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UPDATED: Effort to Save a Houston-Area Prairie Comes Down to the Wire

by Published on
Deer Park Prairie
Matt Buckingham for Bayou Land Conservancy
Deer Park Prairie.

Update, Sept. 11, 9:50 a.m.:

The Deer Park Prairie is spared from development. Just hours before Tuesday’s deadline, Bayou Land Conservancy raised enough money to buy the land.

In early August, Dean Lawther, a longtime housing developer in the area, agreed to sell the property to conservationists for $4 million. The initial proposal kicked off a campaign to quickly raise the money. On Monday night, a new agreement was reached. Lawther would come down on the price, to $3.8 million, and the prairie would have a longer name: Lawther Deer Park Prairie.

Bayou Land Conservancy will hold the conservation easement, preventing the prairie from ever being developed, but will transfer ownership to the Native Prairies Association of Texas to manage and operate. The remaining donations will be used to maintain the park.

Bayou Land Director Jennifer Lorenz calls the project the “fastest conservation campaign ever completed in Texas.” The group raised nearly $4 million, mostly from individual donors, in a matter of weeks. “Individuals made this happen, this truly is the people’s prairie,” she says.

Original story: In the last three weeks, a Houston-based conservation group has raised nearly $3.4 million to stymie development on what conservationists call one of the last remaining tracts of ancient Cajun prairie in an urban area.

The Bayou Land Conservancy is just short of their $4 million goal and the clock is ticking. The group has until just Tuesday to raise the remaining funds.

The 50-acre prairie in industrial Deer Park, 18 miles east of Houston, has never been plowed, which conservationists say make it the last vestige of land in the area with the same ecological diversity as pre-developed East Texas.

“This land still has some of the same species that were in the area thousands and thousands of years ago,” said Phillip Quast, program director of the Native Prairies Association of Texas. “It’s one of the last postage stamp pieces of ancient prairie left.”

Bayou Land Conservancy Director Jennifer Lorenz says a private landowner bought the land six years ago with plans to eventually sell the tract to a housing developer. For the last year and a half, conservation groups including Katy Prairie Conservancy, Native Prairies Association of Texas and Bayou Land Conservancy have worked to obtain the land, dubbed the Deer Park Prairie, from turning into a 250-home subdivision.

In August, the landowner agreed to sell the prairie to Bayou Land Conservancy for the market price of $4 million, about $200,000 shy of the price offered by developers.

Lorenz says that while the landowner has been patient in working with the groups, the project represents a harsh reality for conservation efforts today: competing in the open market.

“If you’re going to get new green space for Texans, then you’re going to fight in the open market with developers,” Lorenz says. “I have a catch-phrase: Conservation without funding is conversation.”

With little capital and even less time, Bayou Land kicked off a fundraising effort in early August. The initial deadline to raise the $4 million was August 20. The group’s four staff members and an army of volunteers pulled together more than $3 million in a matter of weeks, but still fell short. The landowner, however, agreed to give them more time, extending the deadline to Sept. 10.

Lorenz and other conservationists say the response has been nothing short of amazing. Individuals have been behind most of the donations to date. Aside from a handful of large donations from individuals and families and $200,000 from the Hamman Foundation, many of the donations have come from people on tight budgets, Lorenz said.

“We have letters that say, ‘I’m just a little old lady in tennis shoes and I can do $25. That’s all I can do. I’m on a fixed income and can barely afford it, but I want to save this prairie’,” Lorenz said. “It’s just phenomenal.”

Lorenz thinks the response is a reaction to increased urbanization in Texas. Conservation resonates with people from cities like Houston, Dallas and Austin, she said, where people have watched development stretch farther and farther into the countryside. That’s especially true in Deer Park, home to the sixth largest refinery in the country.

“To find a patch like this in such a heavily industrialized area is shock to the system for people in a positive way,” Lorenz says. “When people say Deer Park, green spaces don’t come to mind.”

In fact, the prairie is located just 3.6 miles from the Shell refinery.

Lorenz says she has been disappointed by the corporate response to this project. Shell and the Baker Hughes Foundation are the only two major corporate entities to donate to the project so far. Shell donated $75,000 and Baker Hughes donated $10,000, according to Lorenz.

“So many individuals in Houston have come forward and the corporate community just hasn’t come forward,” she says. “It’s kind of telling.”

If they raise the $4 million by Sept. 10, the Bayou Land Conservancy will hold the easement but turn the land over to the Native Prairie Association of Texas to manage and operate for public use.

Phillip Quast of Native Prairies Association of Texas says the group would turn the land into an “outdoor classroom,” a place for people to enjoy nature first-hand. With over 300 native plant species, Quast calls the land a “positive teaching tool” and a “gem” in an urban area.

Biologists and conservationists also stress the importance of green space for the environment. Prairies, like forests, remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In Deer Park, where flooding is not unheard of, grasslands also act as a “giant sponge.”

“Where water can’t get into the dirt, it builds up and the next thing you know you have street flooding,” Quast says. “Grasslands are permeable, they soak in that water.”

Prairies are also part of the historical Texas landscape.

“What we have special in Houston are the beautiful forested wetlands and these small slices of prairie, and this piece is one of the most special ones left,” Lorenz says.