San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge (TX) purchase of key tract nears completion

BRAZORIA, Texas — Today public and private partners in an important land conservation project gathered at the San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge to celebrate the refuge’s acquisition of 1,271 acres in Brazoria County known locally as the McNeill tract.

The transfer to protected public ownership of this environmentally and historically significant property was achieved through an innovative partnership among the McNeill family, which had owned the land for four generations; the John M. O’Quinn Foundation; the North American Wetlands Conservation Council, the Migratory Bird Commission, the Trust for Public Land, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“The San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge is one of the first stops for migrating neotropical songbirds arriving from Central and South American,” said Geoffrey Haskett, Deputy Regional Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southwest Region. “The refuge is a small but significant part of a much larger effort by many private and public partners working together to conserve this coastal forest ecosystem.”

Funding for the project came from the Migratory Bird Commission, the North American Wetlands Conservation Council, and the John M. O’Quinn Foundation. A previous donation from O’Quinn to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—of a one-square mile parcel in Brazoria County known as the Dance Bayou tract—enabled the agency to secure matching NAWCC funds for the McNeill tract purchase. The Dance Bayou tract, another important addition to the refuge, is used for environmental research.

“Preserving the Columbia Bottomlands in Brazoria County has been a high priority of mine for several years,” said John O’Quinn. “I look forward to working with the Trust for Public Land and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on future projects to save these very valuable habitats for future generations.”

The McNeill tract is a critical link in the Austin’s Woods ecosystem (also known as the Columbia Bottomlands)—an internationally significant wildlife resource along the Texas Gulf Coast. Millions of neotropical songbirds and migratory waterfowl depend on this coastal forest for resting and feeding during both spring and fall migration. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working to protect a viable portion of this unique ecosystem, only 25 percent of which still exists. The McNeill tract is one of the few remaining mature forest tracts in the ecosystem.

The agency in 1997 authorized the addition of 28,000 acres of bottomlands to the San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge. The Trust for Public Land, which is facilitating acquisitions for the agency, transferred 2,378 acres known as the Big Pond Tract to the refuge in March 1999. To date, 3,194 acres, in addition to the McNeill tract, have been protected under the Austin’s Wood Conservation Program.

“We are glad to know that this portion of Levi Jordan’s land will be preserved,” said Evelyn McNeill of Brazoria, one of five family members who formerly owned the property. Levi Jordan, whose historic plantation house is located a few miles north of the McNeill tract, transferred the McNeill property to his two grandsons, Charles Phillip and James Calvin, more than 100 years ago. “This land has been in our family for four generations and represents part of Brazoria County’s history. It is a remnant of the era of sugar cane plantations,” McNeill noted.

“The Trust for Public Land is very grateful to the McNeill family for its patience and commitment to preserving their family’s land,” said Valarie Bristol, TPL’s Texas State Director.

Approximately an hour’s drive from Houston, the McNeill tract will be used for research and environmental education and interpretation and will provide the public with numerous opportunities for recreation such as superb wildlife observation, photography, hunting, and fishing. The agency will encourage the public to help develop high-quality public use programs.

The McNeill tract adjoins the Stringfellow Wildlife Management Area, which was purchased by the state of Texas in 1999 to save a portion of the bottomlands and to mitigate for wetlands lost to state highway projects. Together the two tracts conserve 4,771 acres of forest and contain the largest willow swamp found on the Texas coast.

The Trust for Public Land was founded in 1972 to conserve land for people. TPL’s land conservation projects range from community gardens and playgrounds to regional parks, historic landmarks, and wildlife areas. In 27 years, TPL has added more than 1,180,000 acres of land valued at more than $1.78 billion to the nation’s common wealth of public open space. In Texas, TPL has helped protect 18,000 acres of land. TPL’s Texas State Office is located at 815 Brazos Street, Suite 400, Austin, TX 78701, (512) 478-4644. For more information, visit TPL’s website at

Evelyn McNeill, Charlotte McNeill, and Lolita Muhm of Brazoria
Philip Padgett of Bethesda, MD
Miriam Lovett, of Advance, NC