Article contributed by Gary E. Wise, Ph.D., Professor and Head, Emeritus, Louisiana State University
Nestled within the heart of a rapidly developing area of homes, apartments and commercial enterprises is a haven of solitude and beauty for both wildlife and humans, an urban forest of 1,776 acres located in Conroe and The Woodlands, Texas. The forest, W.G. Jones State Forest, was established in 1924 and is managed by the Texas A&M Forest Service. A busy 4-lane highway, FM 1488, divides the forest into a northern section in Conroe and a much larger section south of the highway in The Woodlands.
The forest is home to a variety of wildlife such as deer, bobcats, and gorgeous butterflies such as the Palamedes Swallowtail. Most significantly, it has over 250 species of birds including the Brown-headed Nuthatch, Eastern Bluebird, Red-Shouldered Hawk, Black-Bellied Tree Duck and various warblers. Above all, it houses a variety of woodpeckers such as the Pileated Woodpecker (a magnificent bird that looks as if it came from Jurassic Park), Hairy and Downy woodpeckers and the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker. It is this last bird, the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker (RCW) that makes this forest unique from a wildlife point of view because it is one of the largest concentration of this endangered species within Texas (Eubanks, T.L. et al., Finding Birds on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail, p. 77, 2008, Texas A&M University Press).
The Endangered Species Act was enacted in 1973 and the RCW was one of the first birds to be designated as an endangered species. As a result, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service administer recovery programs for it in accordance with the Act. The habitat for the RCW is a longleaf pine ecosystem (a mature pine forest) which also is rapidly disappearing from the southern United States. The Endangered Species Act requires that the habitat for the RCW be preserved.
Within Jones State Forest there are 24 RCWs. They have several nesting areas within the forest, 2 in the northern section and at least 4 in the southern section. Initially, there had been 2 in the southern section but at least 2 more sites are developing. These nesting areas occupy a goodly amount of acreage in the forest, but that is only a portion of the acreage the RCWs need. Each cluster of RCWs require at least 100 acres for forage (the birds eat insects, including insect eggs and larvae) but given that some of the forest does not have pines that are yet sufficiently mature, the acreage may be greater than 100. Moreover, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service say that typically the territory is 125-200 acres with upper extremes of 600 acres being reported.
Of the sites in the southern section of the forest, one is between Middle Horsepen Road and Lower Horsepen Road. This is of significance because the proposed Texas A&M campus would be near this area. Although it likely would not be built upon the site, it would have a negative impact by both reducing the amount of forest needed for forage and by generating both noise and light. The birds are sensitive to noise and light and any buildings (commercial, educational or residential) that abut the forest are a threat to the RCWs survival. Moreover, the encroachment of buildings makes it very difficult for the Forest Service to conduct controlled burns to eliminate the brush under the pines. In brief, any bill that would reduce or destroy the acreage of this forest would affect the habitat of the RCWs and thus, such a bill would be in violation of the Endangered Species Act.
Finally, it should be noted that the RCW is an economic boon to both the state and the local areas surrounding the forest. As noted in the book by Eubanks et al. (ibid), tourists from all over the world come to visit Jones Forest to see the RCWs. In addition to being a tourist attraction, both nationally and internationally, the forest and the RCWs contribute to the image of the local communities by demonstrating that an urban forest enhances the lives of all who wish to embrace it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gary E. Wise earned his PhD in Zoology from the University of California at Berkeley and completed an NIH postdoctoral fellowship in Cellular and Molecular Biology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is Professor and Head, Emeritus, of the Department of Comparative Biomedical Sciences within the School of Veterinary Medicine at Louisiana State University. Although now retired, his NIH-supported research investigated the molecular basis for tooth eruption, bone resorption and formation, and the regulation of osteoclastogenesis. He also holds 2 patents pertaining to the enrichment of stem cells from adult tissues.