines?
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IM: (talking over David) Selective cutting. Yeah. We would go in, where—where they planted the—the Slash Pine in the plantations, of course there was some residual Long Leaf still left, so we had some Long Leaf there growing up in the plantation of Slash Pine. But when the trees got older, they—they tended to shade out the groundcover. We were losing all the herbaceous component. And so, and they were too big to be killed by fire. If—if we did have a hot enough fire to kill the Slash, they would kill the Long Leaf too that was left in the stand. And so by going in and selectively removing the Slash, we—we create this open habitat for the Long Leaf to grow, to flourish and to also regenerate. There will be bare openings in the ground where the Long Leafs can reseed. And so, that’s—through that selective thinning, is a very important component of that. And as time goes on, we don’t want to take everything off in the first cutting, because these are very deep sands out here. And—and they’re very dry. And if you just take all the tree cover, it almost turns to a dessert. Hardly anything will grow. Even the Long Leaf seedlings will have trouble getting established. So it’s better to keep some canopy there to—to provide some shading and let the groundcover species recover and to—to let the Long Leaf kind of reestablish. And then we can go in and take off the rest of, once the Long Leaf is established, we can go back in and take the rest off, the rest of the Slash Pine. Or create little openings, grou—half acre or so, acre, maybe in extent, and go in and maybe plant Long Leaf if there’s no seed trees around.
DT: Ike, could you please tell us the difference between the selective type of management you’re doing here and some of the more conventional ways of managing a forest, such as clearcutting and that kind of stuff?
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IM: Okay. First of all, the work that we’re doing here on the core at Sandylands is primarily a restoration project. So we’re—we’re primarily interesting in just reestablishing the native or the natural structure and function of this system. We’re not so much looking at long-term forestry as a tool for ongoing economics. But that is a very important part. It is something that we must incorporate into our conservation program. To help the landowners out there manage their—their land, so they can do it ecologically, but still have some economic returns. So it was very important to us to—to work toward that goal. But, the core area here is not maybe the place to do it. But, in 1994 we put together a first of its kind arrangement with a timber company to—to—to focus on just this type of ecologically compatible forestry that you’re talking about. As you say, most of the timber companies, their management is in—and even private—a lot of the private land owners—their management is geared for even-aged management, a fast—short-rotation crops that produce a—a—a more economic returns in the short term. But they don’t necessarily maintain the natural forest structure that—that a lot of the people desire. So we’re interested in really developing more of a selective management using natural regeneration, where you don’t clearcut, you just take some of the trees out. So in 1994 we struck a deal with Temple Inland who was the people who gave us the Sandy Land to begin with. They gave us an easement on 2800 acres of their land surround—directly surrounding the Sanctuary. And the goal here is to take their plantations and restore it to Long Leaf Pine, pretty much like we’re doing here on the
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core. But, we’re going to take it further there in that we’re also going to manage these for ongoing timber production, at the same time protect the ecological elements, the rare plants and the structure of the forest that’s—that’s important for natural habitats. And so this is a—a very unique—unique venture here. And I think it’s going to be very important because we’re going to be able to show that you can manage these areas through selective management, protect the environment and still provide economic return from the forest. And so our—our—our practices differ in that we don’t clearcut. That we’re selectively only removing a few trees at each entry. We encourage natural regeneration, rather than replanting, so it takes away the cost of—of site prep and—and replanting. Because we’re using natural regeneration. We burn the areas frequently to emulate the natural fires that kept these systems together. And—and we do it in a way that’s ecologically sensitive. It doesn’t disturb the soil or it minimizes the disturbance, and—and still—still we’re producing timber off these tracts.
DT: Can you explain what clearcutting is and what sort of problems you see with that approach?
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IM: Well, clear—
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IM: Well, clearcutting is just a silvicultural tool. And it’s a way to regenerate the forest, to—to maximize the production. Because you’re taking it down to ground level. Once the trees meet their ec—reach their economic maturity, you take it down to ground level and you start all over. You replant and, it’s—it’s advan—it has its advantage for the timber company because they have such a large land base. It’s economically feasible for them to—to have the—the equipment or the contractors to go in and—and clearcut these areas and replant them. And it—and over a—a large land base they’re always having trees that are coming—that are ready to cut at any one time. For the small landowner, it doesn’t have quite the advantages. But, it is an acceptable tool. And it’s certainly a tool that’s—that’s useful in industrial forestry. We don’t want to see it all over the landscape though. You know, we hope that there will be private landowners and—and areas that we can do other types of management, alternative silvicultural practices, the kind that I’m talking about, selective management. We call it ecosystem-based forestry. Because, what we’re trying to do is perpetuate the—the natural structure and function of the ecosystem, but still provide some—some economic returns. Long Leaf is real conducive to that because it’s such a high quality tree. And by letting it grow to an older age you get real high-value products such as saw timber, poles, things like this that are—that are much more attractive as an economic product.
DT: Speaking of economic products, could you talk about the difference between the Slash Pine at many pine plantations and the Long Leaf Pine?
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IM: Well, these—these trees, the Slash Pine, and now they’re actually doing Loblolly Pine; these are species that are very fast-growing. They produce a lot of fiber very quickly. It drops off as they get older and Long Leaf can’t compete with them. But for the early stages they—they put on a lot of growth in the early years. So, for short-rotation forestry, they’re an ideal crop. They—they’re—they’re not very sensa—they’re not very adaptable to fire, though. So they can’t stand fire. And they’re—and they’re very prone to have insects, diseases and things like this. But, they’re not kept on the landscape that long anyway, they’re cut at an early age, so it’s—it’s not a problem. Long Leaf is more fire-resistant. It’s more disease-resistant. And, like I say, you could carry it to a—a—a older age; you get the qu—the advantage of those types of attributes.
DT: You mentioned Slash Pine and its vulnerability to insects. Can you talk about how you deal with Southern Pine Beetles?
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IM: Well, actually, like—like I was saying, Long Leaf Pine is very resistant to insects and—and disease and things like this, particularly Southern Pine Beetles. They’re—they have such a high resin content, the beetles actually have trouble getting in through the bark into the tree. And so—so it’s—we’re highly resistant to that. So where you have a—a well-managed Long Leaf stand, which is open, widely spaced trees, you don’t have a problem. Beetles become a problem where you get trees that are stressed. The trees are too dense or they’re in a wet area that’s flooded real frequently, and there’s no type of management. Particularly Long Leafs, Loblollies, Slash, things like that are susceptible. Particularly if there’s no management to thin them out and—and create a more healthy stand.
DT: What sort of response do you advise when there is a Pine Beetle infestation? Do you advise cutting, or pheromones, or…?
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IM: Well, if—we’ve found a few spots in here and, particularly in the Slash Pine plantations. And it’s nice that they take out the Slash Pine. That way we don’t have to do it. But the problem is, once the populations built up, they can actually attack some of the older, mature trees, and even take out some of the Long Leaf. So, it’s not something we want to just run rampant. So we do control the pine plantations and—or the Pine Beetle infestations in the pine plantations. And we do that pri—primarily through cutting, through identifying where the—where the bug spot is, cutting the trees in a buffer around it.
DT: It seems that the forest you are managing are quite diverse and that you’re trying to increase the diversity and the more commercially oriented forests are more of a monoculture. Can you describe the advantages and disadvantages of a diverse forest versus a monoculture?
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IM: Well, I, let me clarify that. We’re not necessarily interested in having a diverse forest of trees. A Long Leaf system wasn’t that at all. A Long Leaf system was primarily Long Leaf Pine. The other trees, the other pines and most of the hardwoods are—are very fire-sensitive and they don’t survive in that type of environment. So, to the untrained eye, looking at a Long Leaf system, you may call it a monoculture. Because it’s going to be Long Leaf Pine exclusively, except for a few scattered hardwoods out there. Now, I’m talking about the upper landscape, okay, and—and I’ll go into that in just a moment. …
DT: Part of the great diversity of this part of Texas is that it supports some pretty rare animals, like the Red Cockaded Woodpecker. And I was wondering if you could talk about your efforts to protect the woodpecker?
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IM: Oh, well, certainly. The Red Cockaded Woodpecker likes open, fire-maintained forests of pines, particularly Long Leaf Pines, old age Long Leaf Pines, because they nest by excavating cavities in these old trees that have Red Heart disease, where the interior of the tree is very soft and—and deteriorating. So, it’s easy to excavate a cavity. But, we’re not actually managing for the birds here. But we’re helping a lot of our partners who manage for them. And going to hope they’d be having some—acquiring some lands in the near future that may have some birds on them. So, we’re very interested in the species, we just don’t have them here, on this particular Preserve. Let me go back to one of the points, on your last question, about these different systems. I think one of the—a way to maybe explain is that the natural ecosystem, whether it’s Long Leaf Pine or—or—or whatever you want to call it here, is really a mosaic of different systems. And the goal, our approach, our goal is not to necessarily increase the diversity of all species on every site out there. The idea is to maintain the integrity of the natural system so that each area, according to the soils and the topography and the moisture regimes, each area will—will represent the natural community that occurred on that site. So the uplands are open Long Leaf Pine areas. The lower slopes are mixed Pine / hardwoods. The—the flood plains are primarily hardwood forests. And then you have inclusions like Baygalls and Flatwoods Ponds, all add to this—this diversity of habitats.
DT: You mentioned some of the bottomland hardwoods. Can you discuss some of the threats that you see to these hardwoods? I understand that the wood products economy is changing, there is more interest in chip mills and the availability of hardwoods to feed those mills. Can you explain what that issue is about?
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IM: Certainly all of our—our systems are ripe for cutting, I guess. As we create more world markets it’s more needs for more fiber and paper production as well as structural lumber. All these are going to take a drain on our natural systems. Some of the—the methods of extracting these are pretty harsh for the environmentalists, because they involve clearcutting. And you don’t—those forests don’t return in a lifetime. This is why it’s so important that we take steps now to set aside examples of all these different systems, functional examples, where all the processes there, all the processes are there, all the components are intact. It’s so important that we act now. Because if we don’t a lot of these areas could be lost and they’ll be just very—very few left to really pass on to the next generation. And also to learn from. There’s a lot of scientific information. There could be a lot of benefits for medicine and—and technology and things from these plants and animals that we take for granted.
DT: Another threat that I’ve heard discussed to some of the bottomland hardwoods is water resources development. Are there any issues there that you’ve come across like stream channelization or dam construction that are issues that you have to deal with?
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IM: Well, certainly we’re—we don’t like to see a lot of alteration of these natural habitats. These are the last we’ve got. The Conservancy’s approach has—has been very non-confrontational. We don’t want to go out and just litigate. Or—or—or, we don’t want to go out against industry. Or—or—or the needs of the public or things like this. What we want to do is try to find a balance. And the way to do that is to take a scientific approach. Let’s look at the landscape. Let’s see what out there is really rare, what we need to protect, what’s endangered and becoming extinct. And let’s find the best place on the landscape to protect those areas. And let’s set them aside or to manage them through compatible tech—techniques that can maintain the—the ecological viability of them. But, let’s do something to identify what’s important and to protect it and—and that way provide some balance. That we don’t put it all into production. That we can have areas that are—that are something special.
DT: You mentioned that you work with a number of partners and an approach that some people might call sustainable forestry or sustainable development. Can you talk about how you strike those balances?
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IM: Well, there again, it’s important that you seek a solution that benefits all the parties involved. It can’t be one-sided. You also have to develop a certain level of trust and respect. And I think one of the key things the Conservancy does, we call it Community—Community-Based Conservation. It means going into a community, working within that community. Recognizing the needs and values of that community. And getting that community involved in the work. Places like the Sandylands Sanctuary are invaluable in that respect. Because, here we have a Preserve. We’ve been in this community for over 20 years. We’ve worked with the school systems. We’ve worked with the civic clubs. We have a public nature trail. We bring tourism into the area. All these things added together—we’re—we’re—we’re part of the community, we benefit the community and they help us out. And they recognize that. So this is building that trust and respect. Now, when I go in to talk to the timber industry or to businesses in town and I talk about conservation, they see us as—as one of the—their neighbors. A friendly neighbor, I’ll bet, too, because we don’t hit them with lawsuits and things like this. So, we’re able to—to do things that maybe other conservation groups can’t accomplish. Because we can work within the system to get things done.
DT: Can you talk about some of the frustrations and opportunities that you’ve experienced over the years in trying to build this trust?
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IM: Well, that’s—that’s the main thing. A lot of times we go in and we’re just seen as other environmentalists who don’t really care for people and people’s jobs and things like this. That we’re just out to set everything aside to—to hinder growth and development. And—and that’s not nec—that’s not true. And we have to overcome a lot of those obstacles. I’ve also got criticism from the environmental groups because we’re—we’re maybe too involved with some of the—the businesses and industry. But, there again, we’re—we’re trying to reach out to all. We’re trying to develop a partnership, trying to seek a balance. Sure, we don’t li—like to see a lot of the things that are happening on the landscape, the loss of habitats, things like that. But—but we also recognize that there—there are people out there who depend on those kind—types of things. And there again, we—we need to strike that balance to find a way that we can work together that will benefit both—both sides.
DT: Ike, could you tell us a little bit about some of the partners that you’ve been able to work with of the years? It seems like you’ve had a broad range, from the commercial operations, the corporate properties that are hundreds of thousands, even over a million acres, and then to the government agencies that hold lands and trusts, such as the National State Forests, and then the smaller family wood lots, maybe in the range of 500 to a thousand acres. How do you manage to build that trust and manage to have cooperative programs?
0:37:56 – 2054
IM: Well, it—you just—you’ve got to go out and work at it, I guess. It takes time. And there again, I think our presence here; they see the work that we’ve done here at the Sanctuary. So—so, they—they don’t look at us as a no management philosophy. They see the work that we’ve done in restoring the Long Leaf and prescribed burns and doing timber management. That builds our credibility. They—they see that we’re—that we’re somebody who—who understands where they’re coming from. That we’re not against everything they do, or—or whatever. So, it’s given us a lot of inroads, particularly with the timber companies, Temple Inland, of course, we’re actively working with them. And we’ve got other agreements with other timber companies to—to work on their lands. We’re also working with the Federal agencies. The U.S. Forest Service, we’re very active in working with them, primarily providing them the ecological tools they need to implement an ecosystem management program, which is what their new philosophy is. We developed class—ecological classification systems for them. We’ve done work on rare and sensitive species. We’re helping them map the landscape. We’ve done some ecological evaluations, things like this. We’ve helped them identify unique areas on their lands that they should be managed appropriately. So, we’ve got a—a pretty good relation with the Forest Service. We have the Big Thicket National Preserve also, in identifying unique areas and—and rare plants and animals that occur on their lands. So, there again, it goes back to our land-based presence. We’re—we have preserves. We have the largest private preserve system in the world, the Nature Conservancy does. And we’ve got active Preserves here in this area, Sandylands being our foremost one. And they—they view us as land man—competent, professional land managers.
DT: Can you talk a little bit about the competency and professionalism? It seems that’s like kind of a cipher, and a controversial one, in conservation, where each camp has it’s opposing views and opposing scientists. And how do you push your agenda ahead when you have these kind of different technical advisors out there?
0:40:27 – 2054
IM: It’s sometimes difficult. Of course, we are science-based. We try to use the best available science to guide our work. But, more importantly, we’re focused on what we want to accomplish. We have specific objectives. And that is the conservation of biodiversity. We understand what plants and animal and communities are out there. Which ones are in need of protecting. We know where they occur. And then we devise strategies, common sense strategies to go in and—and either acquire these or work with our partners to help protect them. We also take an—an adaptive management approach. We know what works, we know what it takes to maintain these systems. We don’t have all the answers, but we won’t know anything if we don’t do—at least do something. So, we—based on the best science and the best knowledge we have, we institute management. And then we monitor to see how it works. If—if things are going how we want, or—or like we think they should, then we drop back and re—readjust our management, our thinking, to—to get it more in line with what we’re doing. So we don’t get stuck into specific dogma about, this is how you need to manage this area. We—we go with the best science and technology that we have, see how it works and then, if we have to, go back to the drawing board.
DT: When you talk about goals of conservation, I imagine what you’re trying to do is restore natural systems to some facsimile of what they once were. And how feasible do you think that is, given all the intervening changes over the years?
0:42:06 – 2054
IM: Well, a lot of times it’s difficult to understand really what they were. But, you have to also understand, we’re not really managing for a particular point in time. We’re in—in essence managing a process. We can—we try to understand what these systems were like before man-made, large-scale disturbances. But—but we can only approximate that. We try to keep the processes within kind of a normal range of variability, understanding that they will change over time. But the idea is to—to—to do what we can to protect those species that are most endangered of becoming extinct.
DT: I’ve heard some people characterize what the Conservancy does as, broadly, stewardship. Can you talk about the difference between stewardship and other ways of managing?
0:43:04 – 2054
IM: I don’t think there’s any difference. We’re stewards of the land. Man has complete control and domination on—on the—on the landscape now. And, well, with some limits, I don’t think in the long term we will. But—but, certainly what we see today. And as stewards of the land, it’s important that we implement the—the appropriate management to maintain these systems and plants and animals and, it—it’s just another word for management. There’s not a whole lot of difference. We carry it a little bit further in that, we think that you also have to bring the human element into management. In other words, education and involvement and volunteerism and those kinds of things in the local community are so important. And conservation won’t succeed without them. And, so that’s another element of stewardship.
DT: Could you explain more about this human role? I’ve heard some people criticize the Conservancy and other land preservation groups as not being as sympathetic to human use, especially active recreation and more aggressive use of sanctuaries. How do you respond to criticism like that?
0:44:21 – 2054
IM: Well, it—it’s really site-specific. I mean, some areas are so sensitive that we don’t want people traipsing around on them or—or just open to the public in a general manner, because it would destroy what we’re trying to protect. Other areas are—are less sensitive. Sandylands here, is one that can accommodate that kind of use. We have Village Creek, which is a very popular canoeing stretch. We have a na—a public nature trail system here. Because it’s an area that people can come to. It’s very accessible. It’s a beautiful forest, beautiful trail. And it—it provides that community involvement that we’re seeking. So, it’s a site-specific, what—what, you know, what we can do, we’ll do. But—but, we’re also, our primary goal is biodiversity conservation. We’re preserving biodiversity. We’re not necessarily preserving every plant and animal. And—and, ‘cause it’s a system, you know.
DT: Talking about more of the role of people, other people say that these ecosystems need management and if you simply stand back and let natural processes take their course then you may have more problems than if you had been more aggressive in your management. Can you comment on this?
0:45:42 – 2054
IM: Well, the Long Leaf system is a perfect example. Here is a system that evolved with fire. It needs fire to perpetuate it as a species, but also as an ecosystem. All the other plants and animals that are associated with it need fire. Because of man’s domination of the landscape, natural fires are no longer functioning. We cannot expect a nature fire regime to operate. And so we’ve got to—to prescribe burn these areas to emulate that natural process. Otherwise we’ll lose that system. We’ll lose all the diversity of it. So there’s a perfect example of—of where we need to manage. Other areas, maybe not. Maybe a—a floodplain, bottomland forest, as long as there’s not a dam built on the river and the—the hydrological processes are intact, the best thing we can do is probably stand back and—and let it—let it grow. It renews itself through—through replacement of e—of each individual tree, you know, through gap succession.
DT: We’ve talked about the Sanctuary here and about land management in general. I’m curious if you could talk about the organization that you work for, the Nature Conservancy of Texas? I understand that you were the first person hired in the state of Texas to work for the Conservancy. And I imagine over the past 20 or so years, you’ve seen a lot of changes. Could you talk about how the Conservancy has evolved in Texas?
0:47:15 – 2054
IM: Certainly. Well, when I first was hired by the Conservancy, like you said, I was the first person in Texas. I knew very little about the Nature Conservancy. I’d heard about it and read about it in a few magazines. And then when they acquired this area and I was asked to—to manage it, that’s when I first got my introduction into the Conservancy. Since that time I’ve been very impressed with the organization. They’re—they’re really kind of in a—a level of their own. They—they work in a different way. They’re non-confron—non controversial. They—they are very focused on their work. They—they have been called the real estate arm of conservation, because their primary thrust is to acquire land, either through purchasing it or—or accepting a donation. And they’ve been very successful, we’re—like I say, we’re the largest privately owned nature preserve system in the world. I think we’ve protected something like 10 million acres here in the United States, and that—that number is growing every year. So, I—I kind of lose track every now and then. But, certainly, they’re one of the more successful. They’ve got—they’re highly respected in the business community as well as the environmental community. And I’ve really enjoy working with them. I think it’s a great group of people. They’re very, very focused, very dedicated. And it really suits me well, because I—I’m pretty compassionate too about conservation and the work we’re doing.
DT: Perhaps you could talk about your passion for conservation and what sort of things drive you personally in this work?
0:49:03 – 2054
IM: Well, having grown up in a rural area, and having been exposed at an early age to the—to the natural world, and having been—had the—been fortunate enough to be able to get out and hunt and fish and recreate in the areas here, it kind of instilled in me a real love for the outdoors. And I particularly like to—to see natural areas, the idea of a natural wilderness and a nature forest, because these are things I grew up with. And more and more they’re—they’re being lost, at an alarming rate. So it excites me to—to—to think that there are areas out there that are being protected as they were. And, it’s kind of a link to the past, I don’t know. But, it’s also just a—a love and compassion for the outdoors that…
DT: Could you describe some of your favorite places to visit?
0:49:57 – 2054
IM: Well, one of—of course my favorites are—are, probably, Nature Conservancy Preserves. Because when you go there you have a—usually have a beautiful area, not always. But, certainly areas that—that we have a vision for that, in the long term these will be protected as best we can. And, then they will always be a representation of the—of the nature system. So, those are always important. But anywhere that you have functional, viable ecosystems where you—you see that this area, in the long term, is—is pretty healthy. That it’s highly diverse, a lot of wildlife, plant life, things like that are always exciting, wherever they are.
DT: As a biologist, when you look at an outdoor scene, how do you discriminate between something that is viable and diverse versus something that’s not as ecologically, you know, that doesn’t have that ecological integrity?
0:51:02 – 2054
IM: Well, you’d—you’d have to have an understanding of the systems and the processes that keep these things going. The—the main threat, I think, to most of our systems now is fragmentation. As population grows and development occurs, our natural areas are shrinking to just a little—just little—we call them postage stamp preserves. They’re little dots on the landscape surrounded by a matrix of development and human use. And when you do that, the smaller they get the less likely that—that all the species will be able to remain there. Unless there’s some kind of connectivity that connects this site to the next site, where—where plants and animals can move about and—and maintain viable population. We try to—we recreate that, in a lot of times, by—by—through our conservation efforts.
DT: You talked about fragmentation and population growth and change. Can you talk about some of the other environmental issues that you see over the past 20 years as growing and continuing?
IM: Environmental issues in?…
DT: Well yeah, the sort of challenges that you and subsequent generations are going to face.
0:52:18 – 2054
IM: Oh yeah. Well, we’re just losing habitat so rapidly that there’s very little to work with. Now what we are getting now is, of course, more environmental laws. There’s more public awareness of—of environmental needs, of—of endangered species. And so as long as there is incentives for people to—to donate, or—or to do conservation work, for the private landowner to—to help maintain his small area on the landscape, or—or to give to conservation groups that are working around the globe. I think it’s—as long as there are incentives to do that, we—we have some hope. But like I say, at the other end of the spectrum, we’re losing habitat so fast, so fast, that we need to—to act now. We need to get the ball rolling.
DT: You mentioned that habitat is an issue that we’re all concerned about. I’ve heard some environmental groups see a tension between those who care about habitat and wild life and those that are more concerned about human health, toxics in the environment. How do you balance those two concerns?
0:53:35 – 2054
IM: Well, I think what we have to show them is they go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other. You can’t have a—a healthy environment, a quality of life, which is so important, I think, to health, to know that you have an area that’s na—natural habitats are there, you can get in the outdoors, you can bre—breathe clean air, you have clean water. Those things are so important. And you get those by maintaining a—a healthy environment. And, at the same time we, you know, to—to economic growth and development, and—and, so that has to be a part of it too.
DT: You seem to be one of these rare people that has been able to find a balance and a cooperative stance to work with a number of different people. There are other camps that are more adversarial in their dealings with problems. I was curious how you see the advantages and disadvantages of each approach on environmental problems?
0:54:38 – 2054
IM: Well, I think they all make the world go around, you know, you get—you probably got to have all of it. For any—any one part to work, I guess. Sure, there are some that—that take the—the more controversial approach, the—the combative approach. But our approach, and particularly with the Conservancy, has been to take the middle road. Let’s try to find common sense solutions that we can both benefit, all sides can benefit from. And I think that’s—that’s our role and I enjoy it. And I like to see the progress that we’re making.
DT: We’ve talked about a number of different subjects. I’m curious if there’s any sort of general message that you’d like to pass on to those that might see this tape or read this transcript?
0:55:23 – 2054
IM: Well, first thing I would—I would ask them to forgive us for all the mistakes we’ve made, and—and the condition of some of these natural ecosystems that we have. And then, I gu—I guess I would also encourage them to—to not make the same mistakes. To—to act, to—to leave something, to leave a legacy for future generations. And hopefully they’ll have more tools and—and—and more technology and better understanding to—to accomplish that.
DT: Thanks very much. I enjoyed talking to you.
0:56:00 – 2054
IM: Thank you. Enjoyed it.
DT: Here we are in the Larson Sanctuary and Ike McWhorter has been kind enough to show us around a little bit and show us some of the communities and plants that are here and how they’re managed.
0:56:20 – 2054
IM: Yeah. One of our primary management tools here at the Sanctuary is to—is prescribed burning. And we do this to—to burn off the understory of—of woody plants and shrubs that invade these, which were once open Long Leaf Pine uplands. And, as you can see here, this—this area was burned last year. There’s still a lot of dead stems from the herbaceous, or from the—the woody plants. But it’s an open forest of Pine and hardwood, Post Oak and Long Leaf Pine, Short Leaf Pine. And on the groundcover you start to see the herbaceous community return. A lot of the flowering plants have come back in here. This is probably one of the most diverse communities in the—in the a—in the Southeast actually. And it’s primarily due to all the different plants that occur in the groundcover of these frequently burned Long Leaf Pine, Sand Hill areas.
DT: Was this a spring burn?
0:57:22 – 2054
IM: This was a spring burn. Correct.
0:57:34 – 2054
IM: You may want to just shoot some of that. You see some of the flowers here, the Palafoxia, the Liatris, the Scratch Daisy, all these species really respond to burning very well. And, create this very diverse habitat.
0:58:59 – 2054
IM: Well, this is Village Creek, one of the highlights of the Preserve here. It’s a—it’s a major stream of the Big Thicket area. We’ve got about eight and a half miles of the creek that run through the Sanctuary here. So, wonderful area for wildlife. It’s also a very popular canoeing area, so a lot of visitors come here to canoe the Village Creek. It’s a little murky right now, that’s from the recent rains. So normally, this time of year the—the—the silt will settle out and the water will turn almost a—a black color in places, it’s a—or brown tan—it’s from the tannic acids which leach into the water. But it’s a very beautiful area. And as you can see, this huge bluff that we’re on, these are alluvial deposits that were laid down thousands of years ago, when Village Creek was actually a much bigger river. And these sand hills, as we call them, are—are very deep. They have course sand in them. And they support a lot of desert-like vegetation, which we’ll be seeing as we walk down the trail. I think we just missed a—what is that? Look down in the water. There’s an animal. I think it’s an otter, right down here in the water. I don’t know if you can see it. I think it’s a River Otter. Can you see it? There’s quite a bit—an abundance of wild life here, River Otter, Beaver, we’ve even got a few Alligators in the Creek. It’s a popular fishing area too. A lot of fishermen catch Catfish and Bass. A lot of back water sloughs that make it real interesting.
End of reel 2054
0:00:21 – 2055
IM: Yeah, this—this area is very, very dry, xeric forest. It—it has to do with the—the deep sands that I was talking about being laid down at one time as—by the river, by Village Creek. These sands are very deep. They’re very porous. Rain just percolates right through them and leaves the surface real dry and sterile. And so you get a lot of species like the Prickly Pear Cactus, that you see growing here, occurring on these sand hills. You also get a lot of very, very small, real dainty plants that grow in this real harsh environment. A lot of them have—they’re either succulent like the cactus, or they have hairy leaves on them to hold moisture or just very reduced leaf surfaces. All these are adaptations to—to survive in this real harsh environment. Although we get 60 inches plus rain fall every year, on these sand hills. It—it just drains right through. And so you—you don’t get the—get the lush vegetation that you would think would occur in that type of a environment.
0:01:38 – 2055
IM: Okay, we’re—we’re down on the—on the creek bank now. And you can see where the nice sand bars, that occur along Village Creek. They’re one of the highlights for the canoe trip, when ca—canoe along and stop at one of the sand bars and get out and get your feet wet. This is a real beautiful area. You can see, look back in here, this is a Cypress Slew, coming in at the base of the—of the bluff that we just came of off. The—the sand hill. And you can see some of the flowers, the Red Cardinal Flower and a lot of the ferns and things that grow in this—this wet area. There’s a lot of seepage springs that come in off that bluff, that—why it’s so wet here. Of course, when the creek is up it floods also, so, you’ve got a real wet environment in here. You’ve got Tupelo and Cypress Trees, River Birch, things like this that really add a lot of diversity to this area. It’s a good wildlife habitat also.
DT: Can you tell about the kinds of fish you might find in the creek, or the kinds of birds in the trees?
0:02:42 – 2055
IM: Well, this is—this—this bottom of the forest are really habitat for a lot of the bird species, migratory species. You’d—you would probably see things like Hooded Warblers and Parula Warblers and Pine Warblers, things like that utilize this habitat. There’s a lot of wading birds that you might see on the creek. The Great Blue Herring and Little Blue Herring and—and things like that. As far as fish go, the fishermen seem to do pretty well out here. Catfish and—and—and Bass are real popular sports fish. And—and then of course a lot of animal life, the White Tailed Deer, the River Otter, Beaver, things like that, that you’ll see along the creek bank here also.
DT: Do you find any rare species like the Paddlefish, out here?
0:03:27 – 2055
IM: No. There—there’s a reintroduction for Paddlefish and there may be some. There may not be some in this area. I’m not real sure. They’re reintroducing them into the river systems. This is, by the way, a—a tributary of the Neches River. So it’s a—it’s a real important water corridor for the Big Thicket area. Village Creek in right in the center of the Big Thicket water shed, which drains a huge area. And—and is really designated as a—a corridor unit for Big Thicket National Preserve, outside of Sandylands. So we’re part of the whole system that—that protects this very unique and beautiful stream.
0:05:14 – 2055
IM: These are called Cypress Sloughs. And they’re old abandoned channels which now, of course they carry flood waters, and there typically wooded—wooded areas with Cypress and Tupelo trees. A lot of understory vegetation that you see here. This one is—has water in it all the time, primarily from the seepage springs that come out from below the bluffs. Water percolates down through the sand on the uplands and comes out in these slews, forming little springs; spring heads. You can see a lot of the Cypress knees in here, those are actually part of the root system of the Cypress Trees. And we don’t know exactly what their function are. They—we know that they give the tree support in this real wet environment. They tend to slow the water, collect silt and clay around them, which holds the tree in place. There may be other functions also.
DT: Could you tell about some of the ferns that you see out here?
0:06:28 – 2055
IM: Well, there’s several different species of ferns. I think the dominant fern here is the Chain Fern that pretty well has a continuous cover of most of this area. And you got the Plume Grass and several other grass species, several shrub species here that—that—there’s a Button Bush and a few others, Ash Tree, River Birch.
End of reel 2055
End of interview with Ike McWhorter