Roving Reporter | "Big Plans for the Big Tree" by Jeanette Larson

Reagan Faught points out some features in the plans

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) held a public meeting on Tuesday, February 20, 2018 to unveil their draft plan for development of the new Big Tree Natural Area (BTNA) at Goose Island State Park (GISP). 80 acres of land was acquired in 2012 with funds the state received from the BP oil spill settlement. The property was acquired from a private party with a lot of help from local realtor, Carroll "Turf" Overturf whose efforts were recognized by Reagan Faught, TPWD's new Region 2 Director. Faught, who started the position just a few weeks earlier, was impressed by the number of people who turned out for the public meeting and provided an overview about how TPWD addresses new parks. He noted that many parks in Texas face pressure from urban sprawl, industry, and conflicting interests with neighboring properties. Often park management wishes they could "acquire the property across the fence" [from the park] in order to provide a buffer to protect the park. He noted that this was an instance where more than enough land was acquired to provide an excellent buffer between the Big Tree and the pressures. To date, the property has been surveyed and is undergoing continual analysis. The evening meeting was the first opportunity for TPWD to show, and get feedback on, the draft plan for how they see the Big Tree Natural Area being developed. Faught then introduced park planning designer, Justin Fluery, who walked the audience through two plans.

Fluery talked at some length about the intended vision for the Big Tree Natural Area, primarily aimed at day-use, conservation, and wildlife viewing. The focus for the BTNA will be on:

1) classifying the area as a natural area within Goose Island State Park to protect the Big Tree
2) preserving the historical landscaping and views of the Big Tree
3) restoring woodlands, prairie, and wetland habits
4) coordinating with the adjacent whooping crane preserves

Audience members study the plans
For comparison, Fluery noted that GISP is almost 315 acres, while the BTNA is 80. Although some people claim that the tree is 1,000 years old, scientific evidence supports it at about 350 years of age. The survival of the Big Tree is of paramount importance. It has survived droughts, snow, hurricanes, lightening, and more. It has also survived a very close attempt to add homes, as the land had been platted for a development of about 50 houses. Goose Island is designated for recreation and camping, while the Big Tree is designated for preservation and restoration of habitat. The Big Tree is within a day-trip for people from Houston, Austin, San Antonio, and Corpus, allowing visitors to enjoy the Natural Area without necessarily needing to spend the night. One very positive thing about the area is that visitors can experience multiple habitats in one area.

To achieve the vision for BTNA several conditions will be in place. There will be no cars permitted on the site, the shoreline will be protected from erosion, the natural viewshed will be maintained so that visitors don't see bathrooms and other structures, non-native species of plants will be removed along with utility lines and structures that have deteriorated. Depending on the final plan, the existing aerial runway will either be reused or removed. The existing hanger will be reused either for public space or for park site operations.

Plan 1 (scan courtesy of Wendy Kilpatrick Laubach)

Plan 2 (scan courtesy of Wendy Kilpatrick Laubach)

Plan One calls for reduced development, with a vault toilet (no water is needed) placed to the left (west) of the Big Tree, three walking trails (that will meet ADA standards for universal accessibility), fifteen benches spaced every few hundred yards, minimal boardwalks to keep the area as natural and simple as possible, and wildlife viewing places. The trails will cover the three habitat areas but stop on the west side of the canal off of St. Charles Bay and provide about 2 miles of walking.

Plan Two adds a boardwalk that crosses the canal going through the island that abuts the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (called the Aransas Trail on the plan and adding an additional .6 miles of walking). Part of the Shoreline Trail would extend a boardwalk over the Oyster Reef. It would restore the aerial runway back to prairie habitat (rather than adapt it for re-use). To place the vault toilet closer to the paddle ramps, this would be moved to the east of the Big Tree. The existing hangar would be repurposed for an interpretive center and other public use.

Park staff (rear) listen to the plans
The meeting ended with a period for questions and comments. A representative from Aransas Pathways offered his organizations support for the project and suggested that attention be paid to the archaeological significance of the old saltworks along the shoreline. The boardwalk in Plan 2 would enter areas being used by whooping cranes and some members of the audience stated they preferred that the area be left alone. Others spoke in support of the boardwalk. Two Aransas County commissioners were in attendance and spoke about putting this on a future agenda to determine how county might assist or coordinate with plans. Those in attendance, as well as those who could not be there, are encouraged to submit comments by email to or or by mail to TPWD, Justin Fleury, 4200 Smith School Rd., Austin, TX 78744.

Justin Fleury (front) explains the plans and responds to questions

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