Nearly 300 concerned Montgomery County residents attended a meeting Sunday hosted by the Save Jones State Forest committee in regard to state legislation related to proposed development in the forest.
The grassroots organization composed of volunteers formed in late March in response to Senate Bill 1964, which as introduced would give Texas A&M University the authority to use or lease up to 10 percent of the land in WG Jones State Forest for the construction of buildings or improvements for academic, research or commercial uses. The state forest—which is home to the red-cockaded woodpecker, a federally listed endangered species—is situated on 1,722 acres of land in The Woodlands area, near Hwy. 242 and FM 1488 and remains one of the last undeveloped parcels in the area.
“[WG Jones State Forest] is something that needs to be protected,” event organizer Amy Welton said. “It is our Central Park. If this were happening in New York City, everyone would be in an uproar. We have to protect our natural heritage.”
Development surrounding WG Jones State Forest
State Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, filed SB 1964 in March on behalf of Texas A&M in an effort to begin a public conversation through the legislature, he said. However, after public backlash and a petition on www.change.org with more than 7,200 signatures to-date against the bill, Creighton announced his intention to narrow and tighten the bill language—and remove the commercial language—to prevent any future development in the forest.
Although one of the goals of the Save Jones State Forest committee is to pull or withdraw the bill, Creighton said doing so would prevent him from getting questions answered by university leadership regarding their intent for the forest. Other committee goals include no further legislation until public hearings can be held in the area surrounding the forest and that any development stay true to the original purpose of the park.
“[WG Jones State Forest] is something that needs to be protected. It is our Central Park.”
—Event organizer Amy Welton
“The last thing I want is for this bill to be shopped like bills are shopped in [the legislature]and a legislator who doesn’t care about our area to pick up the same measure where I would lose control of it,” Creighton said. “As long as I’ve got control of it, you’ve got control of it.”
The bill was referred to the Higher Education Committee in late March where it awaits a hearing during which potential language revisions to the bill language can be made, Creighton said.
Texas A&M University officials released a statement March 28 stating no funding has been allocated for developments in the state forest, but the legislation—as written today—would allow the university system to offer academic or workforce training opportunities at the site in engineering or agriculture fields. Several representatives from Texas A&M University were invited to the community meeting on Sunday but declined to attend.
During the forum, Creighton fielded various questions and concerns from residents about the proposed legislation, such as whether there is precedent for developing other state forests and if the original deed language is vague enough for Texas A&M University to move forward with a development project without legislative approval.
Creighton said the deed is from the 1920s and it granted the forest acreage to the state of Texas for the benefit of Texas A&M for educational, research and demonstration use. The Texas A&M Forest Service manages the state forest for education and demonstration purposes today.
“The deed itself is vague language,” Creighton said. “Not every deed is written for a situation that might come up in 2017 from . We want to vet that and find out what their understanding was of the deed, what are the allowed uses, and what are the legal precedents.”
The Texas A&M Forest Service manages four other state forests across East Texas, but there is no precedent or other known plans for developing those areas, Creighton said in response to a resident question.
“My best hunch … [is]higher education is trying to expand around the state for those that can’t commute,” he said. “When you look at the location for those other state forests, you can see why, if they had a preference, it would be in a proximity that’s commutable from Houston.”
SB 1964 is currently awaiting a committee hearing in the Texas Senate. For more details about the Save Jones State Forest committee, visit www.savejonesstateforest.com.