The 5,654-acre Roy E. Larsen Sandyland Sanctuary harbors a variety of plant communities, including one of the last remaining longleaf pine communities in Texas. A rare combination of swamp, open-floor forest and southern pinelands create a preserve with remarkable diversity, sustaining 582 plant species and 234 animal species. Visitors can hike, bird watch and study nature, or rent canoes and kayaks from local vendors on Village Creek.
The sanctuary is part of a comprehensive effort to protect and restore the longleaf pine ecosystem on the West Gulf Coastal Plain. Longleaf pine forests are among the most rapidly disappearing ecosystems in the southeastern United States. Some 90 million acres of majestic longleaf pine forest once stretched from Virginia to Texas, but only three percent of this biologically rich natural system survives today, and more is lost each year to agriculture and residential and commercial development.
In the arid sandylands of the Village Creek floodplain, deep, porous sandy hills formed by ancient river deposits create a desert-like habitat; visitors can find various pines, oaks and hickories, along with prickly pear cactus, yucca and more than 340 species of wildflowers. Occupying the transitional slopes between the high sandy terraces and the floodplain below are hillside forests dominated by American beech trees, Southern magnolias and loblolly pines.
The underlying vegetation, partially comprised of American holly and sweetleaf, is highlighted in the spring by flowering wild azaleas and dogwoods. Baygall and bog communities thrive where the Neches River once formed sloughs and channels, and lush expanses of ferns and sphagnum moss grow beneath black gum, gallberry holly and white bay trees. Surrounding these ponds and baygalls is the lower floodplain forest, which stretches from the creek banks. Huge water oaks and sweetgums create a closed canopy, while bald cypress, water tupelo and river birch grow along the stream banks and backwater sloughs.
The sanctuary provides habitat for the globally endangered Texas trailing phlox, as well as the extremely rare white firewheel, which is only found in Hardin County, Texas. Another southeast Texas rarity is the tiny, carnivorous purple bladderwort, which floats on some of the preserve's ponds.
Surveys have identified 18 species of amphibians, 119 bird species, 29 species of reptiles, 28 mammal species 11 freshwater mussel species and 44 species of fish. More than 500 species of butterflies and moths have been identified. Extensive biological surveys have been completed for vascular plants and various vertebrates in the preserve; cataloging continues on insects, butterflies and moths, orchids and freshwater mussels, in order to monitor the health of the preserve’s ecosystems. Sandyland is also used as a ‘living lab’ for researchers and academic institutions and serves as a field demonstration site for longleaf pine restoration and management.
The management program at Sandyland is designed to protect and sustain the species, communities and natural processes of the preserve. Restoration efforts include the use of prescribed burning, selective timber harvesting, reforestation, non-native and invasive species control and right-of-way management.
In 1977, Time Inc. and Temple-Eastex Inc. donated 2,138 acres to The Nature Conservancy of Texas to protect one of the Big Thicket's most unique natural areas. A preserve was established and named in honor of the late vice-chairman of Time Inc., lifelong conservationist Roy E. Larsen. In 1978, Gulf States Utilities Company added to the property with a 40-acre gift.
In July 1994, the sanctuary doubled in size with a 3,158-acre donation from Temple-Inland Inc. The remainder of the donation was a 2,778-acre conservation easement. The easement prohibits commercial and residential development and commits to the protection of bottomland hardwood forests and establishment of a sustainable longleaf pine forestry program.
The preserve is open to the public for hiking and bird watching, photography and nature study; visitors can also rent canoes and kayaks from local vendors on Village Creek. Dogs are prohibited. The preserve is Site #17 on the Upper Loop of the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail and is included in the Top 500 Birding Places by the American Bird Conservancy. The 8.5 mile stretch of Village Creek that flows through the preserve is included in the Village Creek Canoe Trail with the Texas Paddling Trail Program of the Texas Parks & Wildlife Dept.