The fight to save the Katy Prairie

How many winters more will Arctic waterfowl make their 10,000-year-old journey to the western edge of Houston?

A half-hour before dawn on New Year's Day, a covey of birdwatchers parked by the side of the road near Warren Lake, about two miles south of the town of Hockley, in the northeastern sector of the Katy Prairie. The lake is part of the Warren Ranch, a 5,700-acre property that has been proposed as a site for a national wildlife refuge to protect hundreds of thousands of wintering geese, ducks, hawks and other migratory birds from the westward expansion of the city of Houston.

This was the 18th year that birders covered a portion of the Katy Prairie as part of the annual Christmas bird counts of the National Audubon Society. Of the thousands of counts the society's 40,000 volunteers conduct across the country each year, the Cypress Creek count (as it is officially known) has reported the largest concentrations of snow geese in North America, averaging almost 200,000 a year.

Since its inception the Katy Prairie count has been led by Ted Eubanks, a 43-year-old executive who sold his trucking business last year to devote more of his life to writing about and preserving the birds of the upper Texas coast. Eubanks has his work cut out for him, as do the hunters and outfitters, ecologists, birdwatchers, conservationists, professional wildlife managers and environmental lawyers who want to save the Katy Prairie, an area covering 200,000 acres on the advancing western edge of Houston. Arrayed against them are a complex set of federal regulations and bureaucrats, a city government determined to build an airport regardless of the environmental consequences, and a development community only slowly beginning to learn the arts of consultation and negotiation.

Houston's proposal to build an airport in the midst of thousands of wintering geese has galvanized environmentalists. In Washington the Federal Aviation Administration is studying the city's much-ridiculed environmental impact statement for the West Side airport, and deciding whether to adopt and release it. The final document will be scrutinized by lawyers, reporters and federal and state wildlife managers, eager to see whether the feds will uphold the city's record of ineptitude and disregard for technical, economic and scientific truth. The report will be released "soon," a city aviation official said last week. How long is soon? No one really knows, she admitted.

Nearly four years after politicians began circulating letters about a refuge, the development community is talking about creating one. Representatives from the West Houston Association, a planning organization of major developers and corporations, have scheduled a symposium in April to discuss where such a refuge might go, what it might cost and how it might be managed. For the answers they will have to turn to Eubanks and other environmentalists who have fought the West Side airport not only for its dubious environmental impact statement, but for its safety and its economic rationalizations as well.

The environmentalists have yet to win any significant legal or regulatory battles over the development of the Katy Prairie. But they may have won the war with the most powerful emotion in the conflict: shame. If in 50 years the Katy Prairie is just another series of suburban tract homes, strip shopping centers, pizza restaurants and shopping malls, and the geese, ducks, bald eagles, sandpipers, dowitchers and other migrating birds from Canada are gone, our children and grandchildren will not say of us that we lost the birds out of ignorance. They will say that we killed them out of stupidity and greed.

A Christmas bird count
In the black silence of New Year's morning, Warren Lake cannot be seen, but already the birders have heard a horned owl calling in the oak grove. In the first light the silvery shape of the lake becomes visible a quarter of a mile away. The white shapes of 25 or 30 geese appear on the far edge, and their morning chatter drifts across the field. Some nights a big flock will roost in the lake, filling all 200 acres of it. To the distant south, a cluster of shotguns suddenly clatters, and then silence.

The birders mill around their trucks and vans, trading stories of sightings. Most of them wear rubber-soled boots. Around their necks hang the essential tool of the serious birder: large, lightweight, thousand-dollar, ten-power binoculars with light-gathering optics. They are sixty-ish couples in sensible shoes, young and middle-aged longhairs, portly gents, two black women. Birding itself is most often a solitary pastime, but a bird count is something of a social occasion, and is usually followed by dinner at a restaurant.

Ted Eubanks shows up in his white pickup at seven, half an hour after daylight. He has spent the early morning calling for the five kinds of owls that live on the prairie. He seems to know everyone, and clearly everyone knows him. He is treated with respect. He created this count when he was in his twenties. He and three friends stayed up one New Year's Eve scouring maps, discussing where on the prairie such a count might be done and drawing up lists of what birds they would expect to find. It was dawn when their discussions were over, and with the energy and enthusiasm of the young, they went out and did it. Eubanks shakes his head when he recounts such forays, the hours spent driving on an impulse on the report of a rare bird.

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