Jones State Forest bill dies in Texas House, forest remains unprotected

Senator Brandon Creighton, Republican of Conroe.

Conroe, June 2 – After a bit of a tortured history, Senate Bill 1964, which, as amended, would have protected the Jones State Forest from future commercial development, died in the Texas House of Representatives when the 85th Texas Legislature came to a close.

Creighton filed and then altered his proposed legislation

State Senator Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe) originally introduced the measure with little fanfare on March 10, 2017. The original text of the legislation, which Texas A&M University Vice Chancellor Tommy Williams had requested Creighton file, would have permitted commercial development of the Jones State Forest land. According to Creighton, Texas A&M had wanted to develop approximately 175 acres of the 1772 acre property adjacent to the land of Lone Star College on State Highway 242.

Senator Creighton and Texas A&M University issued statements to attempt to clarify their positions with respect to Senate Bill 1964, after The Golden Hammer, Montgomery County’s leading daily newspaper, reported the story on March 28, 2017. The primary objection to Creighton’s original bill was that it would seem to allow for “private commercial uses” of the Jones Forest and for-profit enterprises, as indicated in some of the language of the legislation.

On Tuesday, March 28, 2017, during the Montgomery County Commissioners Court, Creighton emailed a statement for local political activist Bill O’Sullivan to read in which Creighton indicated that he would remove the “private commercial uses” language from the bill.

Creighton issued a letter to his constituents from his Senate Office in Austin in which he acknowledged “On March 10th, I filed Senate Bill 1964 relating to the Jones State Forest at the request of the Texas A&M University System. Since that time, I have heard from many constituents and stakeholders and I would like to clarify the intent of the bill.” Creighton explained that former Senator Tommy Williams, who held the Senate District 4 seat before Creighton, was the person who requested that Creighton file the bill. Creighton stated further, “I am asking for a hearing to discuss the merits of the University’s request to use between 5-10% of the Jones State Forest (southern end near State Highway 242) for educational purposes…Whether or not the University uses a portion of the forest should be a public discussion.”

Creighton wrote in the letter, “As an 8th generation Montgomery County resident, I cherish the big thicket, natural timberland and foliage, including the wildlife that occupies the forest. I am not interested in clearing the forest or destroying any wildlife.”

Texas A&M’s press statement

Texas A&M University issued a press release on March 29, 2017, also to quell concerns. The University explained, “The Texas A&M University System asked State Senator Brandon Creighton to file a bill to allow a public conversation at the Legislature about how, in the future, Texas A&M University System could further fulfill the mission as a land grant institution by potentially using a small percentage of Jones State Forest in Montgomery County for new educational purposes beyond its current use. Senator Creighton agreed and filed Senate Bill 1964.” The school clarified that “Absolutely no development plan has been decided for Jones State Forest. Furthermore, absolutely zero funding is currently dedicated for any construction at Jones State Forest.”

Unfortunately, Texas A&M University’s March 29 press release continued, “As introduced, S.B. 1964 would simply authorize the A&M System board of regents to consider approving some of Jones State Forest land in the future for ‘multipurpose uses, including academic, research and private commercial use.”

The University further explained, however, that the “private commercial use” phrase was included in the S.B. 1964 bill since classroom facilities typically permit independently operated food vendors, coffee shops, and other services for students and faculty. The University supported Senator Creighton’s statement read during the Commissioners Court meeting and reported in The Golden Hammer on March 28, 2017.

Citizen outcry at April 9 “Save Jones Forest” meeting

By April 9, 2017, however, after a huge citizen outcry, Creighton told a vocal “Save Jones Forest” meeting, “A&M won’t advance with any use other than what we see there now” referring to the current use of Jones State Forest along F.M. 1488 in Conroe. In response, the crowded room full of people at the KC Events Center on F.M. 1488 gave Creighton thunderous applause amidst shouts of “yes,” “thank you,” and “good.”

More than 300 people attended the April 9 event which the group Save Jones State Forest organized to begin at 2 o’clock p.m. today. One of the group’s leaders, Amy Coffman-Welton, began the meeting, “We have one thing in common. We want to protect the forest…We want to protect our natural heritage.” Coffman-Welten explained that the organization was a  grass roots effort that came together only one week ago. She explained the three goals of the Save Jones State Forest organization are (1) kill Senate Bill 1964, which Senator Creighton filed in the Texas Legislature on the last day to file bills for the 85th Legislative Session, and which, as written, would open the Jones State Forest to “private commercial use,” (2) not permit passage of any further legislation until Texas A&M University, which claims ownership to the land of the Jones State Forest, comes forward and engages in a community meeting to explain its plans for development of all or part of the Forest, and (3) to protect the forest as the group believes it was originally meant to be protected when the State of Texas established the land as a State Forest in 1926.

Amendment and passage in Texas Senate

Creighton eventually agreed to amend Senate Bill 1964 to mandate that “the Jones State Forest must remain natural, scenic, undeveloped, and open.” At their April 26, 2017, meeting, the Woodlands Township Board of Directors unanimously voted to “oppose any development at any time of the Jones State Forest.”

On May 17, 2017, the Jones State Forest bill, as amended, passed the Texas Senate on a unanimous vote, 31-0.

The bill moved to the Texas House where it never came out of the House Higher Education Committee to which the bill was assigned.

The Jones State Forest would seem to continue under the threat of plunder.

 

 

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