The farm and ranch country west of Houston isn't much to look at, but birders and their allies say preserving the grassland will protect the city's air and water.
AT FIRST GLANCE, THE KATY prairie is little more than a flat expanse of land beyond Houston’s western suburbs, lacking distinguishing features to the point that it appears to be just a giant plat waiting for a subdivision. Ponder it long enough, though, and the nuances begin to manifest themselves. Cattle egrets emerging from the brush. Two varieties of whistling ducks in flight. Critters flushed out of the grasses. A horizon so totally level that on a clear day, you can see the skyline of Houston, thirty miles away. Once upon a time, the entire distance between the heart of the Katy Prairie and the land now covered by skyscrapers and parking lots was nothing but tall grass, high enough to tickle a horse’s belly. It sprawled for another 25 miles west to the Brazos River bottoms. Once upon a time, this was the domain of the Attwater’s prairie chicken. Today only forty or so of the endangered species survive in the wild, none on the prairie that was once their prime range.
More than half of the prairie’s 500,000 acres has already vanished, a third of it in the past twenty years. About the only large area left is this gargantuan grassland between Katy and Brookshire. These facts fill my ears as I tramp through a field while a tall, strapping Aggie in Wranglers and a petite Maine Yankee in a long khaki skirt are doing their darndest to convince me that I should care about this large empty expanse, just as they’ve been working on behalf of the Katy Prairie Conservancy to convince movers and shakers in Houston that they should care too. Wesley Newman, the land manager, and Mary Anne Piacentini, the executive director, are the driving forces behind the conservancy, which, ten years after its founding, has saved 10,000 acres of prairie from the westward expansion of Texas’ biggest city, with the goal of protecting another 40,000 acres within the next ten years. It’s a race against the clock, both are quick to tell me.
“We understand that if the public is to be engaged, they’ve got to get on the land,” Piacentini tells me as she gingerly picks her way through the grass. “Unless you can see it, smell it, feel it, you don’t have any idea how wonderful it is. It’s a challenge convincing people that this is worth saving, so I have to walk them through it. It makes for a much more thorough analysis.”
We’re at Nelson Farms Preserve, formerly just plain Nelson Farms, 554 acres straddling the Harris-Waller county line, with a small house, a barn, and requisite rusty implements and a landlocked cabin cruiser scattered about. The Katy Prairie Conservancy bought the land in 1997, the first of several purchases, land swaps, conservation easements, and other deals made with the $8 million Piacentini has hustled in grants and donations from the Houston Endowment, the Wortham and Meadows foundations, individuals such as Kenneth and Linda Lay (in better days), and entities such as the Mills Corporation, the owner of the Katy Mills factory outlet mall, which donated funds to the Katy Prairie Conservancy as part of the deal that allowed it to build the mall in wetlands along Interstate 10.
Meanwhile, Newman has spent the past three years chopping down Chinese tallow trees and clearing out other invasive plant species, restoring wetlands, and encouraging rice farmers and other agricultural producers to continue working the land. He and Piacentini have put in a lot of time getting to know landowners with the help of David Nelson and Donald Hebert, both of whom are members of longtime Katy Prairie families and have sold property to the conservancy. Nelson and Hebert have been a connection to other owners who might be willing to sell. “If we had the funding,” Newman says, “we could buy several thousand more acres right now.”
It all fits into a grand scheme that first began when Houston-area hunters and birders realized in the eighties that protecting what’s left of the prairie was in their mutual interest. At the heart of their meeting of the minds were the millions of ducks, geese, cranes, egrets, and ibis that winter on the prairie, constituting one of the densest concentrations of waterfowl on the North American continent, as well as the hawks, peregrine falcons, bald eagles, and more than two hundred species of resident and migratory birds that use the prairie. But too little of the prairie was in its pristine state for the land to be a candidate for national wildlife refuge status, nor did the national Nature Conservancy or its Texas chapter see it as a high enough priority to get involved. (So much of the land had been altered that less than twenty small parcels of unplowed virgin prairie remain.) But the Houston chapters of the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society saw plenty of reason to fight for whatever was left. The Prairie Conservancy was created in 1992 with the help of grants from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the North American Wetlands Conservation Council.
Protecting the prairie has not been an easy sell in a city that is famous for its flat and swampy terrain and dirty air. Aside from the coast, there is no dramatic scenery to promote here. Its limited amount of public parkland reflects the low priority the city has given to conservation and open space, a situation aggravated by the city’s lack of zoning and land-use restrictions. And yet, few places in the Southwest are in need of open space as much as Houston is, as a Texas Parks and Wildlife study last year pointed out. It recommended the purchase of 1.5 million acres of parkland within the Dallas-Houston-San Antonio triangle to serve the needs of urban Texans over the next fifty years. “Sooner or later,” Newman says, “We’re going to run out of places to go.” Piacentini’s strategy has been to seize upon the early cooperation between Ducks Unlimited and the Audubon Society and identify other potential users with common interests. “We have the hunters and the birders,” she says. “We need to figure out how to reach a broader public.” So in addition to wildlife habitat, the Katy Prairie is being promoted as open space, with a potential network of trails for hikers and bikers being discussed in cooperation with Waller and Harris counties. The prairie is also being touted as a window onto Houston’s agricultural heritage. “I didn’t know what a rice field was before I got here,” Piacentini admits. “Now we’re talking about having a rice tour, to show how food is grown and what the real value of farming is.”
Piacentini believes that the preservation of the prairie is crucial to Houston’s future. Perhaps its most important role is as a natural flood-prevention system for the city, since Cypress Creek and Buffalo Bayou begin in the Katy Prairie and flow into the city unchanneled. “If you start covering this land up with impervious cover, the prairie won’t be here to soak up water like it does now,” Piacentini says. “Runoff will still be going toward Galveston Bay, only more of it will be going right through Houston. If this land is left as is, you won’t have to live in a high-rise to stay out of a Houston flood.”
For now, the sole visitor attraction is the KPC Nelson Farms Preserve, on Sharp Road, which has a bird blind, site 100 on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail. It’s a fancy title for a raised, wheelchair-accessible viewing platform overlooking the remains of a crawdad farm by an irrigation canal. But it’s a start. “I’ve met people from South Africa, England, and Japan on that platform,” Newman says.
There are still local concerns to overcome, like the fear that the conservancy can take land through eminent domain (it can’t). More than once, Newman has been approached by strangers asking if he was with the government and was going to condemn their land. “I try to explain that we have no power of eminent domain,” he says. “We don’t buy the land, close the gate, then run everyone off. We offer to pay the appraised value for land and pay the taxes, although as a land trust we can exempt up to two thousand acres from taxes in any county.” Newman hopes that in light of the recent decline in rice farming in the region and because much of the land is in the floodplain, the conservancy will be the buyer of first choice for most landowners because developers may be restricted by the floodplain. “We don’t care if it floods,” he says. “We like floods. It’s good for the ecosystem.”
The conservancy’s goal of accumulating 50,000 acres represents the amount of land biologists say is necessary to save the habitat. Then it might be possible to reintroduce the Attwater’s prairie chicken, which is currently making its last stand at a national wildlife refuge near Eagle Lake. But even if the conservancy falls short of that goal, it can accomplish a lot, Piacentini says. “Tallgrass prairies and prairie wetlands do the same thing as a tropical rainforest does,” she tells me as we head back to the truck.” Newman adds, “They clean the air and the water. The difference is the prairie stores most of its nutrients in the ground, where you can’t see it.”
Hmmm. I’d never looked at it like that before. The tag team must have been effective in its pitch because I walked away thinking for the first time that the Katy Prairie was something more than a chunk of prime real estate destined for development. Can Newman and Piacentini make enough people care about the prairie, a challenge far greater than restoring it? Perhaps. Houston is more environmentally minded than you might think: Almost one of every four Sierra Club members in Texas lives there. “It’s like Memorial Park,” Piacentini says. “Leaders with foresight set aside enough land to allow critters there a chance to breathe. We’re doing the same but on a larger scale.” Newman takes one last glance toward the western horizon, the pale blue sky speckled with birds of all shapes, sizes, and colors in flight. “It’s not pretty and it’s not pristine, like the rain forest,” he admits, before breaking into a grin. “But it’s pretty great.”