A phone call surprised officials planning the proposed Lone Star Coastal National Recreation Area.
The caller was Matagorda County Judge Nate McDonald. McDonald said, “We’ve got a county down here … and we would really like to be included,” recalled Victoria Herrin, a local campaign director for the National Parks Conservation Association.
McDonald saw the proposed national recreation area as a way to bring in tourist dollars. He was determined that his county be included in plans that originally limited Lone Star Coastal, as supporters call it, to Brazoria, Galveston and Chambers counties — neighbors to the northeast. “We were thrilled that he called our attention to that and more or less insisted that they be included,” Herrin said.
Nearly three years later, efforts to create a national recreation area covering 146 miles of Texas coast and four counties has reached a milestone. Lone Star Coastal supporters have finished a draft of the legislation they are hoping a member of the Texas congressional delegation will introduce as a bill.
‘Timing and Politics’
Influential Houston businessman John L. Nau has been keeping key members of the delegation, state and local officials briefed on the proposal, which requires congressional approval. Nau is chairman of a committee formed to create the recreational area.
Nau said he must wait until after the November election to again brief new and veteran office-holders on the latest version of the draft bill, a task he probably won’t complete until January at the earliest.
Getting the draft legislation introduced as a bill will be up to the delegation, Nau said. “They know the timing and the politics of it,” Nau said. “My job is to get them to understand the language and the benefits.”
Nau was scheduled to meet recently with U.S. Rep. Randy Weber, R-Friendswood, whose district covers Galveston and Brazoria counties. Weber’s office released this statement: “It is definitely on his radar, but he has not committed to a stance on the matter.”
Nau insists that Weber and other elected officials are supportive. He is not aware of any opposition. “Everyone understands the economic benefits for tourism of branding the national recreation area.
“I realize at some point we may have some concerns from people,” he said. “But I’m not being Pollyannaish. We have had no pushback.”
One reason may be that participation is voluntary, and federal involvement is minimal. All the money for creation of the recreation area is from private donations and money for maintaining the district will be raised locally.
Lone Star Coastal may ask the National Park Service to provide some staff, but all land within the recreation area will be managed by the owners. “We will ask people if they feel if there is value to be listed,” said McDonald, whose county is one of 18 land-owning recreation-area partners. “It has nothing in it that takes any private landowner’s land away.”
Taking so long to get the proposal this far is no surprise, Herrin said. Creating a new national park typically takes 10 to 20 years, she said. “If I was to characterize it, I would say it’s moving along very well. It’s very complex to put together a park.”
The Lone Star Coastal was one of several proposals for defending the Houston region from a storm surge. Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters, or SSPEED, Center offered the proposal and others in 2011, and the idea gained rapid support. The National Parks Conservation Association joined with former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Nau to lead the effort. Besides the 18 government and private organizations owning coastal property that have signed on as partners, four others have joined as affiliates and five as supporting organizations.
Could be Storm Buffer
The association issued a report in January 2012 saying that a national recreation area would preserve wetlands that form a natural buffer to storm surges like the one that pummeled the coast when Hurricane Ike struck in September 2008, causing an estimated $25 million in damage. Critics have questioned whether the existing wetlands are large enough to sufficiently dampen a major storm surge.
If there are misgivings about the proposal’s storm protection qualities, there is widespread belief that it will provide an important boost to tourism.
The report found that Lone Star Coastal would attract 500,000 visitors its first year, create 1,200 jobs and $46 million in local sales, figures that would quadruple in a decade.
Chambers County became a partner because the proposal offers more opportunities to market tourist attractions, said Sarah Cerrone, the county’s economic development director. “Chambers County has a pretty vast area of public lands,” including the 30,000-acre Anahuac National Wildlife refuge. Cerrone said. “We feel like this national recreation area will be a great vehicle for us to publicize these opportunities.”
Likewise, Matagorda County expects the area to bring more tourists. “There is just no downside to it really,” McDonald said. “All we are trying to do is marshal some of the Gulf Coast’s treasures and protect them for future generations.”