East Texas conservationists hope to preserve the 415-mile stretch of the Neches River, a free-flowing body of water that originates in Van Zandt County and empties in the Gulf of Mexico, by designating it a “National Wild and Scenic River.”

Richard Donovan, lifetime East Texas resident and published author, said he has dedicated all of his energies during the past 12 years to the preservation of the Neches.

“It’s a tremendous treasure,” Donovan said. “It’s wild, free-flowing and almost supernatural.”

The National Wild and Scenic Rivers System was created by Congress in 1968, and is notable for safeguarding the special character of rivers, while also recognizing the potential for their appropriate use and development, according to rivers.gov, a Web site maintained by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The wild classification is for “rivers that are free of impoundments and generally inaccessible, except by trail, with watersheds or shorelines essentially primitive and waters unpolluted,” according to rivers.gov.

The scenic classification is for “rivers that are free of impoundments, with shorelines or watersheds still largely primitive and shorelines largely undeveloped, but accessible in places by roads.”

To ensure a designation, a bill must be introduced in the U.S. Congress by a congressman or congresswoman whose district touches the river. U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tyler) would qualify, Donovan said.

However, in a statement from Gohmert, he expressed concern with the designation.

“The Neches River is one of our great East Texas treasures,” Gohmert said. “Unfortunately, when a river is designated as a 'Wild and Scenic River,’ the restrictions are so severe that many routine measures, like repairing a road or a bridge or continuing an electric line may be prohibited. People around the country have sometimes found too late that the prohibitions in a 'Wild and Scenic River’ designation are so punitive that they have vast, unintended consequences to the local communities and governments.”

During the course of two separate canoe trips, Donovan has spent 51 strenuous days paddling the river.

According to his book, “Paddling the Wild Neches,” based on his experiences and anecdotal history of the river, Donovan wrote on the first day of his canoe trip, “If I complete the journey, will it arouse public interest in the river’s plight? Will that interest translate into public action? Are today’s Texans really concerned about preserving wild places for foxes, raccoons, bobcats, white-tailed deer, turkeys, ducks and songbirds? Or have our passions been so consumed by neon, concrete, and tinsel that we simply view extermination of wildlife as one more cost of a consumer society? Maybe I’ll find out.”

That was written on Oct. 2, 1999, and more than 10 years later the designation still does not exist.

Donovan’s continued interest in the Neches led to his service in the Texas Conservation Alliance and to pursue the designation.

The designation would mean no dams could be built on the river, there would be no channelization and water could not be pumped out of the river, Donovan said. Existing laws, however, would stand for individuals who lived along the water’s edge.

“It will be a criminal act in my opinion if they build more reservoirs and inundate that bottom land,” said Buddy Temple, an Angelina County native.

Temple is also a major proponent for the conservation effort, and through his family, the T.L.L. Temple Foundation gave $10 million to the Conservation fund for land along the Neches.

“I’m all for it. One hundred percent for it, absolutely. It must be done. It’s gotta be done,” Temple said. “The Neches is the last really unspoiled river in Texas, and there’s just so much valuable bottom land that needs to be preserved. I think it needs to be preserved for its own sake. I don’t think you have to justify that, it just needs to be preserved because it is what it is.”

But, Gohmert stated that rivers with the Wild and Scenic designation have “become yet another area from which there can be no tax revenue generated for local governments and schools. That is why, though I do not want a lake on the Neches, I have been reluctant to run headlong into creating another blow to the local schools, governments and even economies. I continue to keep an open mind on the 'Wild and Scenic River’ designation, but I have seen too many unintended casualties from moving hastily.”

Donovan, however, stressed the importance of protecting our natural resources.

“All of my energies have been directed toward it,” he said. “It’s not just for me, but for the children. If we don’t look after it now, there won’t be anything left.”

In Texas, only one river holds the Wild and Scenic title: the Rio Grande which was designated Nov. 10, 1978 for a total of 191.2 miles, according to rivers.gov.

Melissa Hayes’ e-mail address is mhayes@lufkindailynews.com.