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Legend, Lore & Legacy: Dan Lay

One of Texas’ first professional wildlife biologists, Lay was an ardent guardian of Texas’ natural resources.

By Mary-Love Bigony

Ecologist and writer Dan Lay led a life filled with firsts. He was in the first Texas class to earn a graduate degree in wildlife management and was one of the state’s first professional wildlife biologists. He was responsible for acquiring Texas’ first wildlife management area and led the state’s first nongame conservation program. For 40 years, Lay worked for the Game, Fish and Oyster

Commission — now the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department — helping it evolve from an agency primarily concerned with law enforcement to the multifaceted agency it is today. Even after his retirement in 1979, Lay, who died last year at age 88, continued to be a tireless advocate for conservation and the outdoors. The hundreds of people whose lives he touched remember him as the consummate gentleman, a naturalist and ecologist without equal.

Born in 1914 in Beaumont, Lay grew up watching the daily flights of thousands of blackbirds coming in to roost in cane marshes along the Neches River. The Lay family lived in town, and young Dan envied his classmates who lived in houseboats and rowed skiffs across the Neches to get to school. He graduated from high school in 1932, during the Great Depression. His father, a pharmacist, encouraged him to go to college, and he headed for Texas A&M University to major in agriculture. In 1936 he met pioneering wildlife biologist Walter P. Taylor. This encounter would change the course of his life.

Taylor had come to Texas A&M to establish one of the first Cooperative Wildlife Research Units in the nation, a program created by the U.S. Biological Survey to promote a graduate curriculum in wildlife research and game management. Lay was there when Taylor arrived on campus.

“I helped him unload,” Lay recalled in 1991, “and started looking at all the camping gear he had. He had a fly rod, a beautiful one, and I thought, ‘Boy, that’s for me!’ Since then I’ve talked to students who wanted to go into this work and I’ve told them they won’t be spending all their time hunting and fishing. But there I was, trapped by the image of that beautiful fly rod. I learned later that Walter P. rarely ever used it.”

After receiving his bachelor’s degree in agriculture in 1936, Lay stayed at Texas A&M to study under Taylor, earning his master’s degree in wildlife research and game management in 1938. Later that year he became one of the first professional wildlife biologists at the Game, Fish and Oyster Commission.

One of Lay’s early assignments involved the first Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Project, W-1-R. He was stationed in Beaumont and served as the regional game manager for 20 Southeast Texas counties.

“Dan began investigating the countryside,” says longtime friend Carl Frentress, a TPWD biologist in Athens, of Lay’s early years in East Texas. “He looked at what was out there, what the ecological foundations were, knowing that we needed this baseline to understand; knowing that things were going to change. He always took field notes and made records. He had his eye on all the subtleties and minor components that are part of the whole milieu of the forest. And when they began to come apart, he knew it, even if it still looked like a forest.”

Over the course of their friendship, Frentress went on dozens of outings with Lay. “Dan was a naturalist,” says Frentress. “That really burned in him. He had to be outside. When he was hunting and fishing it was as intense as when he was working. It was a most pleasurable experience to go with him. When you went with Dan, you were in the outdoors, totally immersed, and when you came back you spent the rest of the afternoon talking about what you’d seen.”

Lay stayed in East Texas until World War II broke out, then was transferred to the agency’s Austin headquarters. “Dan was deaf in his right ear, so he didn’t have to serve in the war,” says Frentress. “He became sort of like a senior advisor to [executive director] Will Tucker. He didn’t have a title. He was just told to go do things.”

One thing Lay did while in Austin was secure acquisition of Texas’ first wildlife management area, Sierra Diablo near Van Horn, in 1945. TPWD biologist Danny Swepston of Canyon, one of Lay’s young protegees in the early 1970s, recalls Lay telling him about it years later: “During the hearings at the State Capitol, Dan developed a severe pain in his side,” says Swepston. “But he was afraid that if he left, the vote would not go through. He knew we needed that land if we were going to save what was left of the native bighorn herd out there. Shortly after the final vote, Dan was admitted to the hospital with a ruptured appendix.”

When the war ended, Lay returned to East Texas. “Dan loved East Texas,” says retired biologist Bill Sheffield of College Station, a friend of 45 years. “He was a field biologist, and that’s really all he wanted to be.” Sheffield says he once heard that when Lay was working in Austin, he used his authority to create a field biologist position in East Texas and then put himself in it. “I asked him if that was true,” says Sheffield. “Dan kind of grinned and said, ‘Pretty much.’”

In the 1960s, Lay was involved in the department’s first nongame project in Texas. Its focus was an 8-inch-long resident of the East Texas forests, the red-cockaded woodpecker. Unlike most woodpeckers, which drill their cavities in dead trees, the red-cockaded needs living pine trees. But not just any tree. To have enough heartwood for a cavity, it must be old — usually 75 years or more. The logging boom that began in the 1870s eliminated many of these big, old trees. Modern silviculture compounded the problem. To increase profits, trees were harvested after 25 to 30 years.

Adding to the predicament is the fact that this woodpecker requires open, parklike habitat, which historically was maintained by fires. Suppression of wildfires created a condition biologists call “hardwood midstory encroachment,” which further degrades the woodpecker’s habitat by making it harder for them to get to their cavities.

Based on Lay’s research, the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife (later the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) declared the red-cockaded woodpecker an endangered species in 1970. Lay spent the next two decades at odds with various timber-management agencies — the U.S. Forest Service, National Forests in Texas and private timber companies — regarding habitat protection. On Oct. 11, 1989, he wrote to Arthur Temple, Jr. of Temple-Inland: “Recently you told me you did not like the red-cockaded woodpecker business and that you doubted there was an emergency. I don’t like it either. There is an emergency and Forest Service records show it. The birds are headed for oblivion and it may be too late already.”

“Dan was truly an ecologist,” says TPWD Executive Director Robert L. Cook. “He was first to raise the alarm about the pine forest monoculture. The virgin forests were gone by 1900, but Dan saw the forests come back. Then he saw the conversion to pine plantations. He was able take a nonconfrontational approach when talking about politically unpopular subjects, such as pine forests.”

In the 1940s, Lay began writing what would grow to be an influential body of work: more than 40 articles for professional journals and more than 60 popular articles, including 36 for this magazine. In 1984, five years after his retirement from TPWD, he wrote Land of Bears and Honey: A Natural History of East Texas, with Joe C. Truett. One reviewer compared the book to the writings of Aldo Leopold, author of A Sand County Almanac, which is credited with starting the modern environmental movement. Another reviewer wrote, “East Texans have their own regional Walden….”

Land of Bears and Honey is a collection of nine essays describing the unspoiled wilderness of East Texas in the centuries before the first settlers arrived and examining how humans coped with and altered the environment: “People love their comforts and trees their gentle rains. But the vigor of both men and forests arises from the wellspring of adversity. Without strife, perhaps neither the people nor the trees of East Texas would have flourished as they did.”

The authors wrote about not just bears, but all the animals that inhabited East Texas: red wolves, jaguars, passenger pigeons, bison and the ivory-billed woodpecker: “Legend, that brew of fact and fiction more potent than either alone, lives best in dank, dark places. In this country it loves the lowlands of the Southeast. One legend of this low country is about a mysterious bird, the ivory-billed woodpecker. At first the bird was real, winging through the dark woods as the settlers hung on the periphery. Then it became scarce and finally disappeared. Some say. Legend says it still flies.”

Many of today’s wildlife managers first knew Lay through his writing. “Our professors had many of Dan’s publications as required reading, as well as some of his popular articles from the old Game and Fish magazine,” says retired wildlife biologist Bobby Alexander of Mount Pleasant, who attended Texas A&M in the mid-1950s. “I met Dan in person in 1958, and was awestruck just being in his presence.”

Perhaps Dan Lay’s most valuable gift to Texas was his willingness to share his time and wisdom with others, especially students.

“He was the consummate gentlemen,” says Hayden Haucke, manager of Engeling Wildlife Management Area. “He didn’t seem to have highs and lows. He always made himself available to lend advice and counsel.”

Gene McCarty, TPWD chief of staff and afisheries biologist, met Lay when McCarty was a graduate student at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches. Lay worked for TPWD and had an office on the university campus. “Two other graduate students and I decided to do an ecological study of the Angelina-Neches Scientific Area,” says McCarty. “Someone told us we should talk to Dan Lay. So we went to his office and told him what we wanted to do. He took in three goofy graduate students and in just a few hours, molded us into scientists.”

Lay’s interest in students and his concerns for the future of wildlife conservation prompted him to set up a scholarship for wildlife and fisheries sciences students at Texas A&M University. Carl Frentress says that one of the things that candidates for the scholarship must do is write an essay expressing the Aldo Leopold philosophy of a land ethic, in which humans see themselves as part of the natural community. Frentress also says that Lay, who made money in the stock market, wanted wildlife students to learn how to achieve financial security, so he instructed that courses in financial planning be part of the curriculum. “If you’re financially secure, he believed, you’re more capable of thinking independently,” says Frentress. “That was very important to him.”

Lay’s last article was published in the East Texas Historical Journal a few months before his death in 2002. Entitled “Outdoors in East Texas Then and Now,” it is a collection of his observations over most of the 20th century.

“Public acceptance of the new science of wildlife management was generous and almost complete,” he recalled of his early years in the profession. “We were inspired to protect the natural world. Young people could gain much from camping, fishing, hunting and other activities. The intangible values were recognized.”

He ends with a look toward the future, a future in which his influence will continue to be felt: “The cultural and intangible values of the natural world are more important than ever before. Scarcity contributes to appreciation. Those restricted to rocking chairs need to hear and see a hummingbird or watch a butterfly. Their grandchildren need places to sleep under the stars and listen to owls.”

Frentress offers this tribute to his friend and mentor: “As a scientist, Dan Lay left his footprints in many of the wild places, past and present, in Texas. As a citizen, he was a champion of the wholeness people need from properly functioning ecosystems and balanced lives. He knew the ache society experiences when values are lost; he sought to be a factor for relief. He knew that, after all, we roo are part of the ecosystems.”

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