TEXAS GEMS - SCENIC GALVESTON, Inc. Nature Preserve
Narrative Description of the Site: The I-45 Estuary portion of the SCENIC GALVESTON (SG) Preserve is the wetland corridor ‘gateway’ to Galveston Island, running along both sides of I-45 from (approximately) Bayou Vista to the Galveston Causeway. It is composed of natural, undisturbed tidal marsh as well as five tracts of disturbed land (totaling over 70 acres) that have been restored to historical marsh conditions. The Virginia Point tract is predominately coastal prairie with interspersed freshwater sloughs and ponds. Together, these tracts of land form a contiguous coastal preserve across the southern tip of the mainland from Jones Bay to the west, where the wetlands are adjacent to property across Highland Bayou managed by The Nature Conservancy and Galveston Bay Foundation, to Galveston Bay to the east. The preserve encompasses approximately 5 linear miles of Bay shoreline.
The SG preserve encompasses almost 2,400 acres. The I-45
Corridor Estuary is approximately 900 acres in size, while the Virginia
Point tract is 1,498 acres.
Area of Influence:
Gulf Coast Prairies and Marshes -4b – Estuarine Zone and 4c- Upland Prairies and Woods (Ecoregions and Subregions, Texas Maps).
Ecological and Cultural Characteristics
The SG preserve is listed as a Gulf Prairies and Marsh Ecoregion. This ecoregion is broken down into 1) Bluestem Grassland, 2) Live Oak Woods/Parks, and 3) Marsh/Barrier Island. The I-45 Corridor tract is predominately intertidal marsh, while most of the Virginia Point Peninsula is higher upland grassland habitat with freshwater ponds and swales.
Species listed as Endangered or Threatened, or as a Species of Concern that have been documented to occur on the SG preserve include the Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis), Reddish egret (Egretta refuscens), piping plover (Charadruis melodus) and Texas Diamondback Terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin littoralis). There has also been a historical account of the Attwater’s Greater Prairie Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido attwateri) on the Virginia Point Peninsula.
The intertidal marshes found in the I-45 Corridor and the Virginia Point Peninsula have been identified as Essential Fish Habitat (EFH) by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (GMFMC) for postlarval, juvenile, and subadult white shrimp (Litopenaeus setiferus), brown shrimp (Farfantepenaeus aztecus), Spanish mackerel (Scomberomorous maculatus), and red drum (Sciaenops ocellatus). In addition to being designated as EFH, the mud bottom and shallow water habitats of the preserve site provide nursery, foraging and refuge habitats that support various recreationally and economically important marine fishery species, such as spotted seatrout (Cynoscion nebulosus), flounder (Paralichthys spp.), Atlantic croaker (Micropogonias undulatus), black drum (Pogonias cromis), gulf menhaden (Brevoortia patronus), striped mullet (Mugil cephalus), and blue crab (Callinectes sapidus). Such estuarine-dependent organisms serve as prey for other fisheries managed under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation Management Act by the GMFMC (e.g., red drum, mackerels, snappers, and groupers) and highly migratory species managed by NOAA Fisheries (e.g., billfishes and sharks).
Habitat totaling 47 acres that was restored from a former
landfill area within the
I-45 Corridor has been documented as nesting areas for least terns (Sterna antillarum) for the past several years. Other species known to nest in the SG preserve include the seaside sparrow (Ammodramus maritimus), clapper rail (Rallus longirostris), and black crown night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax).
The diversity of vegetative communities at the Virginia Point Peninsula provide an array of feeding communities for wildlife that inhabit and visit the site. Coastal prairies and fresh marsh dominate the site. Since May 2003, more than fifty-eight (58) species of vascular plants have been identified. The oxbow that bisects the property holds fresh water for long periods of time providing emergent freshwater plants the opportunity to thrive. Delta arrowhead, four-angled spikerush, horned beakrush, green flat-sedge and swamp smartweed are abundant within the fresh marsh oxbow. Numerous species of waterfowl and wading have been identified using the property. Resident Mottled ducks and wintering waterfowl utilize these valuable plant species. The prairie, which includes: salt-meadow cordgrass, little bluestem, and brown-seed paspalum, as well as the fresh marsh provide an area for birds, mammals, and reptiles to feed on a variety of vertebrates, aquatic and terrestrial invertebrates, and diverse plant species.
For the relatively small size of the preserve, a diverse variety of habitats exist that support numerous wintering wading birds and shorebirds, including sheltered deep water, mudflats, open shoreline (beach), intertidal marshes, and freshwater ponded areas. Eighty-seven (87) species were recorded during the 2002 Christmas Bird Count. A total of 105 species have been recorded throughout the preserve. A recent partnership with the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory will allow more intensive avian monitoring throughout the year, especially with regards to neotropical migrants and waterfowl.
The Virginia Point Peninsula lies atop Holocene alluvium in the Coastal Plain Province. Soils of the area are mapped on sheet 25 of the Galveston County Soil Survey (Crenwelge et al. 1988). Soils within the oxbow are mapped as Leton loams. This series is a common poorly drained non-saline soil of old stream meanders and depressions. The surrounding prairie is mapped as Narta fine sandy loam. These soils are somewhat poorly drained moderately saline soils of uplands adjacent to marsh.
The diversity of habitats throughout the SG preserve provides foraging and breeding ground for hundreds of wildlife species. In addition to habitat, the tidal marshes within the I-45 Corridor also provide erosion protection through soil stabilization and water quality enhancement.
Uniqueness of Natural Community:
One of the major features about the SG preserve is that it is the last contiguous parcel of land, totaling almost 2,400 acres, from Galveston Bay to Jones Bay that exists in a highly urbanized and industrialized area. Added to that is the fact that most of the Virginia Point Peninsula tract is relatively undisturbed and has never been mechanically cultivated or altered.
Archaeological and Cultural Significance:
Virginia Point Peninsula (including the I-45 Corridor tract) is a historically important geographical feature, extending out into Galveston Bay toward Galveston Island, providing the jumpoff point for the Galveston Causeway as well as two earlier rail lines. The site’s eastern shoreline consists of an upland ridge overlooking the Bay, where several significant early features were located. Perhaps most notably, the remnants of Fort Herbert, a Civil War fort, adjoin the railroad line at the south end of the Point. The historic railroad drawbridge was strategically important during the Civil War for access to the Island. (Galveston changed hands several times during the war.)
Judge William J. Jones’s cotton and stock plantation was an important early feature of Virginia Point; his large three story house, built in 1852, later served as Civil War hospital. Brick cisterns and other related features are readily visible today. Judge Jones took an active interest in promoting the Galveston Houston and Henderson Railroad in 1855; he also attempted to develop an associated townsite on the Point. After the war ended, a portion of the proposed development was actually laid out; it is still interestingly visible on aerial photographs.
The I-45 Corridor tract contains the remnants of a civil war era brick manufactory near the Jones Bay shoreline. Today, this upland outcrop accommodates tree and brush cover housing a Night heron rookery easily visible from the I-45 frontage.
SG is beginning to work toward both federal National Register and State Archeological Landmark designations for the preserve’s cultural resource sites, Fort Hebert in particular.
Vernon Bailey’s 1910 Biological Survey of Texas utilized Virginia Point as a study site. The original field notes and photographs from this survey, extant at the Smithsonian Institution Archives in Washington DC, are anticipated to provide not only invaluable wildlife information but also a cultural snapshot of Virginia Point at the turn of the century.
Current and Potential Use of the Site
Existing or Potential Educational Use:
The I-45 Estuarial Corridor has been the site of numerous restoration efforts, all of which involve citizen volunteers in some form. (SG is essentially a Friends group of its own preserve; the organization has no paid staff.) Numerous local school groups visit and partake in organized educational activities along the I-45 Corridor each year. SG is increasingly being approached by schools and universities (including Texas A&M Galveston, University of Texas, and University of Houston, Clear Lake) to conduct research on the preserve. Additionally, thousands of people pass through the marsh daily along I-45. SG’s restoration activities have served to focus attention on the plight of our coastal wetlands and (in this case) their reemerging beauty and productivity.
All properties within the SCENIC GALVESTON preserve are dedicated to non-intrusive recreational public uses. The I-45 Corridor is used daily by any number of people who visit the marshes for recreational fishing and bird watching. The Virginia Point Peninsula will, over time, provide enhanced opportunities for nature-oriented pedestrian visitation via a primitive trail/boardwalk system, etc. The preserve is currently a stop on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail.
The O’Quinn I-45 Estuarial Corridor is owned by SCENIC GALVESTON. The Virginia Point Peninsula Preserve is under contract for purchase by SG from the University of Texas, anticipated to close late summer 2003. The purchase is being funded in full by the Coastal Impact Assistance Program of NOAA and the Texas General Land Office.
The I-45 Estuarial Corridor has been dedicated by deed conservation easement to the US Fish & Wildlife Service. It is expected that the Virginia Point Peninsula Preserve will also be deeded under conservation easement when the sale is closed.
The I-45 Estuarial Corridor is managed as a scenic park for wetland habitat conservation. It is open to the public for non-intrusive uses. Plans for the Virginia Point Peninsula Preserve include non-intrusive public uses as well as additional management efforts to build educational and interpretive facilities. Long-term management to enhance the biological resources on both properties will be ongoing as necessary.
Existing Monitoring Activities:
As a relatively new conservation site, biologists involved with the SG preserve are in the early stages of documenting existing biological resources and are currently developing long-term monitoring protocols.
An approximate 10-acre portion of the I-45 Estuarial Corridor that was restored to intertidal marsh from a previous fireworks stand and concrete pad is currently monitored for vegetative cover and density as part of the Galveston Bay Foundation’s Citizen-Based Habitat Monitoring Program. Three other restored sites are also beginning formal monitoring by SG volunteers using similar protocols.
Current avian monitoring throughout the SG preserve is by the way of the Audubon Christmas Bird Count and the USFWS Colonial Waterbird Count and other seasonal recording by SG volunteers. Future monitoring efforts will be coordinated with the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory through that organization’s Gulf Wide Site Partner Program.
The I-45 Corridor marshes have been the site of recent NOAA Fisheries research on the productivity of natural versus restored intertidal marshes. Continued monitoring of fisheries resources within the restored marshes is ongoing.
Botanists with the US Fish & Wildlife Service have completed a cursory survey of plant species within the I-45 Corridor marshes as well as the Virginia Point Peninsula freshwater wetlands and coastal prairie.
The primary management need for the SG preserve is to develop a comprehensive long-term management plan for biological resources found within both the I-45 Corridor and Virginia Point Peninsula properties. Specific goals within this plan will include, but are not limited to, biological surveys and monitoring, invasive/exotic species removal, and development of educational programs.
Threats to Ecological Integrity:
Because the SG preserve properties are/will be deeded as conservation easements, the threat of development no longer exists. The largest threats to the ecology of the preserve include hydrological changes due to misuse by the public, shoreline erosion (specifically on the shoreline of the Virginia Point Peninsula) and invasive/exotic species encroaching on native habitat. The urgency of the shoreline erosion and invasive/exotic species problem is higher than public misuse of the preserve lands.
SG is fortunate to have many partners, including federal and state agencies, that have been involved in the acquisition and restoration of the preserve properties. These partners will continue to advise and participate with SG in developing long-term management goals for the preserve. Once the sale of the Virginia Point Peninsula is closed, the threat of development of that property will cease to exist. Additionally, public education as to acceptable uses of the SG preserve will help conserve and manage its biological resources.
Sources of Information
Crenwelge, G.W., E.L. Griffin, and J.K. Baker. 1988. Soil Survey of Galveston County, Texas. Soil Conservation Service, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Washington, DC.