Against the odds, group saves land once slated for development
It’s a pink, gray dawn on Galveston’s West End near Settegast Road, just south of Galveston Bay.
In a marsh pool near the road, a pair of sleek, black cormorants are diving, splashing and feeding enthusiastically.
Nearby, a snowy, white mama egret with three little ones keeps a close eye on the rollicking birds, gliding into the tall grass with her tiny flock in tow. Circling overhead, a hefty brown pelican with a broad wingspan watches the fishing action.
Except for a view of distant houses in Spanish Grant, the new Coastal Heritage Preserve is a serene pocket of wilderness, an undeveloped, unadorned piece of coastal prairie that is home to a lively ecosystem.
“The Texas Gulf Coast has a subtle topography, and this preserve is one of the last places you can see habitat diversity up close,” said Karla Klay, founder and executive director of Artist Boat, the small, local nonprofit that purchased the land.
“Just a few inches can change the habitat and vegetation from salt marsh to mud flats to coastal prairie, which makes it an ideal home for small mammals, birds, predators, coyotes denning, marsh rabbits, bats eating insects, great horned owls and diverse invertebrates,” Klay said.
Its preservation is nothing short of a miracle.
The 550-acre tract, with its $25 million price tag, was platted to be a residential development with 800 lots, Klay said.
Hurricane Ike, which struck in 2008, intervened, crushing immediate plans for development, and ultimately, with the help of state, federal and foundation grants, made it possible for the nonprofit to buy the land at a discount.
“People do not realize how quickly wilderness areas are disappearing on Galveston Island, and there is no organized community fund to support wide-scale conservation, as it’s being done in places like Nantucket Island and St. Petersburg, Fla,” Klay said.
These days, to save it, you have to buy it, she said.
The Coastal Heritage Preserve is a big win for generations of Texans yet to come, but for Klay, it’s only a beginning.
She hopes to acquire the 500 acres adjacent to the preserve to create a wetland refuge with an environmental education center.
As a naturalist, an educator and a dreamer, Klay is the little-engine-that-could. She established Artist Boat in 2003 to provide nature exploration with integrated art programs, including kayak adventures. Her goal is to promote greater awareness and preservation of coastal lands.
Since its beginning, the group has introduced more than 20,000 middle school children and hundreds of local and vacationing families to coastal wetland adventures. Artist Boat also offers professional development for teachers who want to weave ecology into their science curriculum.
“Bringing children to natural areas and giving them time to explore, to be curious, to play, has an amazing result,” Klay said. “They get their feet wet; they watch the horizon; they are astonished by the wildlife; they aren’t rushed or scheduled. Very quickly, children get a sense of the natural world, a taste of real science, and immersion into the art and beauty of nature. They light up; it changes how they look at the world.”
Klay grew up in the Florida Keys swimming in the ocean and exploring natural areas with her brother. It was the genesis of her love for nature and science. It’s something she wishes every child could have, even for a single day.
She came to Galveston to study marine biology at Texas A&M University, and through friends, met her husband, Kris Benson, who works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Galveston is one of the top 10 counties on the Gulf of Mexico in terms of heavy dependency on nature-based tourism, but the traditional tourism industry tends to focus on beach-goers.
“Public access to the bay is limited,” Klay said. “If we develop more amenities for birders and other wildlife watchers, paddlers and fishers, it will help to extend stays and give visitors more opportunities for deeper experiences on the island.”
Conservation isn’t easy but it has enormous value. It takes time, talent and treasure, she said.
“The biggest challenge to conservation is the cost of saving land, so, of course, we hope that people will donate money to help,” Klay said. “Donations allow us to leverage contributions with grants.”
Galveston depends on tourism to support jobs and income, Klay said. But what happens if the environment becomes degraded and most natural areas disappear?
“As soon as a place becomes overdeveloped, tourists move on,” she said.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Many communities have done a good job balancing development while sustaining natural areas. Klay hopes Galveston will learn from those successes.