Prairie Dogma

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,

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