State conservation efforts see local support in The Woodlands

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Since the founding of The Woodlands 45 years ago, officials and community members have worked to balance the development needs of the area with the conservation of its natural habitats.


However, rapid population growth has coupled with a loss of open spaces over a similar timeframe. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, Mongtomery County’s population more than doubled from 294,000 in 2000 to an estimated 591,000 in 2018, while The Woodlands itself grew from around 63,200 people in 2000 to an estimated 117,300 in 2018.


From 1997-2017, working land—private land providing environmental benefits—decreased by 22.6% in Montgomery County, according to the Texas A&M Natural Resource Institute.


During this spring’s session of the Texas Legislature, State Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, and state Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, worked to enforce the conservation of another of The Woodlands area’s signature natural features: the 1,722-acre William Goodrich Jones State Forest. One version of their legislation, Senate Bill 345, went into effect Sept. 1 and will help preserve the forest’s undeveloped state.


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


Sarah Mitchell, granddaughter of The Woodlands founder George Mitchell, said she has seen a reduction in natural space including near her family’s east county research site, the Cook’s Branch Conservancy.


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


While other open land in the county is lost, The Woodlands’ natural areas remain a top factor in resident satisfaction, according to the township’s 2018 resident survey. The highest-ranked aspect of living in The Woodlands was the area’s appearance, trees and greenery with 88% resident support.


Despite this, The Woodlands lost 11% of its tree canopy from 2004-12, according to a 2012 study of the township’s canopy coverage. The Woodlands Parks and Recreation Department has made tree preservation one of its priorities, department director Chris Nunes said.


A comprehensive forestry management plan guides the office’s daily operations, he said. From 2013 to 2018, around 18,300 trees were removed by the township or contractors while more than 311,300 have been planted, Nunes said.


Under George Mitchell’s original vision for The Woodlands, the community has emphasized both the maintenance of natural areas and the continued development of land. The Howard Hughes Corp.-owned The Woodlands Development Company is now responsible for the area’s master plan, which keeps around 28% of the community as open space, parks and preserves.


“The Woodlands being one of the original, true master-planned communities, there was always a focus on really developing and remaining in harmony with nature,” said Heath Melton, senior vice president of master-planned communities for Howard Hughes.


Support for conservation remains present throughout the county, according to a 2015 poll by the Cook’s Branch Conservancy. According to Sarah Mitchell, 79% of county residents polled supported the county buying land to preserve natural waterways and other habitats.


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

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By 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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