The fight to save the Katy Prairie
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.
Not that he has been merely enthusiastic. For the last six years he has been writing a book called The Birds of the Upper Texas Coast. It will include 450 birds; each bird requires a chapter, for each bird has a story to tell. Later this day a birder will confide that as a beginning birdwatcher she dreamed of spending a day in the field with Eubanks.
He briskly distributes maps and lists, and assigns three or four birders to each quadrant of a circle 15 miles in diameter, the standard size of the Audubon count areas. He has moved the circle further to the west than in past years, the better to include some subtle changes in the topography. And the better to include the site of the proposed airport.
He will take the northwest quadrant himself. In moving the circle, he explains, we will pass through two types of topography, the coastal prairie and the coastal plain. In past years the count has been mostly conducted on the flat coastal plain, where rice agriculture has developed, but now he will also go through coastal prairie. Texas historian and naturalist Del Weniger makes a specific distinction between the two terms, Eubanks says.
The plain historically was flat grassland that had no feature other than grass, he explains. It was truly the sea of grass, whereas the prairies had some significant topography, gentle swells or rolling hills and scattered mottes of trees. Driving to the western edge, we will start seeing some gentle swells.
"Even though it would seem a fairly insignificant change, you get really significant shifts in bird populations," he says. "Certain birds start picking up just when you get to the edge of the prairie. One of particular interest is the eastern race of Bewick's wren, which is a bird whose population has really collapsed in the east. They winter here."
When travelers rode through the Katy Prairie in the 19th century, they reported that it was puddled with water for miles. That characteristic is the result of the prairie's clay soils. When clay is wet it expands and holds water, creating what's called a "perched" water table. The special characteristics of the soil have made it attractive to rice farmers, whose agricultural practices have in turn helped attract waterfowl. To environmentalists, the Katy Prairie is still a significant wetland. Developers, fearful of federal regulation of wetlands, tend to downplay the special wetland characteristics of the prairie.
As the day progresses, Eubanks picks out birds in the air almost effortlessly. He can do so because he has scoured the area for years, and he knows which birds ought to be in which place. He relies chiefly on what birders call "giss," an acronym for "general impression, shape and size."
"When you have been watching birds for all your life," he says, "you just know them. There are just certain aspects that are virtually impossible to describe in how that bird is put together, the proportions. You just know."
But why watch birds? What is their importance in the scheme of things?
"Birds are great indicators of the health of the ecosystem," Eubanks says, "because they are easy to observe, they are easy to count, they are easy to monitor -- as opposed to, say, some salamander, which takes tremendous effort and time simply to find. So [birds] are a wonderful tool in that regard. But I think even more so, birds provide a sort of window into nature and allow us to see how certain systems work because they are so visible and easy to study. And that's certainly what I found interesting originally."
Eubanks grew up in a family of birders in Spring Branch, near Bingle and Old Katy Road. He felt a certain ambivalence in being a birdwatcher because it was his parents' activity, and it wasn't cool to be a birdwatcher in the late '60s in high school. In college his interest soared.
"I became really interested in some of the environmental issues and saw very quickly how they tied in with what my hobby had been," he says. "Then when the brown pelican population collapsed on the Texas coast because of DDT, I understood it from both ends. I understood it because I saw the pelican leave, and secondarily I understood how DDT residues were affecting that bird. I think that's probably how it all hooked together finally."
We are driving on the western edge of the prairie, talking about these matters and spotting birds -- a red-tailed hawk, the small kestrel with its distinctly round head. On the count, Eubanks says, he is not so much enjoying the esthetic beauty of birds as he is playing the game of birding. The object is to identify and count as many birds as possible in a single day. In the cloudy morning light, a large flight of geese approaches from the east.
"This is the time they really start getting up and moving out of their night-time roost," says Eubanks. "The geese are going out to feed, and this is the time the hunters hope to decoy them down."
He slows the pickup a few miles north of the airport site on the west side of the prairie, then eases up to a whiteness moving in a plowed field. It is geese, thousands of them feeding and calling in a vivid ceaseless cacophony, a complicated, astounding clutter of sound. Most of them are white -- snow geese that come from northern Canada near James Bay. They have spent the summer breeding in the Arctic tundra. In the long Arctic light they can graze for 20 hours a day, fattening for the long flight here. The Cree Indians who live near James Bay rejoice upon their return in the spring. The geese have been making this migration for perhaps as long as 10,000 years.
Most of the geese are bent over, feeding in the plowed field. Sometimes their necks and breasts are black from the mud.
"They're going to get in there and grub it," Eubanks says. "They'll grub out roots and stems and seeds. It is thought that one of the things that geese did historically was come into areas after buffalo had trampled everything down. Or they would come into areas that had been burned over through wildfire."
Some of the geese are dark.
"See the white behind their bill in front of their head? That's why they're called "white-fronted." Most hunters call them "speckle bellies" because they have speckling on their underside."
More birds are flying overhead and calling to the birds below, asking if it is safe to come down. Looking through the binoculars, Eubanks notes that Ross's geese are also present.
"They are almost identical to a snow, but they're smaller and have a different head shape and different bill. It's now considered a separate species. We're getting increasing numbers of Ross from Queen Maud Bay, northwest of Hudson Bay. That's well north of the Arctic Circle. Just about 100 percent of the Ross's geese nest there, and that's also where a lot of our greater white-fronts nest. I saw a group of birds the other day that had been neck-banded. They had all been banded at Queen Maud."
Because we are on a count, we do not watch the birds as long as I would like. We drive slowly past the grazing flock, for a quarter of a mile. Eubanks estimates the flock at 20,000 birds.
We stop and look at warblers in a windbreak of pine and yaupon, plants that never appeared in the native prairie. Big flights of geese pass overhead. Hawks abound. Like the geese, they migrate from the north. They feed on cotton rats and other small rodents that populate the prairie.
"There are seven different forms and races of redtail, and we get them all out here," says Eubanks. "We frequently get the highest red-tailed hawk count in the nation."
At a pond with an island that someone has created next to a country house, we observe a rarity: a young vermilion flycatcher, a brilliant red-orange bird that darts and flutters in the air, catching insects on the wing. As he matures, his color will deepen into brilliant vermilion. Unlike most of the birds, he has come from the south and breeds no further north than Corpus Christi. We also see a Couch's kingbird, a tropical bird with a bright-yellow belly, a rare visitor from south Texas that the other birders will want to see. We spot a second vermilion flycatcher, a male and female kingfisher. A long-billed curlew flies overhead.
We stop by a thicket to look for sparrows, for which Eubanks seems to have a particular affection. He gets out of the truck and makes a series of calls that he will repeat all day long, sometimes just leaning out the window of his truck.
First he makes an almost musical trilling whistle, the call of the screech owl, a predator of small birds. Then he follows with a powerful pish, pish pish, the rioting sound of small birds who have found the owl. Then a loud squealing, smacking sound by kissing the back of his hand. The noise of this riot attracts small birds and holds them there. Some birders use a portable tape recorder with an owl call on it. Eubanks has one of those, but most of the day he does the vocalizing himself.
After a couple of minutes of calling, sparrows come out, flashing brown-and-white blurs to me, but each one identifiable to Eubanks by its subtle tics and movements. The white-crowned sparrow is particularly notable, and when he sits still listening to Eubanks's bird riot, I can see his distinctive head, dramatically striped with black and white.
"Most of these birds, which represent the vast majority of the species out here, are not apparent like the waterfowl," he says. "So you'll come out here to the Katy Prairie and say, "Gosh, this the greatest place in the world for geese," and it is, and then you have all these other little brown jobbers, hiding in the weeds and the grass."
Sparrows like grasslands, and agriculture and development have just about wiped some of them out. He points out some bluestem and switchgrass growing beside a fence, where the plow can't reach.
"Can you imagine what this prairie was like?" he says. "It was incredible. It hit you -- what? -- mid-thigh on horseback. If you could get a feel for what it was like, to have the grass five feet high and not five inches high, and little pockets of oak motte and this relatively narrow but dense riparian woodland along the streams and rivers.
"What I would argue is that it's not a question of saving the Katy Prairie. The Katy Prairie is already destroyed. You are going to try to restore part of the Katy Prairie, and it's going to take money and plans and people and all sorts of resources. How are we going to do that?"
The West Side airport galvanizes environmentalists
Of all the moves made against the Katy Prairie, none has violated common sense as much as the decision by the city of Houston to buy 1,432 acres for a general-aviation airport without first evaluating the environmental impact. That decision put the city in the position of hiring consultants who had to come up with the desired results.
The city hired ecologist and ornithologist Robert McFarlane as part of a consulting team to study the danger of bird strikes to the privately owned planes that would be landing there. McFarlane recalls walking with a city aviation planner in November 1986 at the end of the proposed landing strip of the West Side airport.
"And he said, "I see there are no geese," and I said, "Stop. Listen. Do you hear that murmur above the wind? That's geese. I don't know where they are, and I don't know how many there are, but there are geese somewhere right near." Within ten minutes a shotgun went off, and ten thousand geese took off right at the end of the runway."
So began a rancorous relationship for McFarlane with the city. After counting more than 2,000 wintering geese an hour at the site, McFarlane plugged the numbers into a mathematical model provided by the FAA, and the results went completely off the scale. The model predicted that every aircraft operation would hit five birds. McFarlane improved the numbers by a factor of 50, but the results were still not satisfactory to the city. The city's other consultants took McFarlane's numbers and "corrected" them to lower the number of strikes to an acceptable level. And McFarlane has been fuming ever since. When Bob Lanier was elected mayor two years ago, McFarlane wrote him a letter detailing this history. He warned that building an airport on the Katy Prairie site represented a liability lawyer's dream.
The FAA's bird specialist wrote that the geese could be managed. Ensuing development around the airport would also keep them away. A driver would be assigned to patrol the perimeter of the airport with a shotgun device to scare them. The land would be drained of standing water. So the final intention of the city was made abundantly clear: it intends to drive the geese away, even though they clearly prefer the land in the airport site. And although there are plenty of other sites in which to situate an airport -- providing an airport could be economically justified -- the city had already paid $5.7 million, nearly $4,000 an acre for land that typically sells for $700 to $1,000.
Other acts of haughtiness burned the environmentalists. In 1986 the Aviation Committee of the Houston Galveston Area Council prepared a report saying that a West Side airport was not economically justified. Without HGAC's approval, no federal funds could be spent on the airport. Then-councilmember Anthony Hall rewrote the report and tossed out the professional findings. HGAC's transportation manager was fired, and several HGAC employees resigned in protest.
Even more frustrating was the refusal of the Army Corps of Engineers to identify the airport site as wetlands subject to federal regulation, although it was clearly wet. In 1990 the corps called the site "prior converted cropland" and gave it an exemption intended for farmers, not developers. Environmentalists began taking pictures of the site during the summer, showing that the site held water for days. The corps' decision was seen as another instance in which it avoided its responsibilities to regulate. But why should the corps make trouble for itself? The political and economic leaders of the city had expressed their intention, regardless of what common sense or technical data showed them.
The ultimate insult to the prairie came with the city's mitigation numbers for the wetlands. The National Environmental Protection Act provides that any disturbance of significant wetlands requires "mitigation": the creation of other wetlands in compensation for those that have been destroyed, or made useless for waterfowl by aircraft overflights. The draft report sent to the FAA says that 3,760 acres would offset the disturbance to the prairie. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has calculated that the report is off by a factor of ten Ñ that 41,887 acres should be mitigated if the airport is built.
Furthermore, says David Hankla, the local field supervisor for ecological services, his agency will review the final environmental impact statement.
The city and the FAA will need a permit to fill in the wetlands at the airport site, and Hankla's agency will review the permit under the Clean Water Act. The plan will also be scrutinized under the "water dependency" guidelines, Hankla explains.
"A marina is water-dependent," he says. "Airports are not water-dependent. So the presumption is that there is a better place to put it. They are going to have to demonstrate that there is not another place to put it, and they are going to have a hard time doing that.
"And besides," Hankla adds, "we did advise them not to buy it."
Given the magnitude of this folly, some opponents of the airport are convinced that a gigantic economic conspiracy is at work. Because land in Texas can be held in blind trust, it wasn't even clear who owned the land that the city bought, or who owned the land around it.
Ted Eubanks was president of the Houston Audubon Society during the late '80s, when this black comedy unfolded.
"I don't believe in any great conspiracy theory," he says. "I don't believe in conspiracy theories in general. This mess that you see with the West Side airport is really due to incompetence. That's what I found scary. If this was being done on purpose and someone was plotting out some devious plan, I would say they are doing a pretty poor job. But it's really inept planning, and inept projections.
"In this case you have people who thought they were doing well for the community and allowed themselves to get into a position where they could not step back and say, "Maybe these guys are right. Let's kick this thing around and see if we have the right plan here." They couldn't do that. They'd already spent the money.... And that doesn't mean they are anti-environmental. To say they were anti-environmental would be to give them more credit than they are due. They were completely oblivious to the fact that there might be something to be concerned about."
But the fight did have one good effect, says Eubanks. It became the defining moment for the environmental movement in Houston.
"Everybody knows where the lines have been drawn. The West Side airport is a metaphor for something larger. At one level it represents the Katy Prairie and the ecological system that once existed on the west side of Houston. But I think [that] on an even more significant level it represents a battle over the direction the community is going to take over environmental and quality-of-life issues. It's a time when the environmental community said, "We are not going to put up with business as usual.'"
A lawsuit on behalf of birds
In December, environmental attorney James Blackburn filed suit in the U.S. District Court against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Galveston District, the United States Soil Conservation Service, the Federal Highway Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration. The goal of the suit is to compel the federal government to prepare a comprehensive environmental statement that would encompass all federal action with regard to the Katy Prairie.
The suit is aimed to force the agencies to address three major problems. The FAA would be required to rethink the environmental impact of the West Side airport. The Federal Highway Administration would be compelled to consider the environmental impact of the western section of the Grand Parkway that, if built, would almost cut the Katy Prairie in half. The Soil Conservation Service and the corps would have to explain how they designate wetlands, which in theory are protected by federal law, but in fact are diminishing rapidly in the Katy Prairie. Blackburn contends that the prairie is being nibbled to death in small increments by developers using a section of the regulations that exempts agricultural land, as well as wetlands of less than one acre, from wetlands regulation.
"The thing that bothers me most about the Katy Prairie," says Blackburn, "is that Houston is not landlocked. If the Katy Prairie were the last remaining economic development hope for the city of Houston, that would be a situation that is totally different from what we've got today. Houston can expand to the north, it can expand to the northeast, it can expand to the southwest, it can expand to the south. We have tremendous areas to expand to, not to mention to fill in what we've skipped over. And yet we are continuing to expand into this fragile and important habitat. That's what bothers me. We have a choice, and we are choosing to destroy this habitat. What I would hope to do with this lawsuit is to compile the information to make the implications of the choice clear."
Blackburn sued on behalf of the Sierra Club and the Houston Audubon Society, whose members enjoy the use of the prairie. But if it were permitted by law, Blackburn would have sued on behalf of the 3 million birds, including 400,000 waterfowl, that use the Katy Prairie.
James Blackburn's career in environmental law began at the University of Texas law school in the '60s, when he wrote a paper for an international-law course. He proposed that the oceans be made into a nation so they could sue for pollution. The professor, a former lawyer for Humble Oil, thought that was the single worst idea he had ever heard, Blackburn recalls, and gave it the lowest grade in the class. So Blackburn entered it in a national environmental essay contest conducted by the American Trial Lawyers Association and won first prize.
After law school he was awarded an Environmental Protection Agency fellowship to study environmental science at Rice University. Rather than practice law he worked full-time as a consultant for the environmental planning of the Woodlands, George Mitchell's development to the north of Houston.
Blackburn doesn't like the trend he sees in environmental consulting.
"The market is in helping people avoid regulation. The market is in helping minimize the financial impact of regulation, and there are very few people who will actually hire someone to try to find the right way to do something."
Over the years Blackburn pieced together a career as a teacher, planner and lawyer. He is a lecturer in environmental planning for the Rice school of architecture. For 13 years he taught environmental regulations to the professional staff of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers all over the nation.
"That's one reason I know so much about the corps regulations and the corps practices."
He has fought many projects that would have damaged Galveston Bay, including the Wallisville dam, the Texas Copper smelter and a warm-water discharge by Houston Light & Power.
Most of his big cases are pro bono work, and while he is proud of his litigation, he doesn't see it as the most important thing he does.
He considers the formation of the Galveston Bay Foundation the most important accomplishment of his career. Having fought various battles around the bay, he realized that people were not talking to each other about the fate of the bay. The recreational fishermen were fighting the commercial fishermen, the homeowners were fighting the dischargers.
"So we made an important decision, and that was this: industry is part of the community, and it would be absolutely foolish to put together a program to save Galveston Bay without including industry."
The foundation's executive committee includes the Greater Houston Partnership, plant managers from Ship Channel industry and shipping representatives. He would like to see something similar happen for the Katy Prairie. But he believes that litigation is a way of exerting leverage.
"We have seen industry and environmentalists have a partnership on the bay, rather than animosity," he says. "I think of the foundation as a model for how we're going to move into the 21st century. Because it's not going to be all or nothing. It's going to be some sharing of resources, and the sooner we learn to sit around a table and talk to each other, the better off we're going to be."
The stewardship of hunting
One of the first people who should be included in any round-table discussion of the Katy Prairie is goose- and duck-hunting outfitter Larry Gore. Only 33 now, he began his Eagle Lake and Katy Prairie Outfitters as a high school agriculture project in 1977. He leases 40,000 acres of land for hunting, including 20,000 acres in the Katy Prairie. This season he has leased a couple of prime fields adjoining the site of the West Side airport. He employs six people full-time, plus a guide crew of 30 during hunting season.
In his office, in a strip shopping center in Katy, hangs a map of the United States from the Winchester Company with every county platted and colored according to its suitability for hunting geese. The best counties are colored red, and there are only a few: one in California, one in South Dakota, one in Missouri, one in Illinois, four in Maryland, one in Delaware, three in Louisiana and five in Texas, with the Katy Prairie right in the middle.
People come from all over the world to hunt in the Katy Prairie, Gore says -- from New York, from Great Britain, from South America. Hunting probably adds several million dollars a year to the prairie's economy. That's not a lot, compared with the predicted impact of an airport and the spread of Houston's housing and shopping developments.
"I'm watching this prairie get chopped up slowly but surely," he says. "I think we've got a lot of time left, but it's to the point that we can't afford much more. Every time we lose a little more, it's a big detriment."
Losing 1,400 acres to the airport was not the biggest problem, he says, but the induced development predicted to follow would drive a knife through the heart of the prairie. Gore feels caught between the farmers and landowners and the environmentalists.
"On one side, if I'm outspoken, the farmers think I'm siding with the tree-huggers. Others think the only reason I defend the prairie is my business. So I get it from both sides."
The geese and ducks are using their habitat to the fullest, says Gore. "We don't need less. If we have less, we're not going to carry as much wildlife. We have 2 million geese in the central flyway, but Fish and Wildlife says the habitat can only handle a million and a half. My idea is that we need to improve the habitat so we can handle that 2 million. That's proper stewardship of the land."
In effect, Gore has become the principal active land manager on the prairie, more so than any government agency. He has had 17 years to perfect his techniques for attracting and holding the wintering birds.
Most of the big areas of standing water on the Katy Prairie have been created as part of Gore's management program to provide habitat for the geese and ducks. He disks the fields to knock down grass so that it's green during the winter. He puts water on as many areas as he can. He creates other areas to trap rainwater. He makes sure the drains are closed on certain rice fields to trap more water.
"You make sure you have refuges on your property that are never hunted. The last thing is, you manage your hunting pressure. You don't let it get overhunted. We try not to overhunt any area. We have no afternoon hunting. We rest certain areas.
"Some people say it's self-serving. I've heard people say we only improve the habitat so we have more to shoot. Sure we want plenty of wildlife, but we shoot a small percentage of the species.
Gore's appreciation for the land goes beyond the economic. "To me, when you go out there -- and this might sound funny -- and you look at all that you see out there, and you can see God's creation, to me that is very deep. It makes me feel closer to my maker." Corporate west
Houston offers a "balanced solution"
The leading promoter of development in the Katy Prairie is the West Houston Association, a group of developers, consultants, landowners and corporations concerned with promoting the "quality" growth of the west side of Houston. Membership includes Friendswood Development, the Mischer Corporation, Shell and Conoco. The University of Houston is represented on the board. Metro head Billy Burge is also a member. The chairman is Jim Jard, a politically connected lawyer. The association has been an avid promoter of the West Side airport. Its committees have urged the creation of parks, sign control, scenic districts, hike-and-bike trails and other suburban amenities. By implication it is fighting the bottom-feeders of the development community, the five-acre subdivisions and trailer parks.
In the association's 1989 report on its first ten years of activity, no mention is made of the preservation of wetlands for wildlife. The association resolutely opposed an Army Corps of Engineers proposal to regulate the filling of wetlands of less than an acre. But last October the association issued a resolution calling for "balanced solutions for development as determined by local business, agricultural and environmental interests." The resolution proposes the preservation of "existing high-quality contiguous wetlands and habitat" and "the creation of improved wetlands through a coordinate program of mitigation banks." No mention is made of waterfowl, but the implication is clear that the developers are willing to recognize the importance of the region for wildlife and that they will work to create a refuge.
Richard Rice, a senior vice president for Parkways Investments, is heading a committee to study the creation of a wildlife refuge. He is planning a symposium on the subject for the end of April with Texas Parks and Wildlife, Ducks Unlimited and the Katy Land Conservancy, an organization created to buy prairie land for the preservation of wildlife.
The halls of his company's corridors are lined with fishing and hunting art, and on the wall behind his desk is a trophy mount of a big sailfish caught, he says, 20 miles off the coast of Freeport. He invokes a vision of manifest destiny for the Katy Prairie.
"There's just no doubt about it," Rice says. "Houston's going to move west, and very little is going to stop it. It may slow down, but it's gonna move west. I've lived here all my life, and I've seen it. And we're going to eat up that land. So I think we need to preserve some of it, so that some of our children's children will have an opportunity to see what it was like to sit out there and watch the geese."
Couldn't Houston fill in other areas before moving into this one?
"But that's not the philosophy of Houston," says Rice. "I guess if you could put constraints on it you could stop it. But I think you could say the same thing about other parts outlying the city as you could of the Katy Prairie. It's no more special than the east side of town or the north side of town in a lot of respects. It's just trees and forest on the north side. There are all kinds of animals and habitat there. As you go further south towards Galveston you've got the marsh areas that have an impact on the ecosystem of the bay. It's all a balancing act. I don't think you can say the Katy Prairie is the most precious part of the Greater Houston metropolitan area. It's not. And that's a personal opinion of mine. There are some very important things out there that need to be preserved."
As for the association's opposition to requiring a federal permit to fill under an acre, he terms it a "hardship on people that weren't really in the business of development." Small landowners confused by the permitting system, he says, would have to hire expensive environmental consultants in order to fill their land.
The hardship on the small landowners is frequently invoked by large development interests. Blackburn believes that the large developers are using the one-acre exemption to gradually eliminate wetlands. By breaking development tracts into smaller parcels with less than an acre of wetlands to fill, they can avoid the permitting system.
Rice downplays the importance of the issue.
"It doesn't do much good to protect under an acre of wetland," he says. "Especially out there. Most of those wetlands are not of real quality."
Pressed for specific details about the refuge, he can say only that he will know a lot more in six months. He has talked once to Eubanks, who serves on the governor's task force on eco-tourism.
"You may have another market situation out there," he says. "I think a lot of people would actually pay to go out there. I mean it's no different from going to a state park or Big Bend. You could have the same type of viewing area that you have in other parts of the state. It's like going down to Brazos Bend and watching alligators.
"I promise you, it's not going to happen overnight. There's a whole lot of education for people like myself, the advocates of the Katy Land Conservancy, the Blackburns, all those kind of folks. There's probably some education going to happen on their side too. It's a matter of working together. I think we've made that initial sign."
If Rice looks around, he may get more help for a refuge than he anticipated. Since 1990 U.S. Representative Bill Archer, who represents part of the Katy Prairie, has urged U.S. Fish and Wildlife to create a wildlife refuge, with the Warren Ranch to be considered a core piece of property. The concept has been supported by several City Council members, Senator Phil Gramm, ex-senator Lloyd Bentsen and Governor Ann Richards. A representative from Archer's office said the congressman is working on a draft of a bill with the other congressional members whose districts are involved, and hopes to introduce it in the next session.
A refuge in the Katy Prairie should involve anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 acres if it is to have any real impact. (Of the 200,000 acres in the prairie, approximately 50,000 have already been developed.) Not all of the refuge would have to be contiguous, but a core area such as the Warren Ranch or the Josey Ranch would be needed. Perhaps the city of Houston will eventually give up and throw in the airport site. Other areas could be arranged by paying conservation easements to farmers, who would work with wildlife managers to keep the land hospitable to its winter visitors. If developers did take out some wetlands, they would add to the refuge through mitigation banks. The refuge would have to be managed, and some of it would be converted back into grasslands through plowing, mowing and controlled burning, as has been done with grasslands at Armand Bayou Nature Center. The expertise is already available.
By the end of the Christmas count, the birdwatchers had counted 127 species and 700,000 individual birds. I had seen dozens of different kinds of shorebirds. I had watched a Cooper's hawk chasing a small bird through the trees, and I had seen a huge roost of black-crowned night herons at a farmer's pond. I had even seen at a great distance a bald eagle, which Eubanks identified through his spotting telescope. (As many as 28 of these endangered birds have been seen on the prairie.) I had seen hundreds of ducks. I had watched tens of thousands of geese. I had even learned to appreciate Eubanks's "little brown jobbers."
When Larry Gore talks of the prairie, he talks as a gardener or a farmer would, of his responsibility to take care of the land. He invokes the Proverbs, that a husbandman should take good care of his animals. In his classes Blackburn is lecturing about the need for an environmental ethic. Many Christian churches are promoting new creeds of environmental concern.
Considering the Arctic, source of many of the Katy Prairie's winter visitors, naturalist Barry Lopez wrote something that everyone concerned with the prairie might bear in mind:
"Whatever evaluation we finally make of a stretch of land ... no matter how profound or accurate, we will find it inadequate. The land retains an identity of its own, still deeper and more subtle than we can know. Our obligation toward it then becomes simple: to approach with an uncalculating mind, with an attitude of regard. To try to sense the range and variety of its expression -- its weather and colors and animals. To intend from the beginning to preserve some of the mystery within it as a kind of wisdom to be experienced, not questioned. And to be alert for its openings, for that moment when something sacred reveals itself within the mundane, and you know the land knows you are there."
When I think of the Katy Prairie, I am reminded of a chestnut of an oration that used to be given in high school speech contests, called "Acres of Diamonds." You know the one. About a man who searched all over the world for treasure, only to come home and find acres of diamonds in his back yard.
The Katy Prairie is in our back yard and it is special. In this complex, flat, wet garden, 3 million wild birds enact our version of the great migrations of the Serengeti plain. We should save it not just for the animals themselves, though that is reason enough. We should save it to save something sacred in ourselves.
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