Public-private partnership racing the clock to protect Worthington Lake property (TX)

RICHMOND, Texas The Trust for Public Land (TPL), a national land conservation organization, is working with public and private partners to purchase and conserve Worthington Lake and the environmentally significant bottomland hardwood forest surrounding the lake. The 2,220-acre tract is located near the Texas coast, approximately ten miles southeast of Richmond in Fort Bend County. If the acquisition effort is successful, TPL anticipates that it will transfer the land to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as an addition to the San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge.

The Worthington Lake property is located just north of Brazos Bend State Park, Texas’ most popular state park. Because of the proximity of the property to the park, TPL is also exploring Texas Parks and Wildlife Department as a potential partner in this effort.

Conserving this tract’s bottomland forest and other important wetlands will protect a significant area of the remaining Columbia Bottomlands ecosystem (also known as Austins’s Woods) located very close to the heart of Houston. The land provides important wintering waterfowl and neotropical migrant and breeding habitat in an area of the ecosystem that is quickly urbanizing as the Houston metropolitan area spreads southwest.

The Trust for Public Land negotiated an option to purchase the property from the Gubbels, Lockwood, and Sharp families, thereby creating an opportunity for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to acquire the land. Pat Gubbels, who has been working for five years to see his family’s land protected, contacted TPL last year and convinced approximately 70 individuals with interests in the property to enter into the agreement with TPL . “We have developers calling .Worthington Lake, who want to buy our land, but I don’t want to see it destroyed,” said Gubbels. “We just can’t have everything covered over in concrete. This land should be saved for the future,” he added.

To successfully complete the transaction, TPL and its partners must raise the money needed to purchase the property before the option expires on December 31, 2000.

One of the fund raising partners is the Grand Parkway Association, which recently established a project trust fund for mitigation with The Nature Conservancy of Texas. The Grand Parkway Association has been studying a potential route connecting US 59(S) to SH 288, in Ft. Bend and Brazoria Counties. Mitigation funds are available for projects permitted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Diane Schenke, executive director of the association, said, “The Association’s first goal is to minimize impacts to both the human and natural environment associated with new segments of the Grand Parkway. Our next goal is to work with a mitigation project that provides significant habitat creation and preservation within the same area as our highway project.”

Said Roland Adamson, executive director of The George Foundation, “The George Foundation is pleased to see this public-private partnership moving forward to preserve the Worthington Lake area. The rate of development being experienced throughout the entire Greater Metropolitan Houston area underscores the importance to preserve natural areas like Worthington Lake. The competing land use forces in fast-growing areas such as ours are intense. With thoughtful planning and collaborative efforts of community stakeholders, future generations will be able to enjoy the unique natural environment our region is blessed with. The George Foundation commends the Gubbels family and the Trust For Public Land for their efforts to preserve this important resource. ”

The property is a critical link in the Austin’s Woods ecosystem (also known as the Columbia Bottomlands) a wildlife resource of international significance. Millions of neotropical songbirds and migratory waterfowl depend on this coastal forest for resting and feeding during both spring and fall migration. In addition, this unique ecosystem provides important habitat for a great number of resident birds, mammals, reptiles, insects, and plants. But 75 percent of this floodplain forest ecosystem has been lost to development, drainage, and logging. This unique wetland forest is disappearing at a rapidly increasing rate.

To identify ways to preserve this critical natural area, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initiated a regional land conservation planning effort in 1994. Completed in 1997, the Austin’s Woods Conservation Plan calls for the protection of a viable portion of bottomland hardwood forests and wetlands along the Texas Gulf Coast in Brazoria, Fort Bend, Matagorda, and Worthington Lake, Wharton counties. The plan recommends the use of conservation easements, sound land management techniques, and land purchases, while respecting traditional uses and private property rights. In 1997 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service authorized the acquisition of 28,000 acres of bottomlands for eventual addition to the San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge.

In response to a request from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, TPL is helping acquire tracts for the refuge. To date, 816 acres of land and conservation easements have been donated and 2,378 acres known as the Big Pond Tract have been purchased with TPL’s assistance. In addition, TPL expects to transfer to USFWS another 1,271 acres in September.

Approximately 30 miles from downtown Houston, the Worthington Lake property will provide the public numerous opportunities for environmental education and recreation such as superb wildlife observation and photography.

The Trust for Public Land was founded in 1972 to conserve land for people to enjoy as parks and open space. TPL’s land conservation projects range from community gardens and playgrounds to regional parks, historic landmarks, and wildlife areas. In 26 years, TPL has added more than 1,180,000 acres of land valued at more than $2 billion to the nation’s common wealth of public open space. In Texas, TPL has helped protect more than 18,500 acres of land.