Draining the Swamp

A scorched-earth management philosophy is sucking the life out of our region's wetlands

Local environmentalists are still fighting back. Last year four local cities and eight environmental groups lost a challenge to the decision in federal district court in Galveston. They've taken the case to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, a move that has national environmental groups on edge.

"We have been getting phone calls from people in other parts of the country that are scared to death," says Blackburn, who represents the Bayport opposition in the case.

If the Fifth Circuit sides with the corps, the ruling will conflict with pro-environment decisions from other circuit courts. It might cause the Supreme Court to take up the issue, pitting Blackburn and the Bush administration in a high-stakes face-off that could determine the fate of wetland protections nationwide.

The roseate spoonbill is becoming a rarer sight as 
wetlands in the Houston area are filled and paved.
All Rights Reserved, copyright 2004 Wayne Nicholas
The roseate spoonbill is becoming a rarer sight as wetlands in the Houston area are filled and paved.
Casey Cutler, the controversial chief of compliance for 
the regulatory branch of the U.S. Army Corps of 
Engineers, is charged with protecting wetlands along 
the entire Texas coast.
Troy Fields
Casey Cutler, the controversial chief of compliance for the regulatory branch of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is charged with protecting wetlands along the entire Texas coast.

A loss for Blackburn could mean the national corps wins a court-ordered rollback: Galveston's wetland policies could be applied to California, Florida, Vermont and everywhere else in the United States, exposing thousands of acres to development.

But a victory could help alter the course in Texas. "We in Texas should enjoy the same protection that the rest of the United States is getting," Blackburn says, "and it's wrong that we are not."


A few miles from NASA, past the plowed front lines of Clear Lake City's rising outer subdivisions, a neighborhood park welcomes Boy Scout troops and high school cross-country teams into a frequently sweltering den of alligators, thorns and chomping insects.

The Armand Bayou Nature Center might not always be the best spot for a volleyball game or a picnic, but Sipocz and Jacob are regulars here. After a strong November rain, Jacob fires up an all-terrain vehicle and Sipocz stands on the back, casually ducking to avoid trees. The roaring machine curves down a dirt road into one of the region's few protected tracts of forested wetlands.

Founded in 1974, the preserve may soon become one of the last places in the Houston area where large uninterrupted wetlands are visible. The 2,500-acre site provides an all-too-rare laboratory for researchers to learn about such ecosystems -- and to challenge the corps's assumptions.

The scientists come to a jerky stop and bushwhack past magnolias and palmettos up a small stream. It soon disappears, yet shallow water continues to wash over the land. It is flowing from a wetland, an acre-sized open pool a few dozen yards deeper into forest, full of gambusia fish and reedy sugarcane plumegrass.

Sipocz punches data into a global positioning system and dictates coordinates to Jacob. He aims to prove the wetland drains into Armand Bayou. And along the way, he wants to measure how much pollution the marsh removes from rainwater, which collects here after absorbing toxins such as benzene and nitrous oxide from the ground and Houston's troposphere.

The first of its kind on the Texas coast, the study ultimately could give the corps a stronger case to conserve local wetlands for their role as water purifiers. "It just seems natural that they would want this information," Sipocz says.

Yet it's unclear what the corps could do with it. Regulators say science has become almost irrelevant to the agency's approach. "It doesn't make sense," one corps employee says. "It's not science; it's politics."

After decades with the corps, however, Cutler seems to have come to terms with his job's natural political ebbs and flows. "The politicians respond to the interest the public expresses," he says.

"If you are not happy with what's going on, change it."

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