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Aug. 21, 2014
Powderhorn Ranch Becomes Largest Conservation Land Purchase in Texas History
Donations used for Landmark $37.7 Million Acquisition
Published on Aug 21, 2014 – A coalition of partners has raised nearly $38 million dollars to purchase 17,000+ acres of one of the largest remaining unspoiled tracts of coastal prairie in the state. The Powderhorn Ranch in Calhoun County is expected to become a future state park and wildlife management area for the people of Texas.
HOUSTON — A multi-partner coalition including the Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPW) Foundation today announced the purchase of the 17,351-acre Powderhorn Ranch along the Texas coast in Calhoun County. The acquisition will conserve a spectacular piece of property that is one of the largest remaining tracts of unspoiled coastal prairie in the state. At $37.7 million it is the largest dollar amount ever raised for a conservation land purchase in the state and represents a new partnership model of achieving conservation goals in an era of rapidly rising land prices. In years to come, Powderhorn Ranch is expected to become a state park and wildlife management area
Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) is issuing a challenge to legal minds and officials to offer solutions to resolve river flow dilemmas in Texas to save endangered whooping cranes. Whooping cranes are the symbol of conservation in North America. These beautiful birds stand 5 feet tall and are treasures to many thousands of people in the U.S. and other countries. Yet these magnificent birds are facing increasing threats. FOTWW wants to know if law firms or government agencies informed about the issue care enough to lend a helping hand?
FOTWW would appreciate receiving legally binding recommendations to help in this cause. Several law firms that wrote their thoughts about the“The Aransas Project v. Shaw” court suit should certainly have ideas for a reasonable solution/compromise. Please email your thoughts to:admin@FOTWW.orgor fill out our contact form. With your permission we would post your recommendations on our web site: https://friendsofthewildwhoopers.org/ . Honest, considerate debate will be appreciated. This request for recommendations has no connection to the ongoing legal appeal Aransas Project v. Shaw. For background on the situation, please continue reading.
Approximately 304 endangered whooping cranes currently make their fall and winter home on the Aransas National Wildlife Refugeon the Texas coast. Every spring they migrate 2,500 miles north to Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada where they nest and rear their young chicks. Whooping cranes have been following this schedule for centuries.
When Europeans came to North America the situation began to change for whooping cranes. The new settlers had fire arms and killed the whoopers for food more effectively than the Indians before them. Even worse, settlers drained wetland sites used by the cranes as habitat. Millions of acres of whooper habitat were destroyed and converted to cities and agricultural fields.
As a result of man’s deeds whooping crane populations plummeted. They were eradicated from their habitats along the Atlantic coast, much of the Gulf of Mexico coast and vast areas of the northern United States and Canadian prairies.
In the early 1940’s, their numbers declined to a low of 15 on the Texas coast and 6 on the Louisiana coast. The last crane in Louisiana was captured in 1950 and relocated to Aransas Refuge where it died a year later. Then only 15 wild whooping cranes remained. These birds were the last of the only remaining self-sustaining flock of whooping cranes on the planet. After recognizing that whooping cranes were about to become extinct conservation interests worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reverse the downward trend. Their efforts were successful and the whooper population has slowly increased over the past 70 years to approximately 304 birds.
Unfortunately, alarming signs of trouble are once again threatening whooping cranes. As the U.S. human population has increased more habitats used by the cranes has been destroyed and degraded. And now the huge human population growth and development in Texas is using ever increasing quantities of fresh water.
According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, there are 7,400 dams in Texas. A total of 4,700 of these dams create reservoirs having a surface area greater than 5 acres. The volume of the 4,700 – 5 acre or larger lakes/reservoirs totals 1,988,801,388 acre-feet and a surface area of 2,269,900 acres. These lakes/reservoirs have many benefits but they do reduce the natural stream flows reaching estuaries and have adverse impacts on these important areas.
Less and less fresh water is being allowed to flow downstream into estuaries along the gulf coast. The inflows of fresh water mixing with sea water provides high levels of nutrients in both the water column and sediment, making estuaries among the most productive natural habitats in the world. With reduced inflows of fresh river waters however, estuaries are suffering.
Healthy estuaries associated with San Antonio Bay, Matagorda Bay and Copana Bay within the Aransas Refuge complex are essential to whooping cranes. Estuaries along this area of the coast produce the foods for whooping cranes and numerous other species. Without the proper mix of fresh water and salt water, life in the estuaries declines to a point that wild critters depending on the normal situation starve or become unhealthy and do not reproduce.
FOTWW requests that individuals, law firms and agency officials offer their advice for legal solutions/compromise to assure that Texas Commission on Environmental Quality adopts and enforces appropriate environmental flow standards for the Guadalupe and San Antonio River basins. This is essential in order for the San Antonio Bay system to adequately support a sound ecological environment to the maximum extent reasonable considering other public interests and other relevant factors. Also there is a need to establish an amount of unappropriated water, if available, to be set aside to satisfy the environmental flow standards to the maximum extent reasonable when considering human water needs.
by Chester McConnell, FOTWW
***** FOTWW’s mission is to help preserve and protect the Aransas/Wood Buffalo population of
wild whooping cranes and their habitat. *****
Web Manager’s note: Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) is concerned about oil and gas drilling on Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. However it has been approved by the U.S. Congress and practiced on Aransas and many other national wildlife refuges, national forests and other federal lands for decades. The drilling is done under contract by private companies. Over the years the drilling practices have improved and companies have become more responsible. And the refuge personnel who monitor the drilling operations have improved in their knowledge and abilities to oversee the operations. FOTWW will keep a watchful eye on the operations and assist the refuge personnel if needed.The following article by Sara Sneath, The Victoria Advocate provides an excellent description of the oil and gas drilling and the quality efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to assure quality operations.
Prieto is a wildlife biologist with more than 20 years of work on the refuge. As the liaison between the refuge and oil and gas operators, he also has studied the energy industry.
“You have to know enough to know when they’re feeding you bull,” he said. “And at times, you have to convince them why a precaution is necessary. Sometimes, you’re a biology 101 teacher.”
About once a year, Prieto and oil and gas managers from across Texas get together to talk about new technologies in mineral production.
“You have to be open and accepting of all that is going on in the world today because conservation requires that. You don’t exist in a little corner by yourself,” Prieto said.
About half of the nation’s 562 refuges have oil and gas development. As in the case of Aransas, the land for most refuges was purchased without the mineral rights, either because they were not for sale or prohibitively expensive.
Houston-based Hilcorp Energy Co., the sole owner of Aransas’ lease, has a good track record with the refuge. But many refuges are not so lucky, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Deputy Director Steve Guertin at a hearing this year on oil and gas.
At the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, 20 miles north of McAllen, cleaning up abandoned well sites and removing oil and gas equipment cost taxpayers about $1.2 million, he said.
Currently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has the same rights as any other surface landowner, which have historically been at the mercy of the mineral rights owner.
On refuges, the noise, traffic, lights and possibility of pollution that accompany drilling operations are pitted against the goal of refuges – the conservation of wildlife and habitat.
Complicating the issue further is the fact that surface owner rights vary from state to state.
The wildlife service wants a predictable and consistent approach to regulating oil and gas development, Guertin said.
The Aransas National Wildlife Refuge has seven active wells and more than 80 inactive wells, a reminder of the refuge’s long history of oil and gas development.
Before the wildlife service purchased the coastal area stretching from Austwell to Rockport in 1937, Conoco Inc., then called Continental Oil Co., owned the mineral rights. The rights are now owned by Hilcorp Energy Co., which began drilling on the refuge in 2010.
Because Hilcorp owns the entire 47,163-acre St. Charles Ranch lease, the refuge has only one company to work with. Hilcorp is one of the largest privately held energy companies in the U.S., operating across the Gulf Coast and in Alaska’s Cook Inlet on Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
“Since we began our activities, we have coordinated in a positive and collaborative manner with the refuge’s staff and greatly appreciate their willingness to work cooperatively with us on this endeavor. Hilcorp has extensive experience conducting operations in sensitive areas,” Justin Furnace, corporate manager of Hilcorp external affairs, wrote in an email Thursday.
Having only one company to work with makes it easier for the refuge to keep tabs on drilling activity. Working with a bigger company with a namesake to look after is also beneficial. But perhaps the greatest advantage the refuge has is Prieto’s watchful eye.
“I’m looking for the fact that they are complying with everything we discussed. I want to be assured of that. If I find something different, I ask about it,” said Prieto, the oil and gas manager of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and Matagorda Island.
Plans for each of the seven wells Hilcorp has drilled on the refuge are outlined in a special use permit. The permits dictate the pad size of the well site – no bigger than 320-by-320-feet – that no lights may be used at night on tank batteries or completed wells and that a large mat be placed under the actual rig to protect the surface from spills.
“We’ve made pages of conditions. One of the conditions is that they maintain the roads,” Prieto said.
Drilling only occurs on the interior of the peninsula, away from the coast where the whooping cranes winter. The refuge also keeps oil and gas production off the 5,000 acres of public use area. And while whooping cranes are wintering in Aransas – from Oct. 15 through April 15 – no drilling is allowed.
CORPUS CHRISTI – August arrived with a welcome companion — a morning of summer rain.
Water has been on the collective South Texas mind, with city restrictions going into effect as landscapes look increasingly parched. Water woes also affect the many species of birds that spend all or part of their year living on the Texas coast, including our famous winter visitors — whooping cranes.
In the words of Tom Stehn, retired Whooping Crane Coordinator at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, “Water issues are of great concern for whooping cranes. Data show that the health and survival of the endangered whooping crane flock is directly related to freshwater inflows from the Guadalupe and San Antonio rivers.”
Stehn’s editorial discussing the recent ruling of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals appeared July 3 in the Caller-Times. The court overturned an earlier ruling holding the state liable for whooper deaths during the winter of 2008-09.
Responsible water management is at the heart of the issue. When salinity rises in bays and estuaries, the availability of the food and water resources the cranes depend on is diminished. Combined with challenges posed by additional habitat and environmental changes, the whooping crane’s inspiring return from the brink of extinction could face undesired setbacks.
What can you do to ensure that your grandchildren, and theirs, will have a chance one distant winter to see these stately and magnificent birds? Not in a zoo, but wading Texas coastal ponds, feasting on blue crab and wolfberry?
Most of all, be conscious of water usage; treat it like the precious and finite resource that it is. Replace a section of lawn with a xeriscape garden featuring plants that attract butterflies and birds. Fix a leaky faucet; install a drip irrigation system; turn off the tap when you brush your teeth. Make water conservation a habit for the present and the future.
The Hawk Watch got an early start this season, as watchers began manning the platform Friday at Hazel Bazemore Park.
Swallow-tailed kites usually are seen early in the season, and there are hopes for a record year for this species. Considered one of the most thrilling sights of birding, I’ll visit as often as possible to search the sky for this exquisitely graceful raptor. Slender Mississippi kites, tastefully colored in understated gray, have been reported over the prairies of Lavaca County and can be expected to pass through in greater numbers soon.
Phyllis Yochem, a Corpus Christi resident, has studied birds in Texas since 1960.
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***** FOTWW’s mission is to protect the Aransas/Wood Buffalo population
of wild whooping cranes and their habitat. *****