Ned Fritz – Nature’s Advocate

Ned Fritz in the East Texas wilderness

Ned Fritz and a champion tree in an East Texas wilderness preserves he helped to create. Photo courtesy of Genie Fritz

Ned Fritz – Nature’s Advocate

Over the years at Whole Earth, we have had a wall of remembrance at the office where we post photos and obituaries of our heroes. Residents of the wall have included Sir Edmund Hillary, Colin Fletcher, and one particularly close to our heart, Ned Fritz. Ned’s granddaughter Molly is a Whole Earthling and we are proud to claim a member of the Fritz’ family as one of our own. Observing that Ned Fritz’ contributions to the preservation of Texas wilderness are not as well known as they should be, we’ve decided to honor him on Earth Day and spread the word about this amazing man and his work.

Ned Fritz, called by some the father of Texas wilderness, is best remembered as the founder of the Texas Land Conservancy , an organization devoted to preserving wilderness areas in Texas. For most of us, this would be the accomplishment of a lifetime. But it was just one of many accomplishments for Ned Fritz. He was present at the creation of several important Texas environmental organizations: the Texas Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, the Texas Committee on Natural Resources, Natural Areas Preservation Association, and on the national stage, the League of Conservation Voters. Fritz led the fight to preserve Texas wilderness areas both in courtrooms and in the halls of Congress and the Texas Legislature. He battled clear cutting in national forests in Texas and was instrumental in the creation of the Big Thicket National Preserve and other wilderness areas in East Texas. By all accounts he was not only a force for nature but a force of nature. His energy and enthusiasm were irresistible: a request for help could not be denied. His passion was to “represent a normally unrepresented class, and that is Nature itself, which cannot speak verbally and has no ability to hire lawyers.”1 (hover over the number to see notes)

Big Thicket National Preserve

Big Thicket National Preserve NPCA Photos / Flickr

Ned Fritz was born on February 8, 1916 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. When he was seven, the family moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he had his “first sight of nature.”
“I could walk down the hill a couple of blocks and be in the woods. It was also on the edge of Osage County, where the Osage Hills… were wild, rugged, post oak cross timbers.” I “…would walk into the woods, and learn the trees and plants, for my Boy Scout Merit Badges. I was a “…lover of Nature from an early age. It just–sank in and felt right and it’s part of our human heritage if our mind is open to it.”2

Fritz earned a BA from the University of Chicago and a law degree from Southern Methodist University in Dallas. During the Second World War, he served as a U.S. Naval aviator and flight instructor in Corpus Christi. Among his students was a cadet named George H.W. Bush. After the war Fritz worked as a trial lawyer primarily in the field of consumer credit, representing “borrowers who were overcharged in interest and who were harassed by the lender to pay exorbitant interest rates.”3 He also worked to remove the poll tax, for equal housing opportunities, and, in a hint of things to come, in 1957, he lobbied the Texas Legislature to maintain the protected status of the Harris Hawk. He also served as an advisor on consumer affairs during the Johnson Administration. He “retired” in 1974 to become a fulltime volunteer in the cause of environmental preservation.

Reading Ned Fritz’ books and studying his environmental work, several underlying principles become clear. The first seems obvious for many of us today, but was less so in the early years of the environmental movement: humanity is not separate from or above Nature. As Fritz was fond of pointing out, human beings are just another part of the ecosystem. Realizing that human impacts on the natural world were immense, he believed that development and the harvesting of natural resources should be cautiously undertaken with the full understanding that the effects of these actions cannot always be known beforehand and can last for generations, if not longer. As ecosystems are degraded or destroyed, he believed that we often have no idea of what we may be losing or the role they might play in larger natural systems and even in human survival. He worked unrelentingly for the preservation of intact ecosystems. Fritz was particularly opposed to clear cutting forests and replanting with only one or two commercial species. He preferred selective harvesting where all native species were allowed to survive. He also believed that human beings need to learn to live within natural limitations. He was a proponent of non-structural floodplain management: rather than building dams and levees in the name of flood control, flood plains should simply not be developed, therefore saving vast sums of money on construction costs and on the inevitable losses due to floods beyond the control of manmade structures.

Ned Fritz worked to preserve ecosystems large and small. The small end of the scale is represented by his fight with the city of Dallas over his yard. “I let my already questionable lawn go wild and it immediately sprouted a meadow of Dandelions, Blue-Eyed Grass, Flax, Venus’s Looking Glass and myriad other wild flowers.“4 The neighbors were not amused and eventually took him to court for violating the Dallas Weed Ordinance. He beat the charge two or three times on technicalities but finally decided to go to trial and “try it on the facts and get it over with. So we got a jury, and my fellow lawyers in the firm represented me, and we won the case. They, the jury, agreed with us that these natural [native] plants growing here are not weeds.”5 By the early 1990s Fritz’ three acres were described as “a riot of hardwood vegetation thriving under 40 years of selection management directed by one of the toughest tree huggers around. Cedar Elm dominates, along with Shumard Red Oak, Chinkapin, Osage-Orange, and the Texas state champion Green Hawthorne.”6 The yard was a magnet for birds and wildlife in an otherwise urban area.

Ned Fritz’ work to preserve large areas of wilderness bore fruit in the creation of the Big Thicket National Preserve and a series of five East Texas Wilderness areas: Big Slough, Turkey Hill, Indian Mounds, Upland Island and Scenic Bend. His book on the five preserves, Realms of Beauty – A Guide to the Wilderness Areas of East Texas, describes each in loving detail. His enthusiasm is contagious and by the end of the book you’ll be planning visits to these very special places.

The Case Against Clearcutting
Realms of Beauty image

Fritz was the author of two other books: Sterile Forest – The Case Against Clearcutting and Clear cutting – A Crime Against Nature. In 1976, he led the fight against clearcutting and conversion of public lands to timber plantations in Texas. He won a permanent injunction on all clearcutting on 600,000 acres of national forests in Texas. Sterile Forest and Clearcutting are his lively, readable accounts of the fight and the need for public engagement to ban the practice in national forests across the country.

Ned Fritz was a believer in the power of grassroots organizations to bring together groups and individuals who could act together to bring about change. “The environment is up against entrenched profit-making interests as well as longstanding cultural myths, and so to save the environment requires great cunning, skill, breadth of appeal, and therefore, diversity. So I’m in favor of everybody joining the environmental movement or participating in it as much or as little as they see fit and as they get the enjoyment out of it or as they can afford to do it. …We need the hard-liners. We need real cutting edges. …We need the type who are very milquetoasty and merely express themselves softly about it. But we need people who will do something, take action from one extreme to the other. Where I draw the line of demarcation, beyond which I don’t need anybody, is violating the law.“7

As Fritz saw it, the living heart of environmental protection was citizen participation – citizen input. “It depends upon the citizens to do this, and only in a democracy can the citizens fully exploit their talents and …the government fully benefit from that utilization of the talents of the individual human beings working together.”8 The dangers he foresaw to citizen participation were the use of administrative regulations to reduce citizen input and the reduction in funding used to educate the public on the issues and their implications. “We, the citizens, with this type of education and a few tips as to what was going to take place at various meetings and public hearings, stood up against the entrenched profit-making interests of the industries involved, and we got good laws and regulations.”9

Catahoula Forest Preserve image

Ned Fritz at the Catahoula Forest Preserve managed by the Texas Land Conservancy. Photo courtesy of Texas Land Conservancy

But Fritz’ experiences with governmental agencies led him to believe that “they are ultimately induced by the people that they regulate to soften or dull their view of their role”10 to the detriment of the public lands and resources they have been tasked to protect. Fritz believed that land trusts like The Nature Conservancy and the Texas Land Conservancy were superior ways to protect the land forever in a natural state. “It’s better for private groups to do it than government groups because, although government groups are necessary to do the vast acreages on a quick basis, private groups are not subject to a subsequent raid from profit-making groups as government groups are.”11

Ned Fritz died on December 19, 2008, in Dallas, at the age of 92. The obituaries and tributes celebrated his extraordinarily full life and his legacy of Texas wilderness preservation. David Todd in his 1997 interview with Fritz asked him if he had a message he’d like to pass on. Fritz replied: “The basic message that comes to me at this moment would be that all the time that you can spend working for good projects to help your fellow human beings and your environment is the most valuable contribution that you can make to humankind, and [is] also the most satisfying and fulfilling function that you can carry out in your life. One of the best things that you can do is to get with fellow public servants, citizens, and particularly, I think, those in the environmental field, and devote a part of your time and your money to strengthening the environmental movement and to saving as much as possible of our native species forever.”12

Want to learn more about Ned Fritz? Here are a few places to begin:

“Larger than Life: The Inimitable Edward ‘Ned’ Fritz changed the face of Texas Conservation” by Wendee Holtcamp in Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine August 2009

“Fritz vs. the Feds” by Tom Wolf, American Forests November – December, 1991 (Your local library may be able to help you access this article.)

All of Ned Fritz’ books are out of print but copies may be found in used bookstores and on Amazon and other used books websites:

Sterile Forest – The Case Against Clearcutting, Eakin Press, 1983

Realms of Beauty – A Guide to the Wilderness Areas of East Texas, University of Texas Press, 1986, revised edition 1993.

Clearcutting – A Crime Against Nature, Eakin Press, 1989

The Texas Legacy Project website, an online archive devoted to preserving the memory of Texans who have “shaped and continue to influence the protection of Texas natural resources” includes transcripts of four interviews with Fritz from 1983, 1997, 1999 and 2000.