December 26, 2013

Gulf land deal wasn’t just for the birds

Once planned for a 3-mile-long beachfront resort town, the coastal land instead will go to a federal wildlife refuge.

One of Texas’ last pristine stretches of Gulf coast will stay that way.

A Virginia charity has closed a $3.8 million deal to buy part of the old Cade Ranch on Bolivar Peninsula, preserving one of Texas’ most important shorebird habitats.

When Dallas-based developers bought the former saltgrass cattle ranch in 2007, it was destined for growth as a new, 3-mile-long beachfront resort and marina community similar to Seaside. Fla.

Then came the Great Recession, and after that, Hurricane Ike.

The market has rebounded, but not enough to promote development on remote Bolivar Peninsula, across Galveston Bay from Houston and accessible only by ferry from Galveston or by driving an hour around the bay toward Port Arthur.

Enter the Virginia-based Conservation Fund, which negotiated the deal to buy the land from the PNL Cos. of Dallas and eventually add it to the federal Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.

Growth along the Texas coast has made survival difficult for bird life, not only for the native shorebirds but also for the hundreds of species migrating north yearly over the Gulf.

In April and May, the peninsula and the nearby town of High Island become a haven for hundreds of colorful birds stopping to rest or feed after the long flight over water. It’s easy to see more than 20 different warblers on a walk through one of the wooded sanctuaries, and the entire wildlife refuge is home year-round to herons, egrets, ibis and spoonbills.

The Texas General Land Office and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality signed off on this deal, using money in part from offshore drilling, the state-administered federal Coastal Impact Assistance Act and North American Wetland Conservation Act, plus a grant from the Houston-based Knobloch Foundation.

The Conservation Fund hopes to buy more of cattle rancher C.T. Cade’s old prairie using money set aside after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

This deal saves 1,350 acres of marsh and coastal grasses along with the 3-mile beachfront, providing essential wetlands for bird life and a healthier coast, while also driving tourism.

As Conservation Fund Texas director Andy Jones pointed out, the deal probably also saves future Texans a huge bill for hurricane cleanup.

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