Every great city has a great green space nearby. This was the philosophy of the group of people who founded the Katy Prairie Conservancy in 1992—a group composed of conservationists, farmers, ranchers, hunters and birdwatchers who wanted to make sure, no matter how much Houston grew, a portion of the natural prairie would always be protected.
"We're part of a coastal prairie system that originally spanned 9 million acres from the Gulf of Mexico and into Louisiana," KPC Executive Director Mary Anne Piacentini said. "About 15 percent of that prairie still exists and about one percent of it is left in pristine condition."
A little more than 19,000 acres of the prairie in western Harris County have been saved, 13,000 of which are owned by KPC. Another 6,200 acres are protected, but through conservation easements and public-private partnerships with entities such as the Harris County Flood Control District.
As a nonprofit, KPC looks for ways to protect the prairie ecosystem while also giving people opportunities to enjoy it through programs and tours. Birdwatching is popular on the prairie, where more than 300 species have been spotted, including hawks, eagles and owls. The challenge, conservation stewardship director Wesley Newman said, is coming up with ways to let people enjoy the prairie while making sure they are safe. As a private landowner, KPC is liable if someone gets hurt.
"Some people like to go on guided tours, but some people just want to go out on their own," he said. "We have all the things out here that make this place interesting but some of them, if you're not careful, can hurt you."
Newman said KPC still has a ways to go in terms of opening things up for the public to explore, but the staff is working to provide as much access as possible.
"We're working diligently and cautiously trying to figure out the logistics to provide relatively unfettered access so people can appreciate this without having to be supervised," he said.
In addition to providing educational and recreational opportunities to people, the prairie and wetlands also serve important environmental purposes, improving air and water quality and absorbing rainwater, which reduces flooding.
"The wetlands are called 'nature's kidneys' because they capture and break down pollutants from road sediments," Piacentini said. "The water that comes out is cleaner than the water that goes in."
Whether the KPC grows to 50,000 acres or only gets to 25,000, Piacentini said the goal will always be to serve as a green space giving animals a place to live and Houstonians a reprieve from the hustle and bustle of city life.
Katy Prairie Conservancy