By: Matthew Jackson
First opened in 1995 by the City of Baytown, the Baytown Nature Center now encompasses 450 acres of what once was the Brownwood subdivision. It is located near the confluence of Buffalo Bayou and San Jacinto River just before emptying into Galveston Bay. The peninsula is surrounded on three sides by Burnet Bay, Crystal Bay, and Scott Bay. The location is known to have been home to the Arkokisa Indians who took advantage of the marshes and bays for hunting and fishing. The land was purchased by Edwin Rice Brown Sr. in 1910 for cattle ranching. Following his death in 1927, his widow, Myra C. Brown began selling lots for development and a decade later, most of the remaining lots were sold Humble Oil executives for homes. The subdivision was annexed by the City of Baytown in 1962.
Within 20 years of being developed, the subdivision has begun subsiding due to ground water withdrawal. In some cases, the land sunk as much as 15 feet. Storm surges and river flooding became more of an issue over time. In August 1983, Hurricane Alicia dealt the final blow to Brownwood when a 10-foot storm surge left the subdivision in ruins. The location was deemed unhabitable following the storm which led to the City of Baytown to begin buying the lots and removing any remaining structures and debris from the site.
In 1995, the peninsula’s move back to nature began with an initial 65 acres being reverted back wetlands and forested islands. Ongoing restoration projects and the development of recreation areas and trails in the early 2000’s helped the Nature Center become a popular destination for nature enthusiasts in the Houston area. Hurricane Ike in 2008 and the associated 13-foot storm surge destroyed or heavily damaged structures and habitat. Since then, the City of Baytown and the Friends of The Baytown Nature Center have rebuilt facilities and added new nature education areas.
Activities and Opportunities-
The Baytown Nature Center offers a wide array of activities to visitors. Several piers are available for fishing and crabbing to people holding a valid fishing license. The site is unique for fishing because it is centrally located between the San Jacinto River, the Houston Ship Channel (Buffalo Bayou) and Galveston Bay.
Wildlife observation is also widely available and accessible. The Brownwood Education Pavilion sits atop about a 20 foot tall hill in the middle of the Nature Center and provides a 360 degree view of the interior wetlands, both Crystal and Scott Bays, and a view of the San Jacinto Monument that sits across Crystal Bay. Over 5 miles of trails follow what once were streets lined with houses in the Brownwood Subdivision, but are now home to the wildlife that live in the restored marshes and forests. Bird blinds provide excellent views into hidden ponds where wading birds feed and songbirds next in the surrounding oak trees. The site is well known for its birding in the community in addition to the Texas coast as it is part of the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail. The Myra C. Brown Bird Sanctuary is on the northern end of the Nature Center and was among the first portions of land set aside for the restoration and is a great location to find nesting birds.
The Crystal Bay Butterfly Garden is home to various types of butterfly-friendly
flowers including lantana, coreopsis, Turk’s Cap and Mexican Milkweed. Black Swallowtail, Spicebush Swallowtail, and Gulf Fritillary are all commonly seen in the garden. Picnic areas and a new playground are available near the Butterfly Garden for families and offer shade and scenic views of the ship channel and San Jacinto Monument. Hiking and biking are also available on the old neighborhood roads that wind through the wetlands.
Furthermore, the Friends of The Baytown Nature Center also host volunteer work days for which have included marsh grass and tree plantings, installing interpretative materials, constructing bridges and fishing piers, and helping host an annual nature festival. They also partner with the Eddie V. Gray Wetlands Center in Baytown for education programs with local students.
Why is it significant to Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge?-
Being only 35 miles apart, the Baytown Nature Center and Anahuac NWR share
quite a bit in common. Both provide wetlands and coastal prairie habitat for wildlife. Both are subjected to hurricanes that occur on the upper Texas coast and both places provide buffers for inland areas against tropical storms. The most significant difference is the past development that occurred at the Baytown Nature Center. It is a perfect example of measuring human’s impact on ecosystems. The formerly native wetlands and forests that existed for hundreds, even thousands of years, were lost in just a matter of
a few years once human development occurred. When Hurricane Alicia struck the area, the habitat struggled to recover. It wasn’t until a decade later when the community discovered the ecological value in the site and turned it into the Baytown Nature Center. It is impressive to see the city’s and the Friends of The Baytown Nature Center’s restoration efforts. Their hard work and commitment clearly shows the value of nature to local residents.
Anahuac NWR and many refuges across the country were set aside for preservation before development occurred just for this reason. Anahuac will always be subjected to hurricanes in the future, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Friends of Anahuac Refuge continue to give habitats and wildlife the best possible chance to withstand such events and recover. The evidence is the recovery of the coastal prairies and marshes on the refuge following Hurricane Ike in 2008. Friends members and volunteers work with refuge staff to carry out land management projects and scientific research at Anahuac NWR, and refuges across the country, so they remain healthy and vibrant. See the wildlife and work being done at YOUR local national wildlife refuges. MJ
Historical information from the Friends of The Baytown Nature Center. For more information, photos, and visit their website: http://www.baytownnaturecenter.org/
Click here to read more about the Baytown Nature Center in Gary Clark's Nature Column in the Houston Chronicle