The public discussion prior to the establishment of the Refuge awakened a hornet’s nest in Dallas, whose growing population and lack of water conservation initiatives led to claims that they needed that stretch of the Neches River to create what became known as Fastrill Reservoir.
In January, 2007, the City of Dallas and the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the Refuge designation, contending that the Service did not meet the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act by failing in several ways to do an adequate environmental assessment on the designation of 25,000 acres of east Texas wetlands as the Neches River National Wildlife Refuge and by failing to cooperate with state and local officials. The City of Dallas and the Texas Water Development Board had filed suit hoping to overturn creation of the Neches River National Wildlife Refuge and make way for a reservoir Dallas predicts might be needed in fifty years.
There was overwhelming public, bipartisan support for the creation of the Neches NWR, including the Texas Conservation Alliance and the Friends, who were instrumental in securing more than 20,000 contacts with the Service in support of establishing the refuge. In 2008, after careful review, U.S. District Judge Jorge Solis disagreed with the allegations and denied motions by Dallas and TWDB to require a more detailed environmental study. The case was appealed to a three-judge panel at the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, which affirmed the 2008 lower court decision in favor of the Neches River National Wildlife Refuge. The United States Court of Appeals found that by this time neither Dallas nor the Texas Water Development Board had taken concrete steps toward planning the reservoir.
On February 22, 2010, after three years in litigation, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the lawsuit, which derailed plans by Dallas-area officials to someday build the proposed Lake Fastrill reservoir along the Neches River.
The Refuge is located in Anderson and Cherokee Counties in eastern Texas, 100 miles southeast of Dallas. The entire Refuge boundary includes 25,281 acres of river bottom and upland pine/hardwood ecosystems, along with 38 miles of Neches River frontage.
“The Neches, our river, is more than a river. It is a special realm almost out of place in our urbanized world. So much of the landscape and environment that have made the words Texas and Texan two of the most recognized words around the world have been obliterated."
- Richard M. Donovan, Author: Paddling the Wild Neches
The Neches River hardwood bottomland forests have long been identified as one of the South’s last best intact ecosystems by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the State of Texas, and The Conservation Fund. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ranked this upper Neches River habitat as a Priority 1 Texas bottomland hardwood site in the Texas Bottomland Hardwood Concept Plan (1985) because it is some of the least disturbed and highest quality bottomland forest remaining in Texas. However, eighty-five percent of lands within the Refuge boundary are now owned by investment companies, leaving the conservation community a very narrow window of time to protect these large intact ecosystems before they are fragmented and converted to other uses.
The premier tract within the new Refuge was owned by a timber investment group that was preparing to sell the property. The 6,715 acre tract containing Deadwater Lake, Buzzard’s Slough, Twin Lakes and eight miles of Neches River frontage and associated bottomlands was acquired by The Conservation Fund in 2007. To date, approximately 4,000 acres of this tract is now in US Fish and Wildlife Service ownership and the remaining 2,700 acres will be transferred as The Conservation Fund raises the money. This site is the centerpiece of the Refuge habitat and will be the future home of the Refuge’s headquarters.
The bottomland floodplain forests on this property are not only important for many high priority breeding birds such as Swallow-tailed Kite, American Woodcock, Prothonotary Warbler and Bald Eagle, but are absolute necessities for landbirds during migration, especially spring migration. The property has habitat to support two federally endangered species (Louisiana Black Bear, Interior Least Tern) and eight threatened species (Arctic Peregrine Falcon, Wood Stork, American Swallow-tailed Kite, Bald Eagle, Paddlefish, Rafinesque’s Big-eared Bat, Alligator Snapping Turtle, Timber Rattlesnake). The river corridors of the three large rivers in east Texas (Sabine, Neches and Trinity) are all shown through Doppler radar documentation of bird migration to be invaluable migration routes for birds in the spring and fall. Large portions of the Sabine and Trinity River bottoms have been inundated by Toledo Bend and Lake Livingston reservoirs, making the relatively intact habitat along the Neches River increasingly important to these birds in the future.