After a real estate crash, a birding refuge takes wing
On a recent late winter morning, great blue herons were taking flight over a series of canals on the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge as visitors stopped to take photos of marshland and ducks that were stopping over in their winter migration from Minnesota and Canada.
More than a decade ago, 1,350 acres of key birding habitat on the 12,000-acre reserve was slated to become the latest beachfront commercial development along the coast.
But a 2013 sale of the land paved the way for it to instead become part of the federally protected preserve in Anahuac, where more than 200,000 visitors go each year to view birds, alligators and marshland habitat.
PNL Cos., a Dallas-based real estate investment firm bought the land — formally known as Cade Ranch — in 2007. The firm had acquired the 2,600-acre tract with plans to develop a beachfront retreat and marina.
But Hurricane Ike, and the coinciding financial crisis and real estate crash in 2008, chilled the resort market.
With resort plans halted, the firm in 2013 agreed to sell 1,350 acres to The Conservation Fund. The land would become protected habitat. The nonprofit fund, which regularly acquires land for federal conservation projects, then sold it to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The refuge just west of High Island on Bolivar Peninsula attracts thousands of visitors a year who flock to the area for birding opportunities.
“We have a lot of local visitors, but we see people from all over the country and the world,” Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge Manager Kristin Fritz-Grammond said. “It’s a phenomenal area to go birding.”
The Anahuac preserve is one of more than 540 habitats that make up the U.S. National Wildlife Refuge System.
A big part of the refuge is species management in which biologists and refuge managers try to make the habitat most conducive to the species they want to attract, Fritz-Grammond said.
Some bird species, for instance, thrive on shallow waters along the coastline, so wildlife refuge managers might change the park’s water levels through a series of culverts to accomodate those birds, she said.
“If we have habitat management, then our species will be here,” Fritz-Grammond said.
During the winter, waterfowl migrate from Minnesota and Canada to the preserve, she said. Other species, such as the mottled duck and black rail, live on the preserve year-round, she said.
“People get really excited about seeing the black rail,” Fritz-Grammond said. “If you know anything about birders, they will drop everything to come out to the area to check it out.”
While the park was first established in 1963, it has grown over time from land acquisitions.
The Conservation Fund regularly scouts for land within approved refuge boundaries and partners with agencies to help acquire the land, said Andy Jones, the Texas director for land acquisition at the fund.
The fund has acquired more than 240,000 acres of land in Texas alone for conservation projects, Jones said.
Property owners often want to sell the land more quickly than working with a government agency might allow, so the fund buys property and works with the government to sell it for conservation purposes, said Julie Shackelford, a program director for land acquisition in East Texas.
“We can operate more efficiently and nimbly than an agency could to buy a property,” Shackelford said. “We purchase it quickly and hold it until the agency can buy in.”
Sometimes, that process can take several years to get the appropriate paperwork and funding approved, she said. The fund buys the land at the federally appraised standard, which also is how much the government pays for it, Shackelford said.
“If the property owners want more money than can be paid, it’s unfortunate, but that’s the way it works — and really that’s the best way for it to work, otherwise values could get blown out of proportion,” Shackelford said.
In the case of Cade Ranch, the property had been purchased for development, but when the commercial development didn’t pan out, the company wanted to sell part of it to the adjacent Anahuac refuge, she said.
The fund — and the company — recognized the land as key birding habitat that the protected provision could keep intact and accessible to the public, she said.