BIG THICKET NATIONAL PRESERVE, TEXAS — Because of a convergence of ecosystems that occurred here during the last Ice Age, Big Thicket is one of the most biologically diverse areas in North America.
People come from all over to see the intermingling of swamp, prairie, desert, and forest; to see roadrunners and eastern bluebirds nest near one another and yucca plants and dogwoods grow side-by-side.
But there's one thing that visitors will no longer see when they come to Big Thicket: Jet Skis, Sea-Doos, and WaveRunners.
Their extinction is part of a protracted battle to keep personal watercraft out of national parks. Last week, the ban took effect in 13 parks across the US. Eight more will close to these watercraft in September.
Naturalists and environmentalists say the ban will protect sensitive areas from destruction and allow visitors to peacefully enjoy the natural beauty of the parks.
But personal-watercraft enthusiasts, who believe they're being unfairly targeted, say technology has improved significantly creating a cleaner and quieter machine that should be allowed to operate in areas open to other watercraft.
At the heart of the debate is how national parks should be used. In announcing the new rule in April 2000, Robert Stanton, then-director of the National Park Service, admitted that it's a balancing act: "The National Park Service is charged with protecting this nation's natural and cultural heritage while providing for the public's enjoyment of the places entrusted to our care."
Of the 385 sites managed by the National Park Service, only 21 allow for any significant motor-boating. In 2000, these 21 parks were given two years to comply with the rule. Five parks have gone through environmental assessments and public hearings, and on April 22 were closed permanently to personal watercraft because of their "negative impact" on the areas.
The remaining 16 are temporarily closed to personal watercraft until they, too, go through the assessments and hearings.
With four parks, Texas has the most affected by the ban. For his part, Big Thicket superintendent Richard Peterson says the process has been slow and confusing. With its environmental assessment recently completed, the preserve will hold public hearings as soon as the findings are released. "The main concern in this area, and nationwide, is: Is it appropriate to use this kind of watercraft in a national park?" he says.
Some 85 miles of the Neches River runs through the East Texas preserve, and until recently, personal watercraft were allowed on the lower five miles.Mr. Peterson says he occasionally got complaints from those "trying to have a quiet time on the river."
The preserve will present two options at public meetings: ban personal watercraft entirely, or continue to allow them on the lower five miles of the Neches. Peterson believes local sentiment favors a ban.
But that doesn't seem to bother Todd Jones, an avid boater and Jet Skier. While pulling his speedboat out at a ramp in Beaumont, Texas, last weekend, he said he'll continue to ride his Jet Ski into the national preserve regardless of the new ban. "It ain't dumping [anything] more into the water than my speedboat," Mr. Jones says of his personal watercraft. "You can still drive speedboats in the park; you should be able to ride Jet Skis."
Around the bend from the Beaumont ramp is the southern edge of Big Thicket. Where the broad, brown Neches flows between the thick vegetation of the banks, new signs warn off personal watercraft.
Marty Roberts of nearby Houston organizes personal-watercraft races around the state, and says he wouldn't mind the ban so much if other watercraft were affected as well. Currently, powerboats, four-wheel-drive vehicles, and even oil-drilling are allowed in national parks.
"What frustrates me most is the discrimination that is going on ... a tugboat could run through a national park and be okay. Why pick on personal watercraft?" he asks. Mr. Roberts is a plaintiff in a lawsuit brought by personal-watercraft makers, users, and industry associations. They say the remaining 16 parks shouldn't be closed to personal watercraft until environmental assessments are done. They believe these scientific studies will play in their favor.
"We embrace the concept of the environmental assessment because we are very proud of what we've done to make our boats environmentally friendly," says Monita Fontaine, of the Personal Watercraft Industry Association in Washington. She says manufacturers have spent $1 billion to reduce hydrocarbon emissions by 75 percent and noise by 70 percent. "The personal watercraft of the 1980s and early '90s are gone," she says.
But of the 1.2 million currently registered, say opponents, hundreds of thousands are older models.
"They keep saying these machines are cleaner and quieter, but they are not saying they are clean and quiet," says Don Barry, executive vice president of The Wilderness Society in Washington. He says he was hiking in Point Reyes National Seashore, in California, several years ago, and from about five miles away, he could hear Jet Skis in the bay. "There should be one place in the federal estate that people can go to enjoy the beauty of a particular area without noise and aggravation."