A Prairie Called Katy—Land&People

Heading west from Houston in the summer of 1832, German writer and adventurer Charles Sealsfield wrote of embarking on a confettied sea of prairie that stretched to the horizons. “With scarcely a square foot of green to be seen, the most variegated carpet of flowers I have ever beheld lay unrolled before me…red, yellow, violet, blue, every color, every tint was there.”

Another old account, from 1849, gave a less salutary view: “Hardly had we left Houston when the flat prairie loomed up as an endless swamp…darkness fell and we had not reached the end, nor did we find a dry place to lie down [nor] a stick of wood to kindle a fire.”

By all accounts, the coastal prairies abounded with wildlife. The French explorer La Salle’s 1687 expedition documented bison herds here, and even today, hunters limit out on ten snow geese a day, just thirty miles from downtown Houston. Of waterfowl alone, an estimated 100 million once blackened winter skies across the swath of tall grasses and wetlands that formed an unbroken crescent up to 100 miles wide from Louisiana to south Texas.

Nowadays, says Carter Smith, the prairie that travelers once likened to a surrounding ocean is dominated by a sprawling metropolis of four million, whose population has grown 800 percent in about forty years, with no end in sight. Smith is a big, easygoing twenty-nine-year-old from a Texas ranching family, with a recent master’s degree in conservation biology from Yale University. He is executive director of the Katy Prairie Conservancy, with whom the Trust for Public Land is working to save open space from Houston’s inexorable march.

He has his work cut out for him. The original Katy Prairie–so-called for the old Kansas/Texas railroad town along Interstate 10 west of Houston–once covered some half a million acres. Now it is around 200,000 acres, and that is becoming fragmented by unplanned, leapfrogging development that has swallowed 160,000 acres just since 1978.

If that growth is repeated in the next twenty years, Houston’s chance to preserve a significant natural area easily accessible to its citizens will be lost, says Smith, whose major interest at Yale was and remains “the social, cultural, and psychological values we derive from wildlife.”

A lot of the prairie already is “too pricey and developable for us to compete with,” Smith says. But the conservancy, founded in 1992, thinks that protecting 30,000 to 50,000 acres in the heart of the region is realistic, if ambitious. Biologists believe that much land could sustain populations of most or all of the prairie’s present species of wildlife.

Strategies to Complement Development

Smith points his Ford pickup north from Katy, where he operates the conservancy from a one-room, windowless office. We are heading for the place he and Ted Siff, who runs TPL’s Texas Field Office in Austin, see as a template for the “creative strategies” needed to salvage nature in a fast-growing region with little land use regulation. (Houston is the only major U.S. city without zoning.)

Our destination is the Nelson farm, a 554-acre rice farm about thirty-five miles from Houston’s core. TPL bought it for the conservancy for approximately $500,000. Flocks of redwing blackbirds flow across the stubble from a recent rice harvest, and egrets stalk minnows in adjoining wetlands. Big Cypress Creek, a wooded bayou where wood ducks nest and some thirty-five bald eagles roost among the bottomland hardwoods, snakes through the property for a quarter of a mile.

Siff says the deal is his office’s first significant project in the Houston area. “It’s classic TPL work–not defining the land conservation plan itself, but securing the land and working with local groups to achieve their conservation and open space goals.”

Smith sees the Nelson farm, covering nearly a square mile, as the core of a larger block of valuable habitat the conservancy will put together, using a variety of strategies, including more partnerships with TPL. To repay TPL’s purchase price the conservancy is hooking into the very development that threatens the prairie in the first place. “You can’t stop development out here, but you can complement it,” Smith says.

For example, as it expands and paves more open space in a region that is flat and poorly drained, Houston must always be mindful of flooding. The Harris County Flood Control District, formed after stormwaters put Houston under several feet of water half a century ago, until recently used its independent taxing authority mostly for concrete-lined ditches and channelization of natural streams.

“Nowadays, we are trying to fulfill a matrix of objectives, including water quality and wildlife habitat,” says John Koros, a former arboretum director hired five years ago to help the flood control district move in new directions. On the Nelson tract, Koros says, he and Smith “tried to come up with something really innovative.” The bottom line: the district may purchase an easement that will let it construct a detention pond-wetland system on the Nelson farm to control stormwater in the perennially flood-prone Cypress Creek watershed. More such partnerships, he says, seem likely.

Another $200,000 to purchase the Nelson property has already come from the Mills Corporation, a Virginia-based developer that announced last year it would build a 1.6 million-square-foot mall along Interstate 10 just outside Katy. Along with the Houston Sierra Club, which has supported the conservancy, Smith approached Mills about “adopting” their prairie preservation project.

The mall was not a threat, per se, to the prairie. It was embraced by county and town officials, and located in an area designated for commercial development within the town limits. “But, of course, the development it is designed to attract will impact the prairie, so it is good publicity for them to help offset that,” Smith points out.

Paul White, a spokesman for Mills Corporation, says the conservancy also will get a permanent kiosk from which to do education and fundraising within the mall, which will attract 15 to 18 million people a year. One of the mall’s entrances will feature a mural of the Katy Prairie, “and we will work to get other Houston companies to take an interest in the conservancy,” White says.

Wetlands Banking

As we drive through the flat prairie landscape, Smith says things are beginning to come together. The conservancy just won a competitive federal grant of $750,000 to preserve another square mile of land within the Cypress Creek watershed. Additional grants from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the North American Wetlands Conservation Council will soon pay off TPL for the Nelson property, and with other land donations will have helped protect a total of 2,200 acres within this watershed. “It’s a good nucleus,” Smith says.

Passing a hedgerow brightened with red yaupon berries, he notes that the big farm it borders is being converted by its owner to a “wetlands bank.” Federal laws that require developers to “mitigate” their filling of wetlands by preserving others have created a market as high as $10,000 to $15,000 an acre for the soggy lands settlers once struggled to drain and fill. The landowner, he says, plans to sell his wetlands to developers seeking mitigation credit. It is one more tool the conservancy is using. Smith works with developers to help them find mitigation sites that fit the conservancy’s goals of preserving the large, contiguous blocks of land that best sustain so many types of wildlife.

Even here, in the most rural parts of the prairie, virtually nothing remains of the original landscape whose tall grasses came to the bellies of bison and harbored thousands of Attwater’s prairie chickens, a species many scientists now expect to go extinct. But if much has been lost, it is surprising what persists. Smith stops by what appears to be a lake, covering several acres and peppered thickly with pintails, coots, widgeon, green-winged teal, snow geese, and half a dozen other species of waterfowl. “This is nothing; by dark it will be packed solid,” he says.

A small sign announces that the lake–actually a rice field flooded a few inches deep–is leased to “Gore’s Eagle Lake and Katy Prairie Outfitters” and is maintained as a “roost and rest sanctuary” for waterfowl. Larry Gore pays half a million dollars annually to farmers across 50,000 acres of prairie just for hunting rights, Gore himself explains later at his headquarters in Katy. Next to a sign that announces “Larry Gore’s Texas Goose and Duck Hunting,” clients in camo garb drift in and hang their fowl and pose for photographs.

He never felt comfortable with environmentalism or land use regulations, Gore says, but he was concerned about how development was chewing up the prairie. A Sierra Club member who hunted acquainted him with the concept of the conservancy, which as a land trust works with landowners willing to sell conservation easements or property. Soon after, Gore became a charter member of the Katy Prairie Conservancy’s board of directors.

In the last few decades rice farmers have realized they can make money by re-flooding their harvested fields to attract wintering waterfowl, Gore says. It is a major reason the Katy Prairie hosts some of the densest populations of waterfowl in Texas, including a quarter of the state’s snow geese. And while the flights of waterfowl are most visually spectacular, surveys have documented more than 196 bird species using the prairie here–from marsh wrens, sparrows, and warblers to shorebirds, hawks, sandhill cranes, ibis, and peregrine falcons. In all, an estimated two million birds winter on the prairie. For many species, biologists say, there are no alternative habitats if the Katy Prairie goes.

Partnerships for the Prairie

Given the realities of land use in Texas, the relatively noncontroversial vehicle of a land trust, as embodied by the conservancy and personified by the easygoing Smith, seems the best way to protect the prairie, environmental leaders have concluded.

“We are not in Greenwich, Connecticut, and we are not in Vermont; we have to do as the Romans do,” says Marge Hanselman, conservation chair for the Sierra Club’s several thousand members around Houston. “Most of Texas is in private ownership, and if we can’t work with ranchers and hunters and farmers, then we can’t succeed.”

The Sierra Club and other traditional environmental advocacy groups have battled for more than a decade, in and out of court, against projects that threatened the Katy Prairie. Notable among these have been a proposed 2.5-square-mile commercial airport and the 170-mile-long Grand Parkway, a giant beltway-around-all-other-beltways that would slice several miles into the undeveloped prairie. The former is now on the back burner, and the latter is incomplete through the prairie.

“We succeeded in delaying things, but we came to realize that even if we blocked such projects, Texas has so few land use controls, this was not going to stop the ultimate loss of the prairie,” says Mary Van Kerrebrook, a past president of the local Sierra Club group. Van Kerrebrook is now president of the Katy Prairie Conservancy’s board of directors. She said the idea of a land trust seemed the best way to engage the broad grassroots support needed for real preservation. “Houstonians like private initiatives and local control,” she notes. Land trusts like the conservancy, while entrenched in many states, are still in their infancy in Texas, with less than a dozen active statewide.

David Nelson, the rice farmer who sold his land to the conservancy, says, “At first I did not know or care much about them, I thought they were another bunch of environmentalists; you have to understand there was a background of hard feelings between rice farmers and environmental groups.” It still feels a bit odd, Nelson says, to be farming the land for Carter Smith, whom he greatly likes. “I’ve got to follow a twenty-page lease now, where it used to be a couple pages and a handshake.” But he likes knowing that much of the land will stay in traditional use–farming and hunting–for the foreseeable future.

The threat from development is moving faster than people think, says Nelson. Rice farming, he explains, is “on its way out.” One reason is increasing competition with Houston for water. The other: “Rice requires aerial application of pesticides and fertilizer, and as houses go up all around, that’s getting nearly impossible.

“We’re down to one crop duster now, and he’s scared to death of lawsuits. All his planes use a GPS [global positioning system] that can give printouts of their flight path and the wind speed and direction, to prove where they did and didn’t spray. It’s the only reason he can operate at all.”

On the drive back from the Nelson farm, Carter Smith makes one more stop–to show the prairie’s past and maybe, its future. It is an unprepossessing brownish patch of winter-weary grasses, about eleven acres, hard by a suburban development. “It doesn’t look like much now,” he says, “but from a biological standpoint, we were ecstatic to get this.” It is one of a dozen specks, two to twenty acres in size, that are left of the region’s original ocean of tallgrass prairie. Parting the thick clumps and knots of more than twenty-five species of grasses, Smith demonstrates how they form excellent cover for wintering and nesting birds.

The prairie patch was donated to the conservancy, which will manage it as a source of native seed. The need simply to amass and protect acreage is foremost now, but it is not too early to think about restoring at least some of the original ecosystem. “We get any number of calls from developers looking for native seeds that are locally adapted, to use in restoration work around wetlands,” he says.

Standing knee deep in the native grasses, inhaling the faint, sweet scent of curing hay as the afternoon sun heats the prairie, one can forget for a moment all the “land for sale” signs and dare to envision Charles Sealsfield’s endless carpet of bloom.

Land & People, 1998

Tom Horton is an environmental columnist for the Baltimore Sun and author of five books on the Chesapeake Bay.