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Conservationist stresses prairie’s importance

December 16, 2018

Mary Anne Piacentini is the face and name people associate with the Katy Prairie Conservancy, which protects land west of Katy that is representative of what the area looked like before increased urbanization occurred — filled with tallgrasses and native plants that provide a habitat for wildlife. It’s a labor of love.

What is the Katy Prairie Conservancy and what does it do?

The Katy Prairie Conservancy (KPC) is a private, non-profit land trust that has been working since 1992 to protect a sustainable portion of the Katy Prairie for the benefit of its wildlife and the enjoyment of all Texans. KPC’s long-term goals are to: protect at least 50,000 acres of the Katy Prairie; take care of these protected lands in an environmentally responsible manner; safeguard habitat for the wildlife that call the prairie home; engage the local community in protecting the prairie and connecting with nature; promote economic incentives to ensure the prairie’s long-term conservation; educate the public about the importance of the Katy Prairie and the need to preserve it; and conduct scientific research as needed to accomplish KPC’s mission.

What are the sights people may be surprised to see at KPC?

There are so many sights to see on the prairie - incredible sunsets and sunrises, colorful wildflowers, native grasses that grow to eight feet tall, and more wildlife than you can imagine - monarch butterflies, white-tailed deer, and red-tailed hawks, just to name a few. Many people may not know that there are bald eagles who live on the prairie during the winter months. During that time, the prairie is also home to long-billed curlews and sandhill cranes, thousands of them roost as night descends on the prairie. It is often surprising for visitors to realize how quiet the prairie is as there are few cars on the road and no freeways close by. After noticing the quiet, visitors start to hear other quieter sounds - frogs croaking, dicksissels singing, coyotes howling, and the wind rippling through the tallgrasses. Visitors might also catch a glimpse of a bobcat running through the fields or a river otter in one of our streams. People might also be amazed at all the standing water on the prairie after a rain. Prairies and wetlands are great at absorbing water naturally and slowing down floodwaters.

How did you become connected to the KPC? What is your role?

I met with a committee of the board of directors of the Katy Prairie Conservancy in late 1998 for what I thought would be a consulting project to find a new executive director. After numerous meetings and many discussions regarding the organization’s long-term objectives, I realized that I was becoming passionate about KPC and wanted to be a part of achieving these goals. So, when the committee asked me once more if I would become their executive director, I said yes! Today, I am the president and chief executive officer serving as the liaison to the board and as the chief spokesperson for KPC. I coordinate KPC’s land protection programs, establish community partnerships and relationships with diverse stakeholders, and oversee the agency’s operations.

How did you get started in conservation?

When I moved back to Houston in 1991, I worked with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to research land trusts and identify best practices. I soon found that my planning background would be a good fit for working at a land trust. It took me 8 years to find the right one, but the work at the Katy Prairie Conservancy is challenging, exciting and rewarding. It was worth the wait.

Do you take conservation personally? Why?

Yes, I do. I am involved with the Katy Prairie Conservancy because I value the work we do and its impact on today’s residents as well as future residents. I also hope to leave a body of work that my children can be proud of and may even point to in the future when they have children.

You received the 2018 Flo Hannah Prairie Excellence Award and the 2018 Terry Hershey Bayou Stewardship Award. Tell us about the awards and what they mean.

I was overwhelmed to receive these two awards, both named after women who served as an inspiration to so many of us in the conservation community. They highlight the importance of conservation efforts in the region and the community benefits that conservation offers - access for recreation, cleaner air and water, wildlife habitat, local food production, and flood mitigation. The awards offer the community an opportunity to see what a difference conservation makes to our health, to our quality of life and to the environment.

Do events like Hurricane Harvey highlight the need for conservation?

I think that events like Hurricane Harvey show that we need to be mindful that we cannot control nature. We can, however, use the natural assets that a region has to lessen the impact and damages to property and life. Hurricane Harvey affected all of us, even those who were not actually flooded. By impacting such a large swath of the community, I think residents, elected and appointed officials, and others realized that we cannot continue to do things the way they have always been done in the past and expect a different result. The event helped all of us begin to think differently about storms and to try to come up with creative approaches to storm management and flood mitigation. While our natural infrastructure may not be able to stop all flooding, we can use our bayous and other waterways to help reduce flooding; we can use open space and conservation lands to absorb and detain more water; and we can develop plans to keep people out of the most vulnerable places where they might be put in harm’s way. I am optimistic that the region can develop a plan that will use science, nature, and technology to ensure that the region of the future is more resilient. Given the rainfall levels and the flat topography, we will not be able to eliminate flooding, but we can make sure that we lessen flooding and its impact on those who live and work here.

The Houston-Galveston Area Council is working on Waller County Transportation Plan. Can growth and conservation coexist?

The Katy Prairie Conservancy was part of the committee that worked with the Houston-Galveston Area Council of Governments on the plan. All of us were careful to try to balance the need for mobility with the need to retain greenspace. We looked at areas where there was likely to be lots of development and at those areas where nature could be accommodated. We took the need for mobility into account even as KPC and others encouraged the committee and Waller County to remove major thoroughfares from areas that were already permanently conserved and where there would be no future development. Community residents may want to get to their destination but they also like being able to enjoy nature. Many people live in Waller County because they enjoy nature and the more rural aspects found there so the committee needed to provide a balance. I remember when City of Houston Mayor Bill White recognized early on in his tenure that without places to picnic, to hike, to birdwatch, to fish, to have adventures, Houston would not be able to compete for new jobs and for young people to stay in or move to Houston. KPC believes that working together, we can ensure that the region is a greener and more livable place that works efficiently and effectively for our residents and our workers.

Without conservation, what does the future of the area look like?

Conservation helps a community retain its natural assets so they are available and accessible to the public, now and in the future. Large-scale and small-scale conservation efforts make the region and its citizens healthier, happier and maybe even a little smarter.

karen.zurawski@chron.com

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