Countywide development threatens natural habitats

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Nonprofits and government officials strive to keep the human and natural world in balance as growth in Montgomery County continues to change the landscape.

According to Texas Land Trends, a database by the Texas A&M Natural Resource Institute, between 1997 to 2017 the acres of working land in Montgomery County decreased 22.6%—from 412,401 to approximately 319,000. Working land is private land that provides environmental benefits, such as ranches, farms and forests.

Sarah Mitchell, granddaughter of The Woodlands founder George Mitchell, and her family have owned the Cook’s Branch Conservancy since 1964.

“You used to drive for 30 minutes through what felt like a forest tunnel to arrive [at]the property, and now all that’s gone,” Mitchell said.

And Montgomery County is still growing, with several thousand acres of forested land being developed in the last few years.

Several major developments have come to Montgomery County such as Artavia, a 2,200-acre, master-planned community by Airia Development Co. that announced construction on Feb. 26; the 2,000-acre The Woodlands Hills residential development that held its grand opening in the summer of 2018; and Grand Central Park, a 2,046-acre, mixed-use development that opened in 2017.

In addition to work done by local groups such as the Cook’s Branch Conservancy, which operates as a model for conservation and a scientific research site in east Montgomery County, there has been a state-driven effort to protect green space in Montgomery County in the last two legislative sessions.

In this year’s session, state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, and state Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, authored Senate Bill 345, signed into law June 10. It requires the WG Jones State Forest in Montgomery County to remain undeveloped.

“To deforest Jones Forest would be an anathema to what this community is all about,” Toth said. “To run roads through it, to build houses in it, to build shopping malls through it is not what we want right now.”

Two worlds collide

Wildlife experts said development in Montgomery County forces local wildlife out of their native homes. Anja Machado serves as the executive director of the Texas Wildlife Rehabilitation Coalition, which cares for injured, abandoned or displaced animals in the Greater Houston area. Machado said they have seen a slow uptick in animals from Montgomery County over the last several years.

The reasons for intake vary from a collision with a wall or window to habitat destruction to parental death, but Machado said most Montgomery County intakes are due to loss of habitats, where animals are driven into human habitats because of new buildings and developments.

Machado said the coalition rescued 38 animals from the Conroe, Willis and Montgomery areas in 2018. The reasons for their intake varied from collision with a wall to parental death, but Machado said development plays a large part in the displacement of many animals.

“A lot of the developments don’t really care what happens to these animals; they just need the money, and they need the place,” Machado said.

Mitchell said because of Cook’s Branch Conservancy efforts, native fauna has flourished including the Bobwhite quail, the reintroduced wild turkey and the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.

“The problem now is that we’re kind of at carrying capacity, and there isn’t any other old-growth forest to spread into,” Mitchell said. “They need a bigger habitat than exists right now. They need continuity; they need corridors; they need the space.”

Government officials and developers said they are trying to develop the county to accommodate the growth in a responsible way. Joanne Ducharme, director of Montgomery County Community Development, said although the county is continually growing, government developments must go through extensive environmental assessments costing anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000.

“We never break ground … without doing a correct environmental assessment on land—and those are quite extensive and expensive, by the way,” Ducharme said.

Conroe City Engineer Chris Bogert said the city maintains a tree ordinance that protects trees and provides buffer zones, but has no requirements for private developers.

Heath Melton, senior vice president of master-planned communities for developer Howard Hughes Corp., said his company keeps residential areas connected to nature by creating forest preserves as vegetation buffers and keeping large trees. Howard Hughes is developing The Woodlands Hills community near Willis.

“We [see]if there are any large trees on-site and [if]… anything can be adjusted to save those large trees or heritage trees,” Melton said. “Even if there’s some displacement of some of nature’s creatures, by preserving those forests … we’re still creating a habitat where these creatures can take refuge.”

Seeds for the future

Machado said the coalition is in favor of legislation like Creighton’s restricting how much land can be transformed into developments.

Gretchen Riley, Forest Legacy coordinator for Texas A&M Forest Service, said it partners with the National Forest Service to provide conservation easements for private landowners with unique environmental factors that are threatened by development. She said the Forest Legacy program focuses on lands with unique environmental factors or that are located near protected lands such as WG Jones State Forest.

Although the program does not currently have agreements in Montgomery County, Riley hopes a sister program to Forest Legacy could gain some traction in the  Community Forest and Open Space program. Riley explained the Community Forest and Open Space program splits the cost of preserving land for public use in half with communities and nonprofits.

“It requires a lot of people and a lot of strategies to pull it off, but I see that as being a super prospect for places like Montgomery County where the growth is just exponential,” Riley said.

Mitchell said the conservancy took a 2015 poll of Montgomery County voters and found 79% supported the county buying land to preserve natural waterways and other habitats.

July 10, the conservancy drafted a model $30 million bond the county could consider, adding approximately $13 to each household’s taxes annually to establish a fund protecting the natural environment.

County Judge Mark Keough and Precinct 1 Commissioner Mark Meador did not respond for comment on the mock bond by press time.

“I’m really excited about seeing where the people of the county will take this in the future,” Mitchell said. “I really do think the tide is turning; it’s not a partisan issue any more.”

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Andy Li
Originally from Boone, North Carolina, Andy Li is a graduate of East Carolina University with degrees in Communication with a concentration in journalism and Political Science. While in school, he worked as a performing arts reporter, news, arts and copy editor and a columnist at the campus newspaper, The East Carolinian. He also had the privilege to work with NPR’s Next Generation Radio, a project for student journalists exploring radio news. Moving to Houston in May 2019, he now covers the Conroe Independent School District, Montgomery City Council and transportation.
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