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Columbia Bottomlands

It’s not just what rivers are, it’s what they create.

By Bill Dawson<

Although it’s late winter in Brazoria County, it feels like spring. The sunlight filtering through the moss-draped trees is warm, and the breeze is cool. A pleasant chill seeps through my hip boots whenever I wade across one of the clear-running sloughs that

permeate this dense, ancient forest, which starts just a few miles from the Gulf of Mexico.

On top of all that, there isn’t a mosquito in sight. All in all, you couldn't ask for a better day for a hike in Austin's Woods — so named because Stephen F. Austin brought his initial band of Anglo settlers here in 1823. My aim is far more modest - to visit a very large, very old tree that was probably already growing when those first colonists arrived.

This is not just any big old tree, mind you. Unknown to science until 2000, it's the new champion live oak in all of Texas - officially designated as such last year by the Texas Forest Service. Agency experts bestowed the title after they carefully measured the oak, awarding points for its oblong trunk, its towering height, and the spread of its mighty crown. First, though, they had to slog through a breathtakingly beautiful, but decidedly jungle-like, area. It’s a good thing I've got a couple of scientists who know this ground as my guides.

“These woods are just criss-crossed by these sloughs,” says Andy Sipocz, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department wetlands expert. The shallow bodies of water we’ve been splashing through are the remnants of shifting river and bayou channels. “On the banks, or what were the banks, you get cherry laurels,” he says. “In the sloughs themselves, the dominant tree is green ash, but you’ll also find American elm. Marsh grasses sprout later in the year, forming a complete mat across the water.”

When walking through the woods also means wading, it’s easier to understand terminology such as “bottomland hardwoods” and “riparian wetlands” and “fluvial woodlands.” Easier, also, to understand what scientists mean by “ecosystem” — in this case, a system called the Columbia Bottomlands. These bottomlands extend through four Texas counties — Brazoria, Matagorda, Fort Bend and Wharton — sharing a forested floodplain network of rivers and creeks and oxbows and ponds and marshes.

My other guide today is Mike Lange, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who discovered the champion oak in 2000. His agency was considering acquiring this swampy tract at the time. When that happened in 2001, the 1,271-acre property became a part of the neighboring San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge.

That acquisition was an important step, but just one among many in an unfolding conservation initiative in Austin’s Woods. The partnership involves the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and TPWD, plus an array of other government and private entities. The principal aim is to protect some of Texas’ dwindling coastal forests, whose crucial value for millions of migrating songbirds has only become well understood in recent years.

Since it’s only mid-February, it’s still a little early for the songbirds’ annual arrival, Lange tells me. These neotropical migrants fly northward across the Gulf from their winter homes in Mexico and Central America, stopping for a rest and sustenance in the Columbia Bottomlands and other coastal woodlands before flying on to summer homes as far north as Canada. In the fall, they use the same Gulf Coast forests on their way south.

Just because the migrants haven’t showed up yet doesn't mean there aren’t plenty of resident and wintering birds here now. As we move into yet another watery zone, Lange identifies the call of a blue-gray gnatcatcher. A ruby-crowned kinglet, which winters here, chatters nearby. Lange points to raccoon tracks in the mud, just a couple of feet from a fresh crawfish hole. In the distance, a frog’s call vibrates.

When we finally arrive, the champion live oak lives up to my expectations. I’d seen a photo of it with a tiny human figure in the crook of an impossibly big, bifurcating trunk. It seemed like a trick picture, a computer-generated version of those old Texas postcard images of cowboys astride jackrabbits. But here, in this quiet forest, amid other ancient live oaks, the new champion is a strikingly real vision, its craggy branches fanning outward and upward. “Majestic” can seem like a clich in describing nature’s splendor, but it seems absolutely right in this case.

As old and majestic as it is, though, it’s not just the big live oak that impresses me about this walk — it’s the rich variety of life bursting forth all around. Sipocz points out the mammoth trunk of a downed oak that lies next to our path. Covered with moss, it seems like a micro-ecosystem of its own. “These oaks take forever to rot,” he says.

On our way out of the woods, we wade across the biggest, deepest slough yet, where sunlight reflects from the rusty shades of leaves, mud and twigs on the bottom. A red berry floats next to yellow oak leaves, and palmetto leaves jut from the glistening water everywhere.

A little farther on, a black willow is starting to leaf out. Lange points out a gar gliding past. Nearby, he spots a black-bellied whistling duck, a tropical species whose range is expanding northward. A great egret takes wing.

About 12 miles north of the champion oak, west of the town of West Columbia, is the first property protected under the Austin’s Woods initiative after it got started in 1999 - a 657-acre tract of old-growth forest land called Dance Bayou. Here, scientists are cataloguing the scope of the Columbia Bottomlands’ biological diversity.

Since its donation to the federal government in 1997, for instance, biologists have come to realize that Dance Bayou is one of the largest tracts of old-growth woodland left in the southern United States, Lange says.

Wylie C. Barrow, a Louisiana-based wildlife biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, has studied birds on the property for eight years now. “The Columbia Bottoms is probably the biggest remaining patch of woods that goes down and meets the Gulf shore and sits right in the center of where consistently these [spring] flights make landfall,” he says. In the fall, though there are not as many trans-Gulf flights, the Texas woods are “equally important,” he adds.

David Rosen, a Houston-based biologist for the USFWS, has been documenting the profusion of plant life that is so essential to the area’s bird-friendliness. So far, he has counted 335 flowering species alone on the Dance Bayou tract. That means it’s “a very diverse, very rich” place botanically and suggests there are many more such species throughout the entire Columbia Bottomlands region.

“Bird diversity is tied to plant diversity,” Rosen explains. “There are so many niches available for prey species and the things that eat them.” He laughingly confesses that when he was growing up in Brazoria County, hunting and fishing in its swampy woods, he never dreamed he’d be back someday, doing botanical research.

“The forest community is a product of all the types of soils and wetness,” he says. “It's all coupled. There are so many small, unnamed tributaries and low places and swales that criss-cross that kind of habitat. They're all important in driving these systems.”

It’s the same story throughout the Columbia Bottomlands region, which encompasses the flood plains of three rivers — the Brazos, San Bernard and Colorado — along with numerous tributaries and countless other water bodies, says Ron Bisbee, who retired in December 2003 after 25 years as manager of what is now called the Texas Mid-Coast National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

“This whole river system tends to mash together,” he says. “The Brazos and San Bernard are not very far apart in a lot of places. The Brazos overflows into Oyster Creek in a flood, then Oyster Creek overflows into Bastrop Bayou, so Bastrop Bayou becomes a tributary of the Brazos in a high flood. These things all tend to get interconnected.”

That interconnection assumed new significance about 12 years ago, when Clemson University scientist Sidney Gauthreaux used Doppler weather radar to document how important the Columbia Bottomlands’ forest habitat is for dwindling populations of migratory birds. In earlier research, Gauthreaux had found that the number of cross-Gulf flights by migrating songbirds had declined by half from the 1960s to the late 1980s.

Knowing the forests were being cleared for various purposes, Bisbee, Lange and other USFWS officials saw in Gauthreaux’s findings an incentive to propose a conservation partnership to protect some of this habitat, by acquisition from donors and willing sellers and by other means.

The resulting federal proposal quickly ran into heated controversy, as some local residents and political leaders charged it was a federal land-grab. Others in the area rallied to the support of the conservation drive. But the dispute eventually died down. When he was governor of Texas, George W. Bush sided with local leaders opposing federal land acquisitions in the Austin's Woods area. But now that Bush is president, federal acquisitions are moving ahead. Now subsided, the debate about how to conserve forests in the Columbia Bottomlands appears to have boosted public appreciation of their environmental values and the threats that forest-clearing poses.

A four-county task force, set up to study the issue when the controversy still raged, concluded that 237 bird species totaling 239 million individuals were “regularly using and depending on” the Austin’s Woods area. The task force also teamed with TPWD, Texas A&M University, the private Gulf Coast Bird Observatory and others for a habitat inventory. It concluded that forests of the Columbia Bottomlands region had declined by almost 17 percent from 1979 to 1995 — from 305,914 to 254,269 acres. (W.B. Dewees, an early visitor, had recorded in 1838 that the region - about 40 miles wide and about 60 miles long, or more than 1.5 million acres - was “covered almost entirely in cane brake and forests.”)

The controversy “was a blessing in disguise in a lot of ways, because everybody in town now knows about the value of the system,” Bisbee says.

Projects to conserve parts of Austin’s Woods have been proceeding amicably for several years now, through a variety of methods and partnerships. The Lake Jackson-based Gulf Coast Bird Observatory has raised funds to buy several pieces of land now in federal hands. Other environmental groups have played various roles. Private citizens have donated property. Dow Chemical gave land for a Bottomlands Park to the city of Lake Jackson. The TPWD Stringfellow Wildlife Management Area, managed for old-growth species, is the main freshwater source for federal lands downstream, including the property with the champion live oak and the marshlands of the original San Bernard refuge, just to the southeast.

“We’ve really been working closely with Parks and Wildlife,” Lange says. “We've worked together to add land to Stringfellow using mitigation funds. And they’ve been working with us to add lands to the refuge." All together, about 14,500 acres of forest land have been protected in the overall Austin's Woods initiative — 8,582 acres in federal ownership as units of the San Bernard refuge, the rest owned by TPWD and others. The USFWS plan for the Austin’s Woods partnership proposed protecting up to 70,000 acres eventually.

The spirit of cooperation is on public display at the 1,093-acre Hudson Tract near Angleton, which was acquired by the USFWS in 2002 and opened for weekend birdwatching last October. The former landowner made a major donation. The Gulf Coast Bird Observatory contributed funds toward the remaining purchase price. The U.S. Department of Agriculture paid to restore a drained wetland. TPWD provided a grant to develop public-use trails and restore a cabin as an environmental education center. Local children have been planting trees.

Protecting some of what’s left of Austin’s Woods — an environmentally and historically important part of the state — has obviously become a shared enterprise. When I talk to Cecilia Riley, the executive director of the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory, about that work, she explains that it’s also a project in which Texans are doing their part to help safeguard a widely-shared resource.

“We don't control what's happening to these birds in Mexico, or when they’re over the Gulf, or when they're in their breeding grounds in the Northeast and Canada,” she says. “But we can take care of what we have here to insure they have a safe migration.”

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