Powderhorn Ranch

Powderhorn Ranch: Coastal land set to become Texas’ next big state park

Largest land acquisition in state history full of diverse species, habitats

Posted: 12:00 a.m. Friday, Jan. 1, 2016

By Pam LeBlanc – American-Statesman Staff

Port Lavaca —

A sprawling old oak arches its back against the wind, bending its lanky arms all the way to the ground.

Those protective branches make the perfect backdrop for a campground, and one day Texans will pitch tents here at Powderhorn Ranch, near Matagorda Bay along the Gulf Coast.
They’ll train binoculars on impossibly pink roseate spoonbills, spy on egrets teetering through marshes on stiltlike legs, paddle kayaks in the bay or cast fishing lines into salt water. Some will catch a glimpse of the resident alligators, or hear the crash of a white-tailed buck charging through the underbrush.

“It’s hard to find a better place on the coast to wake up and watch the sunrise and put the sun to bed,” says Carter Smith, executive director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “It’s just absolutely magical — the proximity to the bay, the rich history of the people and heritage, and the abundant wildlife.”

These 17,351 acres of marshes, grasslands and woodlands operated as a cattle ranch starting in the 1800s. Ultimately, part of the land will become a state park, where visitors can hike, camp, paddle or watch nature. The rest will serve as a wildlife management area, providing critical and fast-disappearing habitat for a variety of species.

“It’s been on our radar screen for between three and four decades as one of our highest conservation priorities on the coast,” Smith says. “It’s so rare to find unfragmented coastal habitats as an addition to the state’s public land system. It’s just spectacular in its beauty and biological richness.”

We’re getting a glimpse of that now, during a preview tour led by David Walker, an area biologist for the Parks and Wildlife Department, and Gene McCarty, who heads up the Powderhorn project for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation. Our big white pickup truck crunches to a halt along a tidal cove inside the ranch gates. A great blue heron and a tricolor heron flap overhead.

This land stands alone, wild and free, along a coast that’s been mostly farmed, ranched and commercially and residentially developed. The marshy edge where we’ve paused, part of more than 11 miles of tidal bay front, serves as an important nursery for shrimp, oysters, crab and spotted sea trout.
“Most of the larvae from environmentally important species grow up in this kind of marsh,” Walker says. A few silvery, minnow-sized fish glint through a tangle of grasses growing in knee-deep water.

Walker points across the cove, to a few far-off structures in the historic community of Indianola, once the largest seaport in Texas and an important stepping off point for German immigrants. Those buildings serve as a reminder of the other significance of this property: Its cultural history. French explorer Robert Cavelier de La Salle’s ship La Belle famously sank off the coast near here, and two hurricanes swept through in the 1800s, essentially wiping Indianola off the map.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, spearheaded the acquisition of this ranch in 2014. The foundation, along with the Nature Conservancy and the Conservation Fund, approached the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which committed $34.5 million in recovery funds from the BP oil spill settlement over three years to secure the land from a conservation-minded seller.
“Given the significant loss of freshwater wetlands in the coastal area in the last 50 years, to find a place to preserve a big expanse of that, coupled with coastal prairie, which is also something of a vanishing habitat, is too good an opportunity to pass up,” Smith says.

The $39 million property acquisition marks the largest conservation land purchase in Texas history. The total project budget of $49 million includes $2 million for restoration and $8 million for an endowment to manage the land. So far, more than $45 million of that has been raised.

The property will be transferred to the Parks and Wildlife Department in 2018. That gives park officials plenty of time to plan exactly how the land will be used.

“We’re going to be very mindful of the ecological sensitivity of this property,” Smith says. “That said, all partners agreed this was a place that could sustain outdoor use from canoeing, kayaking, fishing, bird watching, camping, hunting, nature exploration, beach combing and otherwise just enjoying the huge bounty of nature this part of the Texas coast offers.”

Walker and McCarty climb back in their truck and rumble down a curving ranch road. A wide-open grassy stretch — an old airstrip — unfolds along one side. This area, because it’s already been cleared, will be turned into the state park portion of the land. A row of gnarled oaks borders what likely will become the campground, which is easy walking distance to an old bunkhouse and the shoreline. Showers and bathrooms will probably be installed here, along with a launch area for kayakers.

The park’s opening is probably five years away. Until then, the ranch might open for limited use, including managed public hunting and fishing, paddling, and use by scouting and birding groups.

Walker and McCarty steer back inland, pointing out sand mounds bigger than Volkswagens and small circular depressions, or potholes, that filter precious freshwater through the soil. They note the relatively high elevation of parts of the land, which could make the acquisition even more important if sea levels rise.

Brown pelicans circle overhead, and a trio of roseate spoonbills comes in for a landing. Tall and pink, with odd, spoon-shaped bills, they look like zoo escapees.

“There’s so much diversity of habitat, and it’s representing something that’s vanishing throughout Texas,” McCarty says. “That diversity of habitat creates a diversity of wildlife.”

In the spring, when Neotropical birds from South America fly across the Gulf of Mexico in large numbers, they “fall out” here, dropping into oaks in search of food and cover. Buntings, warblers, grosbeaks and tanagers all make an appearance, and endangered whooping cranes have been spotted here.

Officials believe some of the state’s first feral hogs were introduced in the area, too. Today they’re not appreciated; they wreak havoc on delicate marshlands and root in the sand for crabs. Axis deer and another exotic species of deer called sambar were introduced for sport in the 1930s and ’40s and still wander the property, too. Deciding what to do with them is part of the work officials face as they prepare to open the ranch to the public.

And then there are the alligators. Three 3- or 4-footers gaze at Walker and McCarty from a sandbar in a stock pond. They’re unperturbed as the truck moves past.

Down the road, Walker and McCarty point out thickets of running live oak — a short, scrubby version of oak that’s nearly impenetrable. Officials hope to curb its growth on the ranch with targeted herbicidal application and prescribed fire and managed grazing.

The goal, officials say, is to return this land to what it once was so it can continue to serve a purpose even greater than a cool spot for a weekend camping trip for humans.

“The recreational value of this land is high, but the conservation value is equally high or higher,” McCarty says.

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