August 23, 2021 |Eric Wuestewald | Land

Texas Has a Natural Ally in the Fight Against Climate Change

Willow Slough Marsh, whose headwaters rest in a property known as Sabine Ranch, is the largest contiguous freshwater marsh system remaining in the state of Texas. Without protection from The Conservation Fund and partners, that land would most likely have been sold to developers at the cost of its ecological and climate change benefits, causing the destructive effects of storms like 2017’s Hurricane Harvey to multiply.

Since the 1990s, over 100,000 acres of coastal wetlands were lost in the Upper Texas Gulf Coast region and less than one percent of the nine million acres of tallgrass prairie remains today. Most of the original coastal prairie has been lost because of direct conversion to non-native pasture, industrial, urban or suburban development, resulting in loss of native habitats, loss of biological diversity, and decreased habitat quality for migratory birds and other native wildlife.

“This is a really incredible story,” says Callie Easterly, Ranch Manager of Sabine Ranch and Regional Director of Fundraising for the Gulf Coast and Southwest. “A typical acre of wetlands holds about 1.5 million gallons of floodwater or rainwater. Willow Slough Marsh holds about 4.5 million gallons per acre. In terms of a region that floods and historically has hurricanes and extreme weather events, this marsh is incredibly important.”

8 23 21 Sabine Ranch TX c Ivan LaBianca201709017 2Callie Easterly. Photo by Ivan LaBianca.

Though the scenery of cordgrass, migrating geese and long-legged birds in brackish water may not seem traditionally Texan, the history behind the land certainly is. Originally named McFaddin Ranch, the area was used primarily for cattle grazing. At its peak, McFaddin stretched up to 160,000 acres.

The ranch was established in Texas’ Chenier Plain, an area of expansive wetlands, coastal prairies, diverse wildlife, and prehistoric ridges running from east to west known as cheniers. Between those cheniers are natural depressions that ranchers and farmers used for inexpensive rice growing. Those depressions also held storm water and rain, helping to naturally store and eventually filter the water down to the Gulf Coast during major flooding events. Construction projects and overuse destroyed much of these natural features, but the cheniers around Sabine Ranch stayed intact.

In 1958, McFaddin Ranch was sold into parcels. Over time, most of the land was bought, protected and eventually reformed into McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge, Sea Rim State Park and the J.D. Murphree Wildlife Management Area, all of which are now open to the public. Sabine Ranch and Willow Slough Marsh, however, were still under private ownership.

8 23 21 Sabine Ranch Texas Shannon Tompkins2Photo by Shannon Tompkins.

Because of its ecological importance to the region, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the State of Texas had both identified Sabine as a top priority and a critical element of the marsh system. When that land was about to go up for sale in 2016, The Conservation Fund knew we had to act fast. Before Sabine went up on the public market, we stepped in with our Revolving Fund and made a deal with the landowner to purchase 12,376 acres for $30.8 million and hold the land until the federal and private funding could be secured for the USFWS to buy and conserve it for good.

Not long after our purchase, the filtration abilities of the marsh were put to the test when Hurricane Harvey, a devastating Category 4 storm, made landfall over Houston and the marsh. Harvey pounded the area with rain, dropping more than 40 inches of rain and causing $125 billion in damage from flooding, tying Hurricane Katrina as the costliest hurricane on record. But during that flood event, Sabine was hit with 64 inches of rain. Within 3 weeks, everything was dusty bone dry. The land worked. Water poured through the landscape, was absorbed by the soils and plants and flowed back out to the Gulf. The flooding abated, erosion was limited, and groundwater levels returned to normal.

“As we talk about flooding in this region and mitigating for climate change impacts, if we don’t talk about true land conservation of natural habitat, we’re missing out,” said Easterly. “We’ve paved over our prairies, and we’ve paved over our wetlands. Houston didn’t grow up, it grew out. And if we continue to go that way and not protect these coastal areas, then we’re really going to be in even more of a pickle than we’ve ever been.”

Protecting the land not only secures the wetlands and headwaters to Willow Slough Marsh, but also expands public recreation access to McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge, safeguards thousands of acres of coastal prairie and upland prairie from development and fragmentation, and shields wildlife habitat for over 400 species of migratory birds that come up through the Central Flyway every year. The land further provides critical habitat and breeding grounds for a number of threatened, endangered, and at-risk species such as the wood stork, white-faced Ibis, American swallow-tailed kite, alligator snapping turtle, smooth green snake, and the Texas horned lizard.

“The acquisition of Sabine Ranch is pretty important to us,” said Douglas Head, Manager of McFaddin Wildlife Refuge. “There’s a local species called the mottled duck that hangs out in the area and utilizes a lot of the freshwater marshes for breeding. One of the big hotspots is at the boundary of where Sabine Ranch and McFaddin Ranch currently are.”

8 23 21 3670439914 86195f02ac kPhoto by Terry Ross.

Sea level rise and changes in land use are directly contributing to habitat degradation and land loss, posing significant threats to the future viability of these important coastal habitats. If The Conservation Fund hadn’t stepped in, Sabine Ranch and the surrounding ecosystem could have been lost as well. The area likely would have been sold to non-conservation interests and replaced by anything from housing developments to an airboat racing tract, which in turn would have changed the wildlife, as well as the hydrology and filtration abilities of the marsh.

“Growing up near here, I’ve seen how a lot of marshes have disappeared or opened up due to saltwater intrusion and subsidence from oil and gas activities. We’re dealing with a lot of issues along the beach right now with erosion. There’s essentially not a beach at all,” Head explained. “Without that beach in place, without that high ridge, we’ve had devastating storms that come in and wipe a lot of marsh off the map. Being able to expand and pick up some new areas that are beneficial to waterfowl as well as other species of wildlife has been pretty important to us.”

8 23 21 Sabine Ranch TX c Shannon Tompkins fishing at sabine ranchPhoto by Shannon Tompkins.

Sabine Ranch is a critical component of the largest contiguous coastal freshwater marsh system in Texas and would be best managed as a single unit to give habitats the adequate space needed to adapt to sea level rise and improve climate resiliency. Originally, our goal was to hold the land for 3 years before ceding control to the USFWS. Unfortunately, several funding sources didn’t come through and we’re short by $1.5 million. Once that money is received, the property can be transferred to McFaddin NWR, and the final piece of these wetlands can be permanently preserved for recreational access, fish and wildlife habitat, and protection against hurricanes and storm surges.

Learn more about Sabine Ranch and help us support natural climate change solutions.

Written by

Eric Wuestewald

At the time of publication, Eric Wuestewald was the Digital Content Marketing Manager for The Conservation Fund.