June 2006 Park of
Martin Dies Jr. State Park
Storm-Damaged East Texas Park Back In Business
Like a bruised pugilist rising from the canvas in the 12th round after a devastating knockdown to fight again, one of Texas' popular East Texas state parks has staggered to its feet after suffering significant hurricane damage and is again welcoming locals and recreation-seeking urbanites.
Martin Dies Jr. State Park, a 715-acre park on B. A. Steinhagen Reservoir 10 miles west of Jasper, began welcoming anglers and campers again to one of its three units - Hen House Ridge - on Good Friday after being shut down for more than six months. Park personnel and hot shot crews from the U.S. Forest Service have been busy clearing debris from state park property that lost 35 percent of its trees to the winds of Hurricane Rita and its serpent sister twisters that ripped through the pine and hardwood forests.
So far, park visitors have access only to a boat ramp in the most heavily damaged Walnut Unit and parts of the Hen House Unit. However, about 90 of the parks total 227 campsites are open again and attracting good crowds of outdoor users from Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth and other major population centers looking to relax, bike, hike, fish and pitch a tent under starry skies.
"Longtime campers have been shocked at how much damage Hurricane Rita did," park superintendent Dan Odom said. "We had people calling us who have been coming to the park for Thanksgiving weekend for 25 years and couldn't believe we were closed."
Odom credits the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who sent in the forestry crews to clear park roads and debris, for allowing the park to reopen as early as it was. He said he's been telling people who call the park that the Hen House Ridge Unit is open and to come on out.
"The only difference now," he said, "is that we tell campers, who normally didn't need to reserve a campsite in advance, to do so since we have only 31 water-and-electric sites, 19 shelters, 35 to 40 water only sites, and one air-conditioned mini-cabin currently available."
The park has campsites, screened shelters, and a mini-cabin for rent. The cabin, also known as a limited use cabin, offers an inviting screened front porch, a table and chairs, plentiful shelf space and bunk beds to sleep five.
Fishing and other water recreation will be impacted through September by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineer's summer lowering of the lake that has already begun to allow for maintenance of equipment and removal of water hyacinth that's clogging intakes for the reservoir's power plant generators, according to Odom. He said the draining of the lake will impact some park-goers, but noted that most visitors to Martin Dies Jr. State Park don't come to fish, but to escape the concrete and glass, and congestion of such major metro areas as Houston.
Park visitors can still access a short segment of the seven miles of hiking trails, rent a bicycle, canoe or kayak, and enjoy interpretive programs on Saturdays covering such topics as canoeing and nature watching. Unfortunately, the popular canoe tours have been suspended and the park's signature island hiking trail accessed by a 300-foot, picturesque wooden bridge remains closed for the foreseeable future due to a lack of access for lumberjacks to harvest the extensive downed timber.
Abundant flora and fauna make Martin Dies Jr. State Park a great place to enjoy a weekend or week in the great outdoors. Devil's walking sticks, wild azaleas, pileated woodpeckers, strawberry bush, alligators, magnolias, wood ducks, dogwoods and bluebirds represent a partial list of the myriad natural wonders found within the park.
Such biological diversity can be attributed to a rich mix of habitat featuring old-growth pine-hardwood forests, riparian woodlands and cypress swamps. More than 250 species of birds, including the bald eagle, can be spotted at Martin Dies. Its location on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail attracts a growing number of birders seeking to spot species common to the park, including Swainson's warbler, Northern parula, scissor-tailed flycatcher, painted bunting and American white pelican.
When weather conditions are right, leaf peeping at the park in the fall can be reason enough to visit this sanctuary on the edge of the Big Thicket National Preserve and only a 30-minute drive from the Alabama-Coushatta Indian Reservation.
As Federal Emergency Management Agency money becomes available to reimburse the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department for 75 percent of the costs to repair storm damage, park crews will begin upgrading campsites to 50-amp electrical service, repair the Nature Center's roof and then start cleanup and repairs on the shelter loop and camping loop.
So, while Martin Dies Jr. remains a bit bloodied by recent events, there's still plenty of fight left in the ol' boy yet. Come on out and enjoy a getaway to an East Texas favorite.
Martin Dies Jr. State Park is located just off U.S. Highway 190 between Woodville and Jasper. It is one of more than 115 state parks that make up the Texas State Park system. For more information visit the Martin Dies Jr. web site.
Article by Rob McCorkle