Keeping It Real

The Houston area has never been renowned for its historic preservation. Land is cleared, buildings razed, historic populations are routinely re-sorted in aggressively profitable fashion. Moving to something newer has meant condos, concrete and mini-mansion houses with an edging of saint augustine.

So a two-county enterprise undertaken to set aside a ten-mile section of green space along Spring Creek that would bar any commercial or residential development is, well, pretty amazing. The trail system, stretching from U.S. 59 to Interstate 45, would tie into Jesse H. Jones Park & Nature Center and, to the northwest, the John Pundt Park, now in the planning stage.

Spring Creek is the liquid boundary between Montgomery and Harris counties. Thanks to the fact that it and the land around it are predominantly wetlands and prone to flooding, it never became a primo real estate site.

The result is an area that essentially looks the same way it did 200 years ago. Canoes and kayaks slip along the creek. Huge cypress trees stand in murky waters. The white sands along Spring Creek's banks are deposits of calciferous limestone that traveled there naturally from Central Texas years ago. This part of the "Little Thicket" is home to all manner of plants and wildlife.

Spearheading the effort to preserve these near-frontier-era conditions (the occasional Southwest Airlines plane overhead to the contrary) are Harris County Commissioner Jerry Eversole, Montgomery County Commissioner Ed Chance and the Legacy Land Trust, a local nonprofit dedicated to conservation.

Together they're working to buy up land or at least easement rights a piece at a time on both sides of the waterway.

Who could be against this? Imagine walking in the woods along pathways taken by the original settlers. It's like a time machine on the ground, transporting hikers to the past with the first step on the trail.

Well, as veteran politician Eversole wryly notes, there is always opposition. Not to mention drama.

Some people who don't want the greenway project are descendants of the area's original settlers, Eversole says. "Sometimes it's NIMBY."

Then there are the people who do want it but are worried they won't be a part of it, like the horseback riders now able to access a wonderful view of the creek in sugar sand trails along its banks.

And then there are the people who don't want it at all, like Lonnie Riley, a delightfully candid outdoorsman who proclaims that "no tree-hugging bastards" are going to tell him he can't drive his ATV right through Spring Creek anytime he wants.

As its Web site says, the Spring Creek ATV Park located near Old Town Spring "offers access to miles of pristine wooded trails, sandy beaches and drenching creek crossings."

It's those drenching creek crossings that have Jennifer Lorenz of Legacy Land Trust upset. She believes they violate Senate Bill 155, which went into law last January to bar motorized vehicles from going across navigable rivers or creeks -- defined by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department as being a body of water that retains an average width of 30 feet or more from mouth to confluence. And she says that Spring Creek, up to what they call Panther Branch, is navigable.

"This is tough on Bubbaland, Texas," Lorenz says. "The reason this is in place now is because of the severe trauma ecologically that is placed on these riverbeds by these vehicles. The ruts they're digging in take years to go away."

The sand and gravel operations in the area have to have permits to dig into the creekside sand, Lorenz says. But three-ton Hummers can axle out just as much soil and sand, and no one is monitoring them, she maintains.

Most wetland plants are especially fragile because of their short root systems, and when they go, the entire ecosystem is killed, Lorenz says. Take the all-terrain vehicles out of the water and you'll see a return to clear blue, instead of the murky brown that results from the bottom being constantly churned up, she also promises.

Lonnie Riley, who schedules ATV excursions for Spring Creek ATV Park, couldn't disagree more.

First of all, he says, Spring Creek is not navigable. And it's private property, so it's their own business what they do there. The property inherited and owned by Tom Peckinpaugh is 60 acres and runs to the centerline in the creek.

"We've been riding on the creek all our lives. Thirty, 40 years we've been riding up here," Riley says, explaining that the park itself only opened about two and a half years ago. Ten to 15 people a day come in to ride, he says. The Web site shows fun pictures of ATVers of all ages revving it up smack-dab in the middle of the creek.

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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing