- Associated Press - Sunday, January 4, 2015

GALVESTON, Texas (AP) - A few years ago, wetlands that provided a home for coastal wildlife faced destruction to make way for a marina. Now an environmental group has carved out a preserve on Galveston Island that could eventually offer hiking and kayak trails.

After more than six years of effort, Artist Boat has secured a grant that will allow it to purchase the final piece of a 367-acre section of what was destined a few years ago to be part of the largest residential development ever planned for Galveston.

The land secured by Artist Boat was to be a marina, part of a 1,053-acre development known as the Preserve at West Beach. “It was plotted for 800 units and they were going to dig up the prairie and channelize it,” Karla Klay, Artist Boat’s executive director, told the Houston Chronicle (https://bit.ly/1zQXpfA ).

The development could still go forward in some form, but the $2.63 million grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation will allow Artist Boat to preserve 154 acres for the Coastal Heritage Preserve. The preserve is near the midpoint of the 32-mile-long island, along West Galveston Bay near the intersection of Settegast Road and 11 Mile Road.

“It’s critical land, so we are really happy that we were able to secure it,” said Nathan Johnson, Artist Boat’s habitat and stewardship program manager, as he tromped through the winter-darkened grass on 181 acres of coastal prairie that is part of the preserve. Coastal prairie that once covered 2.5 million acres along the Texas and Louisiana coasts has nearly all been lost to agriculture and development, according to the National Wetlands Center. Less than 0.01 percent remains.

The preserve also has 17 acres of estuarine and fresh open water, 33 acres of tidal flats and 136 acres of marsh.

Johnson made his way to a section of marsh, startling a pink-and-white hued roseate spoonbill and a pure white ibis. More than 30 species of birds whose survival is of concern to conservationists make use of the preserve.

The preserve is one of a series of acquisitions and easements that conservation groups like Artist Boat have been making along the Gulf Coast in the Houston region, said Bob Stokes, president of the Galveston Bay Foundation. The foundation alone has protected about 5,200 acres in and around Galveston Bay, he said. The foundation last week entered into an agreement with a farmer in Brazoria County to preserve 1,100 acres, although the farmer will retain ownership.

The acquisition of land for the Coastal Heritage Preserve on Galveston Island is significant, Stokes said. “Accomplishing this when it was slated for development is particularly important,” he said. “We would have lost this tract forever, so they are particularly commended for making it happen.”

The process of obtaining the grant money and completing the land purchase will probably be completed by summer, said Linda Sheed, a consultant who wrote the grant application and is handling the purchase for Artist Boat. The environmental group is in the process of developing a plan for the preserve that could include hiking trails, kayak trails, interpretive signage, boat launches and a classroom-dormitory for overnight stays for 50 to 100 students. The improvements would be designed to further Artist Boat’s goal of educating the public about the environment. “We have a lot of planning to do,” Klay said.

Although the land purchase is paramount, it’s only part of the solution to preserving the property, she said. “These grants only pay for the land,” Klay said. “Once you save it, it’s a huge obligation to take care of it.”

Klay approached a top official for the real estate arm of the Chicago-based Marquette Cos. after it purchased the 1,053 acres in 2007 for $36 million. Klay said Darrin Sloniger, managing director for Marquette Land Development LLC, was receptive from the outset to her proposal to purchase the 367 acres where a marina was proposed.

Her proposal was aided by the economy and Hurricane Ike in September 2008. Ike damaged 70 percent of the structures on the island and caused property values to plunge. Within days of Ike’s destruction, the U.S. economy plummeted into recession.

The $36 million debt was owned by Marquette Galveston Investment Ltd., which defaulted. Marquette repurchased its loan for $10 million in 2012, days before the property was to go on the auction block, and resold it for the same price to the Texas Permanent School Fund. Under an agreement that the General Land Office, which effectively administers the School Fund, refused to make public, Marquette continues to administer the property and intends to proceed with its development plans when economic conditions permit.

Klay has other ideas. She is hoping to raise enough money to eventually purchase what remains of the Marquette property on the island. The Land Office may be receptive. It has cooperated with Artist Boat in its purchase of the preserve, helping it with a $3.5 million grant to purchase the first 157 acres, and agreed to keep the remainder off the market during the search for money to buy the rest of the land. Sloniger could not be reached for comment about the possible sale of additional land, but a spokesman for the General Land Office said in an email, “The General Land Office would be interested in hearing any proposals for that acreage.”

Sheed of Sheed Conservation Solutions, a consultant who specializes in grant-writing land purchases, believes Klay might be able to pull it off. “I think there is a definite chance that there will be more funding found,” Sheed said. “It’s a big vision but I think it is not an impossible vision.”

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Information from: Houston Chronicle, https://www.houstonchronicle.com

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