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February 2009 cover image of Davis Mountains State Park

Houston’s Prairie Patch

Volunteers and nonprofit groups work to save the last bits of the Katy Prairie.

By Karen Hastings

If you stood just so last fall on what people were calling the Saums Road Prairie, you could imagine west Harris County the way early settlers found it: gentle mounds of waving bluestem, topped by spiky purple flowers and pink poufs of Gulf Coast muhly, rolling off as far as the eye can see. Dainty white bee blossom, swamp sunflower and prickly rattlesnake master, on closer inspection, rivaling any spring wildflower garden. Iridescent orange dragonflies darting about, while overhead, a Swainson’s hawk patrols its territory. Oaks and fast-growing pines frame the scene and sustain an away-from-it-all tranquility.

It is all, however, a bittersweet illusion.

First you notice the spade-sized pockmarks that make strolling an ankle-turning adventure. Off to the south, at the end of faint tire tracks, there are larger muddy scars against the green. Behind you, sounds of traffic intrude, as the convenience store at the corner of Saums and Greenhouse floats commuters off on a sea of gasoline and hot coffee. Just out of sight behind those trees are suburban homes, apartment blocks and the I-10 freeway into downtown Houston.

This is, by expert account, one of the finest patches of pristine prairie left in West Harris County, part of the greater Katy Prairie that once rippled across a thousand square miles between the Brazos River and Houston. More than the sum of its parts, Saums Road is a rare whole package: a mature bit of what once was the region’s characteristic landscape, now part of a suburban development hotspot. Over the next few months, as Greenhouse Road is extended to the interstate, this remnant patch is scheduled to be bulldozed, and the prairie-that-time-forgot will catch up with the booming subdivisions all around.

Last summer and fall, the Katy Prairie Conservancy, along with other environmental groups and governmental agencies, raced to save what they could of the Saums Road Prairie. Alongside tree-spades and sod-digging equipment, platoons of eager volunteers gathered before daylight on several weekends, armed with narrow shovels, rubber boots and bug spray. By the bucketful, they hauled off clumps of gay feather, milkweed and other prairie species, for replanting at pocket prairies and larger restoration efforts across the region.

These days, the Saums Road rescue says a lot about the dwindling Katy Prairie, and the need to rally support for what’s left: less than 2 percent of the original prairie remains. Populations of species like meadowlark and bobwhite quail are in serious decline, and the migratory snow geese and other waterfowl that once feasted on the region’s rice fields are also losing ground. More than a quaint relic of bygone days, the Katy Prairie is an essential ecosystem upon which hundreds of bird, mammal, insect and plant species depend.

But while Saums Road represents loss, friends of the Katy Prairie saw its opportunities as well — including the chance to educate the public about the conservancy and what its new community education manager calls “Houston’s hidden hurting habitat.”

“We can’t afford to lose any more patches like Saums,” says Community Education Director Jaime Gonzalez, who sees the rescue as a possible turning point in public awareness about the Katy Prairie. “What we’ve done is save the genetic imprint of that prairie remnant. That prairie is going to survive in small chunks all around Houston. This is a little ark that is going to help us reconstruct what was there.”

Created in 1992, the Katy Prairie Conservancy owns or protects nearly 18,000 acres west of Houston, on what once was a vast expanse of coastal tallgrass prairie. The conservancy’s holdings, alongside other protected lands, now include a patchwork of prairie, woodlands, wetlands and working farms and ranches that together represent the region’s environmental, agricultural and wildlife history. The group’s goal is to eventually protect — and when possible, restore — 50,000 acres where hundreds of thousands of wintering geese, ducks, hawks and other birds — from bald eagles and barn owls to diminutive sandpipers — can find refuge.

The 1990s were a time of quiet growth for the conservancy, with large acquisitions topped by its 2004 “crown jewel,” a controlling interest in the 6,400-acre Warren Ranch south of Hockley. The new millennium has brought increased development pressure, however, as the area’s historic rice farms and cattle ranches fall, one by one, under a tide of rooftops rippling out from Houston. Just east of the KPC’s largest holdings, the 12,000-acre Bridgeland development plans 17,000 homes on what were the Josey and Longenbaugh ranches. The Grand Parkway, SH 99, part of a proposed fourth loop around Houston, is set to be extended north of I-10 through some of the same real estate. Acres previously selling for under $1,000 now fetch 20 times that amount. There was even talk at one time that the route of a new Interstate 69, the Trans-Texas Corridor, would plow right through the Warren Ranch.

With a new sense of urgency, the Katy Prairie Conservancy is using “every tool in its toolbox” to protect land, says executive director Mary Anne Piacentini. A new conservation buyer program, for example, allows willing buyers to purchase land — a deer lease, for example — under easement agreements with the conservancy that ensures it will be managed and permanently protected against development.

“Species that use the Katy Prairie need big swaths of habitat that are contiguous,” says KPC board president Mary Van Kerrebrook. “They don’t care whether the land is owned outright by the conservancy or protected by a conservation easement.”

The conservancy also has begun focusing on another important area: introducing the public to the subtle and sometimes exuberant beauty of prairie life. Last summer, for the first time, the conservancy launched weekly Open Trails days, giving visitors a chance to roam at will on selected properties — accompanied by a podcast of prairie information and lore. At last October’s “Family Day on the Prairie” event, kids planted seedlings for prairie restoration, scooped up indigenous creepy-crawlies with butterfly nets, and took a hayride around a working farm.

The hope is these visitors will leave with a new appreciation for prairie life, and a willingness to help preserve it.

“The Katy Prairie is kind of a big secret. Nobody really knows about it,” says Piacentini, who believes such events are somewhat overdue. “Even if you don’t know a darn thing about the birds and bugs, you might just want to get outside once in a while. If people get out there, every single one is going to find something they’ll like.”

When environmental groups noticed the “for sale” sign on the 90-acre Saums Road tract in 2008, it was already too late to save it “as it is — where it is.” The land was destined to become an extension of Greenhouse Road, a drainage detention pond and, eventually, more suburban housing and retail. Groups like the Houston Audubon Society and the KPC rallied governmental representatives and secured landowner permission to salvage some of the plant materials before they were destroyed.

The situation became a public education bonus, as the story made the local papers and volunteers were invited to join in the “rescue” — shovel by shovel and bucket by bucket.

Volunteer Sheryl Marquez, in wide straw hat and rubber boots, was out during one of those rescue weekends last summer. “It’s just gorgeous. Look at it,” she said, gesturing across the ephemeral Saums Road landscape. “There’s a sense of satisfaction in helping the people at the Katy Prairie Conservancy save a little bit of what was originally here before all the concrete.”

Dirt-stained commercial loan underwriter Iris Poteet had a theory about what people would get from helping save the Katy Prairie. “I’m in an office all week at a computer, doing all this brain work. So I love coming out and getting my hands dirty … watching things grow. Helping them along.”

Wrestling a root ball of bluestem from the rock-hard ground, environmental consultant Steve Ramsey offered another reason. “I think it’s the spiritual connection that people have when they come out in nature,” he said. “You can read about the creation, or get out in it.”

Some of the rescued plants will be distributed to pocket and larger prairies springing up around the Houston area — in Brays Bayou, Armand Bayou Nature Park in Pasadena, Missouri City’s Buffalo Run Park, and at the Fort Bend County Extension Office in Rosenberg.

The Katy Prairie Conservancy had ambitious plans for its rescued bounty: The prairie clumps were used to jump-start a demonstration garden at the field office in Waller County. Plans are to showcase 13 of the prairie’s signature plants — like yellow Indiangrass and white prairie clover. They also have started a seed bank for future restoration work.

“Unless people have gone out to a place like this, they really haven’t seen it,” Gonzalez says about popular prairie misconceptions. “Sometimes it’s just glorious — as beautiful as any landscape you can imagine. We need to put more effort into restoration, into saving areas so they can become prairies again. We need to show people that all prairie beauty is not subtle.”

A local businessman gave the project an added boost with a good deal on prairie sod: Crews were out last fall, scraping up 3-foot-wide, 8-inch-deep strips and loading them on a flat-bed truck. KPC also engaged the services of a giant tree-spade, moving about two dozen four-foot plugs to its Nelson Farms property on Cypress Creek.

Harris County Precinct 3 workers had their own tree-spade going, transplanting hundreds of prairie plugs from Saums Road to the Paul D. Rushing Park north of Katy. Still more sod went to a 100-acre prairie restoration plot on Katy-Hockley Road, created by the Harris County Flood Control District.

 As sod-cutting crews got to work last August, Gonzalez was on hand to record the event, and to point out a few classic prairie species in plots defined by orange plastic tags.

“Rattlesnake master, that’s one,” he says, singling out a plant with distinctive prickly flower heads. He demonstrates the fibers of sticky sap that give spiderwort its name and offers a section of fragrant goldenrod, with its licorice perfume.

“And this is very, very rare,” adds Gonzalez, his hands framing leafy shoots of eastern gama grass. “From several centuries of cattle ranching, they’ve pretty much eaten most stands of it. So whenever we see it, we go for that.”

By the next month, some of that rescued material was thriving in a field at 1,700-acre Nelson Farms, the conservancy’s very first acquisition in 1997, purchased from a longtime rice farmer who still works the land under lease. Wetlands, grasslands, beaver ponds and a patch known as Barn Owl Woods make up this property, along with all the typical equipment and outbuildings of a working ag operation.

On a cool, sunny morning in October, second-graders Nikita Munsif and Madison Morton were on their knees beside a big blue bucket, squishing seeds, compost and clay into ping-pong-sized balls. It was “Family Day” on the Katy Prairie, and KPC volunteers had assembled a small carnival of booths, designed to introduce visitors to the importance of the prairie habitat.

Volunteer Grace Liggett helped the children pour water into the bucket and mix it with their bare hands. Later, the seed balls — including some from Saums Road Prairie — would be tossed into a prepared field, to germinate with the rain. “The clay protects the seeds,” she explained to her young audience. “There’s a much better chance they’re going to grow and make our prairie pretty.”

“A little bit of clay in your hands and rolly, rolly, rolly,” sang Nikita, just happy to be outside. “We love playing in the mud.”

Van Kerrebrook, the KPC board chairman, has been devoted to the prairie since joining the fight to stop a westside Harris County airport in the 1980s. She was part of the initial group that organized the Katy Prairie Conservancy in the early 1990s — the first local land trust in the Houston area.

“The conservancy is maturing and we want to do more to deepen our ties to the local community, to engage more Houstonians in the wonderful experience of being out on the prairie,” says Van Kerrebrook. “We know that if people will come out and look at places like the Warren Ranch and Nelson Farms, and get engaged in our agricultural and natural heritage, and see the wealth of wildlife out there, then we will succeed in saving a sustainable part of the prairie within the narrow window of opportunity that remains.”

So far, says Van Kerrebrook, throwing out the welcome mat has been successful.

“It’s just a delight to see the faces of children out on the prairie for the first time and adults too. We have this incredible treasure in our backyards and when people experience it, they tend to fall in love with it. It’s great to think that someday, if we’re careful and the local community engages now, that we’ll have this ecological treasure to pass down to future generations.”

In his cluttered office on the Warren Ranch, James Warren is living the story of the Katy Prairie. His great-grandfather came to this country as an English immigrant in 1853, started a boarding house when the railroad reached Hockley in 1857, and later bought land.

A big man with a big mustache, Warren’s grandfather raised cattle on that land, as did his father. His uncle, Bill Warren, helped found the American Quarterhorse Association.

In his time, James Warren also became ranch manager, determined to hold the ranch together even as other working ranches were disappearing from the Katy Prairie. “I’ve been hearing it since I was a child,” he says. “Houston is coming.”

In 2004, against years of development pressure and other opposition, Warren supported the Katy Prairie Conservancy in what would become a strategic acquisition: A 70 percent interest in the fields, pastures, woodlands, creeks and lakes that make up this ­historic property. The conservancy now owns about 700 acres outright and holds a mortgage on the rest.

“I’m trying to preserve this ranch. This is where my roots are,” says Warren, who continues to manage the property as his family has for more than 100 years. Bouncing across the landscape in his dented Chevy truck, Warren points out the strips of wild vegetation he leaves for the benefit of quail and other wildlife, and the pine-covered hilltop from which rooftops are just visible to the north.

“There are places you can go on this ranch where you don’t see a house or hear any road noise. There are still places to get away from all that. I’m talking about 100 years of history here. I’m trying to save that.”

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