Ecologists Just Saved Miles Of Texas Coastline Using BP Oil Spill Money

CREDIT: Jerod Foster/ Texas Parks & Wildlife

Wetland marsh waterways at Powderhorn Lake.

Twenty-seven square miles of pristine coastal land along the central Texas coastline between Houston and Corpus Christi will now be preserved for future generations after a decades-long effort by environmental groups and $34.5 million from penalties paid by BP and Transocean after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The purchase of the 17,351-acre Powderhorn Ranch in Calhoun County will protect live oak forests, intact wetlands, and salt marshes that provide crucial wildlife habitats and offer a buffer to the storm surges and sea level rise that threaten Texas’s coastline. The tract of land is eventually expected to become a state park and wildlife management area and will also offer a number of recreational activities including hunting, fishing, hiking, and bird watching.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation (TPWF) said it had been planning to purchase the land for three decades along with other conservation groups, including The Conservation Fund and The Nature Conservancy. The $37.7 million total price tag is the largest amount ever raised for a conservation land purchase in Texas and it represents the biggest land acquisition so far using BP spill restoration dollars. TPWF is spearheading the fundraising for the $50 million project, which includes the purchase of the property, habitat restoration and management, and a long-term endowment.

“The Gulf of Mexico is the hardest working body of water in the country, but it desperately needs nourishment. We have steadily stripped away its natural defenses, endangering wildlife, nature and the millions of residents who live in coastal communities,” said Laura Huffman, Texas state director for The Nature Conservancy. “This investment in Powderhorn Ranch protects the best of the last coastal prairies left in Texas and stitches together a network of protected lands that are vital to the resilience and health of the Gulf Coast.”


Powderhorn Ranch Regional context map.

Powderhorn Ranch Regional context map.

CREDIT: Texas Parks & Wildlife Department

Texas has some 367 miles of coastline and no overarching plan to preserve it in the face of an increasing population and growing threat from severe storms, sea level rise, and potential future oil spills. The acquisition of this land is both a monumental feat — the result of years of work and public-private collaboration in the face of limited resources — and an indication of the challenge of large-scale land conservation in an epoch of natural gas exploration and population sprawl.

In what amounts to a mixed blessing, the devastating BP oil spill has led to the availability of funds to make a large enough purchase needed for ecosystem-level habitat preservation. Going forward, similar types of innovative thinking and broad collaboration will be needed in the face of limited state and federal funds. Raising awareness is also a major concern in states like Texas where the potential loss of these valuable lands may not be a recognized priority.

“The one thing that troubles everyone is most Texans don’t see themselves as a coastal state,” America’s WETLAND Foundation managing director Val Marmillion said recently. “Even Houston doesn’t itself see as a coastal city. They see themselves as an industrial city. That’s dangerous in a way because then people don’t value their assets and they don’t prepare for some of the changes that are coming to the coast.”

Texas’s coastal population is expected to increase by about 50 percent by 2050 from just over six million to just over nine million. Texas has some of the highest erosion rates in the nation and shores are retreating an average of four feet per year, with some areas experiencing losses greater than 30 feet per year, according to a report from the Texas General Land Office.

According to a recent report from Climate Central, Texas has just over 100 cities and towns that are threatened by sea level rise inundation as correlated with current projections relating to greenhouse gas emissions.