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Texas Buys Conservation Land with Oil Spill Money

Earl Nottingham / Texas Parks and Wildlife
An aerial view of fringe marshes around Powderhorn Lake.

A deal that was decades in the making has finally closed on the largest conservation land purchase in Texas history: Just over 17,000 acres of undisturbed coastal prairie in Calhoun County for $50 million.

A large portion of that funding, $34.5 million, will come from criminal penalties paid by BP and Transocean after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster — welcome news for state officials amid frustration that Texas has lagged behind in taking advantage of hundreds of millions of dollars that became available in the wake of the oil spill.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation (the non-profit fundraising arm of the state’s parks department) will raise the balance of the funds. The foundation would initially be a joint owner of the land, alongside other non-profit conservation organizations; eventually, the plan is for the land to be donated to the department itself.

Conservationists and environmental advocates hailed the purchase as a significant move to protect the state’s coast, which experts estimate is losing hundreds of acres of rural land each day. Conserving rural lands, they said, is crucial not only for preserving open spaces in Texas, but also as a way to protect water resources. Along the coast, keeping land undeveloped can serve as a “natural buffer” against sea-level rise and storm surges — often a much cheaper way to ensure hurricane protection than costly infrastructure like seawalls.

“Texas is losing its rural land at one of the fastest rates in the country,” said Blair Fitzsimons, president of the Texas Agricultural Land Trust, an organization dedicated to preserving private rural land. “Especially along the coast, which is one of the areas in the state that’s fragmenting at a really fast rate.”

“There’s a tremendous amount of development slated for the coast," he added. "We’re losing it quickly. So protecting 17,000 acres is significant.”

The land being acquired, known as Powderhorn Ranch, was bought by the descendants of former lawyer and Texas Supreme Court Justice Leroy Denman in 1936. It went through many owners, shrinking to half its original acreage before the current purchase. Located 75 northeast of Corpus Christi, it skirts the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, and could serve as prime habitat for endangered whooping cranes that have been the subject of a controversial water policy lawsuit.

Parks and Wildlife officials said much of the land is prime property for hunting, fishing, and other recreational activities that bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for the state and local economies.

“With a burgeoning population and a booming economy has also come real demands on the department to provide high-quality outdoor experiences and recreational amenities,” said Carter Smith, executive director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “This land serves those goals well.”

Still, the challenges for conserving land — especially along the coast — loom large. Fitzsimons said that data in Texas show that for every 1,000 people who move here, the state loses 250-500 acres of land. “We’ve got 1,000 people a day supposedly moving to Texas,” she said. “You know, it adds up.”

There are fewer federal dollars available than ever to protect that land, and state dollars have never really been available, either. In 2005, the Legislature created the Texas Farm and Ranchlands Conservation Program to help landowners buy development rights on their rural lands to make keep it undisturbed. But that program was never funded.

The state's General Land Office, which is the program’s home, has found some extra federal money from other grants to finance the purchase of a few conservation easements, Fitzsimons said, but she is hoping lawmakers will appropriate significant money for the program this year. Once that happens, the state would also be able to draw down matching federal dollars.

The Powderhorn purchase is the largest use of BP oil spill-related uses in Texas thus far; coming more than four years after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, it illustrates how slow the spill recovery process has gone in the Lone Star State. Even accounting for money that is expected to become available but that is still tied up in lawsuits, Texas lags behind.

Most of a $5 million payment given to the Governor’s Office by BP shortly after the April 2010 disaster remains unspent; $1 million of it was transferred to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which has so far spent just over $51,000. The agency has been working for a long time on a draft plan for how to spend money that is expected from civil environmental penalties paid by the companies responsible for the spill; so far, at least $56 million of that will go to Texas.

“They had a consultant working on the plan for nearly a year now,” said Amanda Fuller, a policy specialist for the National Wildlife Federation. “it’s just been kind of a slow-moving process. We are the most behind state.”

State officials say they are still working on the plan. After years of delay, they recently unveiled a web site meant to be a resource for Texans who want to learn more about the federal money that will become available. However, environmental and conservation organizations who would be vying for funds were disappointed that they would not yet be able to apply for the money through the site, while other Gulf states have made theprocessmuch easier.

About $18 million in “early restoration” money promised by BP, meant for artificial reef projects and beach restoration in Texas, is also currently in limbo. The federal government had hoped to release those funds, and tens of millions more for the other Gulf States, earlier this summer, but Texas has been holding up the process.

In part, that’s because Texas officials feel they are entitled to more money. But Smith said ““it’s more complicated than that.” He declined to comment further, citing “fairness to our discussions” and the confidentiality of the negotiation process.

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