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Oaks at Risk

New initiatives are aimed at protecting Rockport’s rapidly disappearing windswept oaks.

By Rob McCorkle

The laid-back, artsy community of Rockport enjoys an enviable tourism business, buoyed by its picture-book beauty. At the heart of the Aransas County town’s natural charm are its thick stands of gnarly live oaks, sculpted into fantastic shapes by the south-southeasterly Gulf breezes. But Rockport’s trademark oaks and wildlife-rich undergrowth are disappearing. And that has longtime residents and part-time visitors as hot as a jellyfish sting.

Caught in the middle of this civic maelstrom is Rockport Mayor Todd Pearson. Pearson explains that Rockport is being loved to death by vacationers and urban refugees. A rapidly growing population, combined with a multimillion-dollar tourism trade, leads to interest from commercial real estate developers.

Diane Probst, president and CEO of the Rockport-Fulton Chamber of Commerce, worries about Texas A&M University’s projections that Aransas County’s population of 24,000 will double in 20 years.

A drive down State Highway 35 through the heart of Fulton and Rockport shows you that population growth has spawned a Wal-Mart Super Store, an H-E-B, a Walgreens, an American Bank and even a new Starbucks. Acres of parking lots have replaced oak forests where deer, birds and other critters once lived. The clear cutting of some of that land has locals worked into a frenzy: “Save the Live Oak Trees of Aransas County” petitions circulated; the city council held a series of public meetings to hear grievances; and citizens groups organized to protect the old-growth oaks from being mowed down.

In response, last August the city amended its landscape and tree ordinance to tighten up development rules to afford more protection for the trees.

Ordinance 1349 purports to “enhance real estate and economic values; to ensure that excessive tree cutting does not reduce property values” and encourages the “preservation and enhancement of natural areas and habitat on public and private property.”

But will that be enough?

Some Rockport folks doubt it and question the feasibility of enforcing the ordinance with only one landscape official. The ordinance prohibits removal of “protected trees” (those over six inches in diameter), some of which have stood on this strip of coastal land for more than 500 years. It requires those who intend to clear a lot for commercial or large-scale residential development to apply for a tree removal permit, and submit a tree survey and site plan before a building permit will be issued.

“There aren’t many places along the Gulf Coast where you have native oak trees like this,” says Jay Tarkington, who directs the Aquatic Education Program at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. “The oaks in Aransas and surrounding counties exist only in an approximate three-mile-thick strip that stretches from the Aransas Wildlife Refuge in Tivoli to Corpus Christi Bay.”

Live oaks that fall to the bulldozer or chain saw on Live Oak Peninsula, where Rockport and Fulton are located, won’t be easily replaced.

“Anything growing here has to be able to stand salt spray, windy conditions and slightly alkaline and deep sandy soil with a fluctuating water table. Most of the habitat here is not protected by federal law,” explains Kay Jenkins, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department natural resources coordinator based in Rockport. That’s why she is seeking grant money from federal agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to protect the unique “live oak red bay community.” She also believes state wildlife conservation easements might be a way to protect threatened coastal habitat.

The city council is working on an Environmental Master Plan that would set forth community standards for trees, habitat and drainage to help guide development throughout the county, not just within Rockport city limits. And the city is cooperating with local environmental group Aransas First in preserving and managing a portion of Tule Creek to minimize erosion and tainted runoff into Rockport’s main creek that feeds into Little Bay.

“Frankly, people come to Rockport for the environment. It’s the look and feel that draws people here. It’s a difficult compromise,” Pearson admits. “We encourage developers to be very, very sensitive to environmental issues.”

Only time will tell if the live oaks — an essential part of Rockport’s heritage — will become an endangered species.

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