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Ecotourism Along The Big Cypress Bayou

By Ann Moss

Big Cypress Bayou's distinctly southern atmosphere, combined with its unique natural resources and beautifully maintained historic character, offers tremendous opportunities for ecotourism. The nonprofit Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people." The Big Cypress Bayou project demonstrates that ecotourism can be equally relevant on our own soil.

Located within a 6,000-square-mile region straddling east Texas and a sliver of Louisiana, Big Cypress Bayou is well known for the internationally significant wetlands of Caddo Lake, the extensive number of historic resources, and a unique southern heritage that flourished in the era of steamboat transportation.

The steamboat era began declining with the arrival of the railroad in 1873, and the lowering of the water level in the bayou due to engineering efforts made by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In the early 1990s an economic development project was considered in which a large portion of the bayou would be dredged to make the river navigable for barges. Implementation of this project could have seriously damaged significant resources and aroused vigorous opposition. Finally, the district's U.S. congressman intervened to ask: Isn't there another way of improving the economy without damaging world-class environmental resources? As a result, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Fort Worth District, was commissioned to do the Cypress Valley Watershed Study.

To sensitively and imaginatively express the Jefferson waterfront's history, the core area of the Waterfront Plan included a "ghosted" steamboat featuring a cutaway cabin and paddle wheel that will fluctuate with the river. This area will also serve as an intepretive plaza, stage and outdoor classroom. Illustrations provided courtesy of Shapins Associates.

The Corps of Engineers asked Shapins Associates of Boulder, Colorado, to help develop sensitive recreation concepts as part of this study. Members of the firm have extensive experience with regional ecotourism planning including projects in Essex County, Massachusetts, within seven states along the Mississippi River, at Cape Cod National Seashore, and for Grand Canyon National Park.

The ecotourism planning effort was developed in two phases. The first phase involved working with citizens and agencies to develop a "Vision" for the lower reaches of the Big Cypress Bayou. We developed the strategy through an intensive charrette which convened archaeologists, historians, ecologists, Landscape Architects, planners, economists, and graphic artists, along with representation of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the Corps of Engineers, the National Park Service, and other agencies. Just as crucially, many local citizens attended, including more than 75 young people from area public schools.

The charrette helped determine regional themes and matched recreational opportunities to the area's natural, cultural, and scenic assets. We asked, "What are the significant stories of the region? How can these be conveyed to attract, interest, and enlighten tourists in a sustainable manner?" A number of recommended actions emerged which focused on the:

• Enhancement of education and research related to the region's environment, culture, and history

• Creation of a central orientation area to inform visitors of their options and to distribute visitors throughout the region

• Establishment of approaches to preserve natural, cultural, and scenic resources

• Education of travelers in a fun and involving manner so they appreciate the natural and historic resources

• Enhancement of the area's economic base

• Creation of recreational and interpretive opportunities that expose people to the resources through hiking trails, river trips, and walking tours as well as other sustainable methods

• Empowerment of communities and agencies to work together and form partnerships to implement a common ecotourism vision

Visitors will walk to the waterfront along the path of an abandoned railroad track and bridge. This trail will have interpretive exhibits to inform visitors about the areas' resources and visitor experiences as well as providing another spot where one can stand about the bayou overlooking the waterfront and the town. The circulation pattern will also direct pedestrian traffic to the rest of Jefferson's downtown where excetional historic resources, antique shops and restauraunts abound.

The charrette proved a great success. Some 1,000 copies of the attractive Vision Plan were distributed through local businesses such as gas stations, antique shops, and restaurants, as well as schools, government offices, and the chamber of commerce. The Vision Plan provided a framework for future and community leaders in 1995 to examine economic benefits, including ecotourism. In addition, the U.S. Congress strongly supported the vision and helped fund additional planning for the Town of Jefferson. In 1995, the Vision Plan won a communications award from the American Society of Landscape Architects.

Based on recommendations contained in the Vision Plan, Shapins Associates was then asked to develop the more in-depth Port of Jefferson Downtown Waterfront Plan. The small Town of Jefferson (population 2,300) already attracts a number of tourists to its abundance of historic resources, antique stores, and more than 55 bed and breakfasts. The Vision Plan identified Jefferson as the regional center for visitor orientation and called for converting its neglected waterfront into a vibrant educational and recreational complex.

The Waterfront Plan differs from most revitalization plans since it emphasizes ecotourism. Rather than developing to the water's edge, the Waterfront Plan suggests a range of opportunities for everyone to enjoy the waterfront without destroying it. All design elements focus on education, interpretation, and the enhancement of natural and cultural resources, while integrating appropriate recreational activities, such as canoe trails. Interpretative themes are expressed in the landscape artistically, rather than literally. People will enjoy the sense of "walking through time" while they move through this landscape. They will feel the spirit of early Jefferson port life without having that environment completely re-created for them.

Early in the planning effort, we worked closely with diverse specialists from the Corps of Engineers and other entities to understand the history and environmental systems of the area. This included research into the types, sizes, and designs of early river and steamboats, historic cargo, and port and river boat life as it evolved in the town. We also investigated the historical evolution of Jefferson, a major port in the steamboat era and still the geographic center of Big Cypress Bayou. Finally, we looked into the river's ecological systems, current land-use patterns, and historic resources.

To sensitively and imaginatively express the waterfront's history, the core area of the Waterfront Plan included a "ghosted" steamboat featuring a cutaway cabin and paddle wheel that will fluctuate with the river. This area will also serve as an interpretive plaza, stage and outdoor classroom. Next to the proposed visitor orientation and learning center, another plaza is planned to include a water feature illustrating the changing form and characteristics of the Big Cypress Bayou as it moves through east Texas and portions of Louisiana. A bayou trail and boardwalk will link the core interpretive area to an outdoor environmental education center, which will include a re-established wetland crossed by boardwalks. In a more active recreation area, a boat launch and dock for tour boats and non-motorized water craft is planned.

A swinging bridge is proposed to connect both sides of the bayou and lead to a small, sustainability constructed environmental research center for youth. Special platforms will allow visitors to see the environment from high in the trees-- a rare vantage-point in this flat, damp land. The Waterfront Plan asks that Jefferson's senior citizens collaborate with the town's youth to build elements of the environmental learning area and provide interpretive programs.

Parking needs and the flow of large numbers of people can easily overwhelm any tourist area. To address this issue, the Waterfront Plan places all parking away from the interpretive site on vacant lots behind Main Street and across the bayou. Visitors will walk to the waterfront along the path of an abandoned railroad track and bridge. This trail will have interpretive exhibits to inform visitors about the area's resources and visitor experiences as well as providing another spot where one can stand about the bayou overlooking the waterfront and the town. The circulation pattern will also direct pedestrian traffic to the rest of Jefferson's downtown where exceptional historic resources, antique shops, and restaurants abound.

At this writing both projects are continuing to become a reality. The visitor orientation and learning center is being implemented and the Corps of Engineers has received funding for further planning and designing of Jefferson's waterfront.

Both the Vision and the Waterfront Plan focused on developing an alternative to exploitation of the environment. We believe that ecotourism development can enhance and preserve resources. Visitors have fun while becoming informed guests instead of tourists. The local economy is improved. Through this type of planning, tourism development can occur in a manner in which visitors do not destroy what they seek but instead become stewards of the landscape. lasn


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December 6, 2019, 12:49 pm PDT

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