Proposed legislation related to land usage in WG Jones State Forest was heard in the Texas Senate’s Higher Education Committee Wednesday, allowing Montgomery County residents to voice their opinions and concerns on the topic.
Senate Bill 1964, authored by state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, at the request of Texas A&M University, garnered criticism from county residents earlier this month who were concerned about potential development in the forest. The bill as filed would have enabled the Texas A&M University board of regents to use land in the state forest for construction of buildings or improvements for academic, research or commercial uses. However, Creighton—who said the initial bill language was not intended to be the final language—introduced a committee substitute Wednesday that would strengthen the laws governing the state forest and have 100 percent of the property remain in its current undeveloped and scenic state.
“Since the bill was filed I’ve heard from over 600 constituents, we had meetings with stakeholders and leadership in the district, and attended town halls on the subject,” Creighton said. “After hearing from my constituents, I’ve made several changes to the bill that I feel reflects the will of the district.”
Vague deed language
WG Jones State Forest has served as a working forest for education and demonstration purposes since the 1920s. Creighton said there has been quite a bit of dialogue among Montgomery County residents in regard to clarifying if the land is owned by the state or the university system, the latter of which manages the site today.
“No matter what the answer is, because obviously the citizens of the state of Texas and taxpayers are the owners of state property,” Creighton said. “The answer from the deed language is that the grantee on the original sale from the grantor family in the 1920s was to the state of Texas for the benefit of A&M in perpetuity.”
James Hallmark, vice chancellor for academic affairs at Texas A&M University, testified during the committee hearing and said the university system typically identifies its existing assets to maximize future opportunities for its degree programs.
“To date, no programs have been decided or approved or even proposed [for the state forest]by the necessary governing boards,” Hallmark said. “Perhaps, even more importantly, no funding sources have been committed to any construction at Jones State Forest. This was strictly a concept, strictly a discussion.”
However, when asked by members of the Senate committee if the university system has plans for another degree-granting university on the site, Hallmark clarified he wanted to differentiate between ideas and plans, stating that the university wanted legislative guidance as it explores the possibility for what could be done at the site.
“We will follow what the legislature decides,” Hallmark said. “We sought legislative guidance on it because [we]felt it was unclear. This certainly provides clarity.”
Hallmark said he believes it may be a misunderstanding that land in the forest is not used by the university today.
“The land is used quite a bit already,” he said. “There are busloads of kids coming and experiencing the forest, research studies, and things going on with the forest service on a regular basis.”
Hallmark also said there are buildings on the land today associated with the mission of the program, and without a change in legislation, that would continue to be the focus. This could also involve the potential construction of new buildings—if funding could be found—if it is tied to the education and demonstration mission, he said.
“While we’re in a legislative session and able to have a dialogue that benefits the public, this is helpful to have this conversation in the record to understand better not just intentions, but from the legal side what is possible,” Creighton said.
More than 10 Montgomery County residents testified during the committee meeting Wednesday, some expressing concerns related to both versions of the bill, such as no language regarding the red-cockaded woodpecker, a lack of focus on conservation and no oversight by a third party. The testimony came less than three weeks after more than 7,000 residents signed a petition on www.change.org against the introduced legislation and a grassroots group called Save WG Jones Forest held a community town hall with 300 residents in attendance.
“Jones State Forest is not just another parcel of land ripe for development,” said Amy Coffman Welton, one of the organizers of the Save Jones State Forest group. “It’s part of our natural heritage to be revered and protected.”
Although several of the speakers thanked Creighton for re-working the bill language, some residents still had concerns with the new version. Mark Bowen, a local horticulturalist, said one of his concerns deals with the committee substitute bill language as related to reforestation.
“In the 1920s when the land was sold to the state of Texas, reforestation may have been warranted,” he said. “As forests become mature, the focus needs to shift to an emphasis [that is]conservation-minded. When you have a mature forest that doesn’t need reforestation, it opens the door for excessive timber sales that would harm the forest.”
Cyrus Reed, a representative from the Sierra Club, said the organization believes the first step that should be taken regarding the state forest is creating a master plan.
“If you want to get the public involved, A&M’s Forest Service should engage in a master plan,” he said.
The bill will remain pending in committee for one week to allow for any additional tweaks or changes.