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Mary Anne Piacentini

INTERVIEWEE: Mary Anne Piacentini (MAP)
DATE: February 26, 2008
LOCATION: Houston, Texas
TRANSCRIBER: Melanie Smith and Robin Johnson
REELS: 2414, 2415, and 2416

Please note that the recording includes roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the recordings. Boldfaced numbers mark the time codes for the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” refers to various off-camera conversation or background noise, unrelated to the interview.

DT: My name’s David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. We are in Houston, Texas and it is February 26th, 2008 and we are going to have the good chance to visit with Mary Anne Piacentini, who is a nonprofit manager for the Katy Prairie Conservancy and previously worked for the Friends of Hermann Park and before that with the Cultural Arts Council. So she brings lots of skills and experience to conservation and, I guess, civic improvement, you might say and for that I wanted to thank her and also for her time today to talk about it.
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MAP: Thanks for asking me.
DT: Sure. I thought we might start in your childhood years and ask you if there were any experiences that might’ve exposed you to the outdoors, taking you closer to nature that might’ve somehow planted the seed for the kind of things that you do now?
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MAP: Well, you know, it’s funny that you say that because when I thought about doing this, you know, I often thought you know, I’m really kind of a city person and I grew up till I was about ten really close to downtown Portland, Maine. I’m from New England. And really we didn’t have much of an opportunity to get out of doors, even though I was right by the Atlantic Ocean and I did go out with my parents. But you know, pretty closely guarded. And at ten, I moved out to the suburbs, of all things, and the neat thing about where I lived was it was not a classic subdivision. It was an older neighborhood that just had a couple of new houses on it and ours was one. And at the end of my street was this incredible Native American cemetery and a
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huge gully where in the winters, we would slide down with sleds and in the summer, we would—we would slide down with cardboard. But the best part was a forest that was on the other side of our street and the forest had blueberry bushes. So I went ostensibly to make money and to get blueberries for my mom to make blueberry pies. But truthfully, most of us went there because it was an opportunity to just explore, to kind of be away from real suburban, kind of classic area and go into the woods. And it was right off a major thoroughfare and it was amazing. It was really quiet, a little scary at times. But it—it was just wonderful and we kind of rode a—went around in—in gangs, a little group—good gangs, but in a gang and—and I thought it would always be there. And every time after I left—when I was eighteen,
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it was still there and I’d gone to—to college, first to New York and then in New Hampshire. Then I went to graduate school in Massachusetts, it was still there. But then as I grew up and moved away, I would come back and more and more development had come until everything was gone except the Native American cemetery. But the forest was gone and instead was a shopping center. And it seemed really sad that my nieces and nephews who still live in Maine would never have that experience that I had and it was harder and harder. You had to go someplace for nature. You couldn’t experience it right outside your door. And I think that made me realize that you have to work at this, that it doesn’t just happen magically. That as growth occurs, you have to manage it. You have to find that
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balance. And oftentimes, we—we miss it because we think everything will always be there and it isn’t. And I think, for me, that’s what, you know, made me get started thinking about I had to work at it.
DT: Speaking of working at it, it seems like a lot of the conservation challenges for everyone, and in particularly for a woman like you who runs a land trust, is trying to cope with and direct growth so that it doesn’t end up putting the shopping center in the forest that kids enjoy. I was wondering if you could talk about your education as it related to planning and design of how cities can grow in a way that is good for making sure that some of these opportunities remain for many years to come.
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MAP: Well, it’s interesting because, you know, as I—I said, I went to school in Massachusetts and I have a master’s in urban and regional planning. And when I was there, what’s really the most amazing part is I had gone because I was interested in kind of the qualitative aspects of planning, looking at how people respond to the way their cities look. Kind of the aesetic—aesthetics of it, but also in how cities are structured. So I—I thought a lot about the City Beautiful movement in Chicago, the Daniel Burnham, about Paris and (inaudible) and how much that impacts people and how it makes neighborhoods come together and be more cohesive. And interestingly enough, the program that I was in, which I felt like sort of sold me a b—some—a bag of goods because I thought it was going to be about
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that, about looking at the way you plan cities—how they work, how they look, how they function. And instead, a lot of it was about quantitative things. How do the transportation systems run? How can you can more people through? How can you pack them more densely? And I felt like that wasn’t really what I wanted and so it ended up that actually I took half my classes at MIT, which you’d think MIT would be all about the numbers. But MIT was actually more about the way things looked, the way people interacted with it and so it gave me another sense about why cities and areas around them should be designed in certain ways. But it was almost really afterwards, when I moved down here, and I was—and—and you know, working, but
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I happened to marry someone who teaches architecture and was very involved with architecture and began to bring in a lot of people like Michael Graves and Robert Venturi, brought in people like J.B. Jackson, people who think about how cities are—are built all the time. And it really kind of tested my own values and my own philosophies because I began to hear people like J. B. Jackson who talk about that roads are the greatest impetus for development more than anything in the world. That where people put a road, that is where people then begin to develop and road planners and engineers will tell you oh, no, they put the roads there because that’s where people are. But often the roads are put well before people are there. They’re put there because other people—developers, landowners, maybe even sometimes
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planners—feel like that’s the way I want growth to—to move. And so you look at all of the loops that we have and you realize that a lot of those were built well before they were needed. And yes, you should do some things for, you know, anticipated growth, but I think they also direct them. So it—it made me start to really think about how cities grow.
DT: And how did you put some of these ideas into action or how might they have influenced how you at least thought about your work when you were with the City of Houston in the community division where you were a planner?
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MAP: Right. Well, I think that one of the first things that, you know, we looked at is just the infrastructure, what was already there and why was it put there? And then we started looking at things that people sometimes discounted, like the bayous, the waterways and that, in many cases early on, they were kind of throwaways. It was like okay, that’s a vehicle, we can channelize it, we can put concrete in it. We just got to get water from one place to another place, as opposed to looking at the way that some community leaders—for example, like Terry Hershey would look at it—and say no, this is a incredible natural wonder. Why aren’t we taking advantage of it? Why aren’t we enhancing it? Why aren’t we using it? So I began to—this is a—a funny story, but when Drexel [Turner] was actually—my husband was working for the city as a consultant and I was working for the division as a staff person, our dates
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were going around the city to try to find out what made them interesting. What made neighborhoods work? Why were some parts of them so much better than other parts of them and how could we incorporate that into our plans? [Coughs] Excuse me. And so—so we—we really worked at it and we started kind of almost developing these—these little guides to—oh, in that neighborhood, what works is because there’s a park in the middle of it and people congregate about that park. But not only that, their houses are ringing that park, they’re radiating it. And so I began to try to use that and it was really hard because, you know, when you work with—and we were just a—a little kind of antipoverty program division and we were
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working with public works. We were working with engineers and they were kind of saying uh huh. Want to get it from A to B and A to B isn’t always the best way to do it. And I also recognized the value of both the green space that was created—the parks and the—the esplanades—but also the natural green spaces that were already there. The—the, you know, the—the waterways, the—you know, the trees, the things that people didn’t sometimes think were very valuable. And—and I also, you know, one thing that is very interesting is when you look at it historically, you look at places in this city the now people think are the most beautiful parts of our city, one of which is Broadacres, going down Main Street and Fannin and part of that is because of the trees that were put there. It’s not just that there’s Hermann Park there, which is certainly a wonderful amenity, but it’s also that somebody had the
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foresight—now, of course, you know, the Hogg brothers and—but then it was also, you know, the mothers who were trying to memorialize their—the sons lost in World War I. They felt that this was a fitting tribute to them. Well, now whenever I take people through here and they come and they—they hear about Houston as an ugly city and then I take them through certain neighborhoods, they go it’s not ugly. It’s green, it’s beautiful. And I think that I tried to do that when I was with the mayor’s office. We did an esplanade planting program that we did through poor neighborhoods, that not only were great because of the—the air quality benefits that they had, which at that time was just considered a byproduct, but they were great because they softened the landscape. But they also made people slow down and so it had a lot of benefits. And so you try to do things like that and you may do them
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for one reason, but then they have five other reasons that they continue on. And now esplanade planting projects are done and tree planting along freeways are done routinely. You know, it’s not a—a phenoma—a—a—a—a—a weird phenomenon. It’s actually done all over the place.
DT: That’s interesting. Maybe I could ask you a couple of follow ups. You were working for the City of Houston from 1975 to ’78, which as I remember was a time of huge growth and I was wondering how planners and cities accommodate growth and change at that pace.
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MAP: Yeah. I think.
DT: And protect some of the things that they value.
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MAP: Right. I—you know what, it’s interesting because at that time, you’re right. There were a lot of people who were here because it was a very vibrant community. It was growing like crazy and I often used to go in neighborhoods that weren’t seeing a resurgence of that growth and I think about a—an example, like Midtown, which just wouldn’t even—no matter how much growth there was, it just didn’t seem to be going anywhere. And Third Ward, historically African American neighborhood, just seemed to be going farther and farther down when in fact parts of the city, you know, neighborhoods were just going quickly up and escalating and growth was going out. And I have a—a wonderful map, that I didn’t have back then but I wish I had, that looks at the growth of this city, that for the most part was west and then
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north. And I think that in Houston, it wasn’t really planned at all because, as you know, we don’t have zoning. We have planning, but the planning department is more about did you bring the right plat map in? Did you get your streets the right width? Do you have your drainage there? And so there was a lot about accommodating growth and not a lot about do you have a park in your area? And it’s been later in—actually in the last, I’d say, ten years and especially under Mayor White that developers are beginning to have to recognize that they have to provide those green spaces. And if they do, they get, in many cases, a clientele that’s willing to pay more for the house because they want to live there and they want to be part of that community. But for a long time, in the—in the late 70s when growth was
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incredibly booming and oil prices were really high, I don’t think there was planned growth. It was just wherever they’ll put it; let’s just take advantage of it. And it was the 80’s that I think caused us to recognize that maybe unparalleled growth isn’t necessarily—and unplanned growth isn’t necessarily the greatest thing in the world. I’m not sure we’ve learned all those lessons, but now we’re beginning to.
DT: You touched on this just a moment ago, but aside from the fact that Houston was growing so rapidly at that time, Houston was continuing this tradition that it’s had, I guess, for many, many years of having no zoning, which I think is unique. It’s maybe the largest city that does not have zoning in the U.S. How has that affected the shape of the city and the ways that it grows and the mix of uses that you see?
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MAP: Yeah. Well, you know, a lot of zoning opponents will tell you that zoned cities aren’t necessarily prettier or better planned than Houston is and that it’s just a function of age that similar activities sort of grouped together. But you know, in a lot of ways, that’s not true. I mean, it—it is true that in a zoned city, you try to keep a—industrial activities in an industrial zone. You try to keep residential in a residential area, but they also have a lot of mixed used areas and I think a lot of it is because in many other cities, there’s more of a sense that it’s a live, work, walk, play area and that you don’t have to drive someplace to have fun. You don’t have to drive to the grocery store. And I think that in Houston, you know, it’s easy to forget about the neighborhoods that have a house here and a kind of toxic dump here because you don’t have to look at it. And—and it’s amazing to me that people have
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talked a lot about wanting zoning and have been—I think three or four referenda that have been, you know, the ballot initiatives and they’ve failed. And they’ve failed every single time, even though you talk to the vast majority of people—and maybe we’re talking to all the same people, so who knows—but you—you talk to people. And if they understand it, they have a sense that maybe zoning would be okay, that it would help us at least maybe put in place certain controls. It might not do everything we want it, but what it would say is—and—and I—I applaud Eleanor Tinsley, a council member, who recognized that even if we weren’t going to have zoning, we should have things like setbacks. We should have tree ordinances so that if you take down a tree, you have to plant another one or two. And the—in—in a zoned—a zoning city, they have those kinds of rules and regulations so that at least
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if you want a variance, you have to pay for it. And I don’t mean just with money. You might pay for it with, okay, you want to go up higher? You have to put in two parks. And it’s only been recently with this new park set aside ini—ordinance that the Mayor White put in here, where if you build so many units of housing, you have to put in so many acres of parks that are accessible to the public and it’s not just your private little parks within your subdivisions. But in a zoned city, they often have those kinds of controls and guidelines and I think in Houston, there’s been a sense that it’s a—if—if we had zoning, it wouldn’t be quite such a freewheeling city and it would—it would inhibit growth and development. And I guess a lot of us who are urban planners, who know what zoning can do, it’s not to inhibit growth, it’s to provide a balance of, you know, how much growth should there be? Where should
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the growth be placed? And how to m—moderate it, how to really, really—I don’t want to say control, but how to find a balance between, you know, what the density in this neighborhood should be versus the density in that neighborhood. And it’s really amusing to me because, you know, you’ve got something here that is going on recently where a high rise wants to be built in a—a predominantly, you know, single family, residential neighborhood and there are no controls. I mean, the deed restrictions don’t say they can’t do it. The—there are no zoning laws. The city ordinances don’t say they can’t do it and you can’t kind of retroactively fit that back and if we had zoning, there would’ve at least been those discussions before the problem occurs or—or it’s con—a concern.
DT: So I guess part of the zoning is anticipating things. I guess a follow up might be to ask how you went from being a planner and working for the city to working for this sort of quasi public, private effort—the Cultural Arts Council, where you’re not talking about the—well, the sort of nitty-gritty of transportation and other sort of infrastructure, but more about the soul and the spirit and the aspects of arts that maybe makes a city more livable. Maybe you can talk about that. Take us from ’78 through 1990?
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MAP: Exactly. Well, it was interesting. One of the projects that I was actually working on when I was win—in the city was a teeny, tiny part of my budget and it was called Art in Public Places. And it just so happened that I knew some people at the National Endowment for the Arts and I knew some people in the city and they called me up and they said we’re going to lose this grant, we’re going to lose this grant. Help. And I was a—a good negotiator and I knew how to navigate kind of federal systems and I managed to save the day and get Louis Jimenez’s sculpture out—originally it was proposed for the airport. And I was working on it when I was actually at the city and then it so happened that I heard about this arts council. And while I loved working for the city, you have to recognize that because I was in a sort
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of antipoverty program, we had a budget of about thirty-five million dollars for capital improvements in very poor neighborhoods. The Capital Improvement budget was six hundred and fifty million dollars at the time; it’s now much bigger than that. Billions of dollars. And I was kind of a rebel rouser, if you can imagine that, and I would go to neighborhood meetings and I would tell them this thirty-five million dollar budget is this big, Capital Improvements project is this big. You should have your fair share of that. And it was—it was really frustrating because a lot of people, especially low income people in Houston just weren’t rebel rousers and they didn’t get that and I wanted to do more. I really wanted to do kind of bigger and better projects, but we couldn’t convince public works and the mayor’s office that—that we really could do a bigger, better plan. So this Arts Council started and because I was working on these public art projects, they just said come talk to us. And I thought
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why not? And they were looking for an assistant to the director at the time and I took the job and after about a week, he said could you be my assistant director instead? And I said sure. And after about a year and a half, he left and I was named the director but I was working on what were really wonderful projects. I, you know, continued to work on this Louis Jimenez project, which ended up not being at the airport, but being in a neighborhood, in a very low income neighborhood, the Moody Park area and it was wonderful. With the engagement that Louis has—he’s a Hispanic—was a Hispanic artist out of El Paso, he just charmed everybody in the community and we had neighborhood meetings. It was fun again. It was really cool. And we—we had a dedicated source of funding and I got to give away millions of dollars and it was very cool. But it was also the case that we worked with big
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institutions and we worked with very little institutions and we tried to make room for the big institutions to recognize that if they didn’t help the little institutions grow, there might be no audience for the opera or the symphony years from now because, you know—and—and I—I see that with my conservation work as well. If—if you feel that there’s a sort of conservation ethic or an art ethic, that’s great. But if you don’t teach it to your children or you don’t teach it in the schools, then who takes it on? Who takes the responsibility for making sure that’s there? And so one of the things that the Arts Council did was to encourage the bigger institutions to not only help the smaller institutions, but to put in place ways to engage a new and young audience.
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Now I’m not saying we were responsible for, you know, young audiences or—or art in the schools, but I think we told them that in order to get this money, you had to have some public component. You couldn’t just be doing this for people who could afford hundred dollars a seat or fifty dollars a seat. Do it for somebody who needs to know about it and, you know, interestingly enough, when—when I was in Massachusetts later on, they were cutting out arts in the schools. And in Houston, the thing that was so wonderful is they embraced it. They recognized that bringing every fourth grader and every eighth grader to the Museum of Natural Science to learn about, you know, sciences. Bringing everybody to the symphony, I think they are the fifth graders—can’t quite remember now. Gave them an introduction that
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they might not get in their homes and so it was a wonderful opportunity to kind of spread this knowledge to a really, much bigger community. And ultimately what you want from a city or—or even a rural area is an opportunity to experience so many different things. Yes, it’s getting out of doors, but it’s also knowing that Mozart was an amazing composer and even if you can’t afford to go to an opera, you get to buy a CD. You get to download it for a few bucks. Or you get to play it on a, you know, a—a piano. It—it’s really accessible to everybody and I think, you know, I—I told you earlier that one of the reasons that I really wanted to be an urban planner is because I really loved kind of the social aspects of planning and I thought it was a great opportunity to spread that kind of social aspect of it to it. And doesn’t matter if it’s the arts or it’s humanities or it’s conservation. All of it works.
DT: So you were at the Houston Cultural Arts Council. Then you went to the Massachusetts Arts Council.
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MAP: Just for a couple years.
DT: And then you returned. You came back to Houston and decided to sort of take a different turn on how to benefit a city and the people that live here. Not so much focused on the arts or on planning issues, but more on protections of the common space, the public parks, particularly Hermann Park. Could you tell us a little bit about your work with the Friends of Hermann Park?
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MAP: Well, interestingly enough, the—the reason I got to go to Hermann Park was actually because of a project I did earlier than that. I did a project for Texas Parks and Wildlife and I looked at how state agencies have developed sort of ancillary institutions, like a foundation. And in the course of doing that, I actually interviewed a gazillion people, but I started looking at this phenomenon of land trusts. And I started getting really interested in land trusts and thinking why don’t we have any here? What should we do? How can we do this? And there really wasn’t a venue for that here other than say The Nature Conservancy or Trust for Public Land. But it was—I—but I had started talking to people about this notion of these kinds of things
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and I happened to get a call. Susan Keaton knew me through the Rice Design Alliance, which my husband helped start, and she knew that I had an urban planning background and a regional planning background. She knew that I had worked with nonprofits; I knew how to raise money. I knew a lot of those aspects and also that I had done this study for the National Endowment for the Arts on five neighborhoods around Houston and one of the projects was, you know, we looked at Midtown, we looked at Third Ward, we looked at the Heights, we looked at Downtown Aquarium, all of these kinds of really interesting projects that we thought would be wonderful for the City of Houston. And so sh—they called me and said would you be interested? And finally I thought okay, I can’t be a classic urban planner in Houston
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because they don’t want them. So what about if I look at actually helping revitalize a major inner city park, an inner city park that was tired but still so well loved that it was amazing. And so I came on board because they’d had a competition that I think you remember. Jack Mitchell, who was the dean of the School of Architecture at Rice University and he had died and they wanted to do a memorial to him and they did a competition called The Heart of the Park. And Jack had really always thought that Hermann Park was beautiful and that its reflection pool shouldn’t have muddy edges and it shouldn’t look downtrodden and that—that the people who loved it so much should have better than that. And so when I came on board, they said okay, we just want you to raise money for Hermann Park and I said well, you know, don’t you
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want to really look at Hermann Park as a whole? Don’t you think that you should have a master plan for it and don’t you think we could find somebody who could do that? And so I suddenly saw a use for my—you know, my urban planning background and my, really, my notion of—that I’d like to kind of draw on those pretty little maps and I’d like to kind of say what could be done. But I was also good at looking at historical documents and it just so happened that I knew of a number of other projects that’d been done. There’d been a—been a study by Charles Moore that the culture—that—excuse me, the Municipal Art Commission had funded that again people at Rice had helped do. And it—and a wonderful replan for Miller Theatre. I’d looked at, you know, what the Museum of Natural Science had done and what the zoo had done and I thought, you know, if we don’t bring all these
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people together and we don’t talk to them about, not only their individual visions for what Hermann Park ought to be, but their collective responsibilities for what Hermann Park ought to be. We’re never going to have anything other than a set of disparate units and that Museum of Natural Science might be the best thing that you could go to or the zoo might be the best thing, but their impacts might be totally negative on what the park would be. And I’ll—I’ll give you a perfect example. The zoo wanted to have parking right in the middle of Hermann Park. Is it really appropriate to have a huge concrete jungle in the middle of a beautiful, natural park? And so when we looked at it and we brought in three wonderful landscape architects to come up with, you know, who should do the master plan and—and the—Hannah
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Olin at the time, now Lori Olin, was selected. But—but we’ve looked at all that, knowing that, yes, the zoo needs parking, but does it need to be surface parking? Could it be offsite parking and you have a tram that brings people over? What fun for kids to be able to ride an elevated thing. Maybe kids can’t get to Colorado, you know, to—to ride a—a—a ski lift, but they can get to Hermann Park and ride up above. Maybe that wasn’t aesthetically the best thing. Maybe underground parking. We—you know, and we looked at a lot of those things and I’ll have to tell you, I mean, I—Hermann Park was a wonderful project because so many people had so many wonderful ideas and we collected a lot of those ideas. But we also looked at historically, there was a wonderful Kessler Plan for Hermann Park and Kessler was a devotee of Frederick Law Olmstead and learned from him and—and, you know,
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originally, they wanted Frederick Law Olmstead to do the planning for this. But they got Kessler and he did a plan that would’ve had a park all the way from downtown out past Memorial and it would’ve been a huge greenbelt. And one of the things that I thought was how can we bring some of that back and use some of what he wanted. And you know, at the time, they didn’t think about soccer fields and stuff, but he had some active ball fields there, you know, some things that—where people could run and—and play. And you know, Houston was a very different city by the time we did a new plan for—a re—a revised master plan in—starting in—in ’93. But—but some of those same elements were important. How much activity can you have before it’s too much? So it was very quickly decided that huge ball fields maybe were not appropriate. Those were appropriate for other parks. You had sort of a—a—a tier
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level of what can it accomplish and what couldn’t it? Could you do huge festivals in it? Miller Theatre was a great resource, but again, was it the best Miller Theatre that it could be? No. There were things that could be done to it to make it better and so we looked at all those things and I think that the park today is so much more wonderful. Is it the best park it could be? No, because you have individual constituencies that still find it hard to realize that their particular group isn’t the most important. And for example, I’ll tell you, the Museum of Natural Science is a wonderful space, but you know, in another place, would you put it right in the park? Maybe not, because with the growth of the Museum of Natural Science, you need more buildings. You need more parking and one of the best things they did was put
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in their garage. But maybe they could’ve thought about an underground garage. Maybe they could’ve thought about a smaller footprint. You know, their buses used to line the Hermann Drive—no, not Hermann Drive, but the drive in front of the Rose Garden and fill up the Rose Garden. Again, is that what you want to see when people come to use Hermann Park? So you know, again, wh—what I see my role was—or is always is try to find that balance, that balance between it being aesthetically beautiful, it—it—really providing a respite from a very busy, busy neighborhood around it, with your medical center on your one side and, you know, downtown and—and Midtown on the other and Third Ward. And opportunities for
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people to run in it, to play golf in it, to go to the Rose Garden and see what beautiful flowers can be produced. And it was—it was really, I think, the first—the—well, the second time, I should say, in some ways, that I really got to use my—my planning background. And it was fun, it was really neat. Again, a lot of it was—was not necessarily that I got to draw it, but I got to bring in a lot of input because I talked to a lot of people. I got to balance, you know, here’s this group over here that wants this. This group wants this. They negate each other, how can we deal with that. And so I saw my role in a lot of ways as kind of a historian, a facilitator, lucky that I had the background I had because I could—when the architects and the landstate—landscape architects would say you can’t do this and I’d say yes, you can and here’s
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how. And sometimes it would be the case that I would think it couldn’t be done and they’d find a creative way, so it was a really nice partnership. And it was fun.
DT: It sounds like while you were working for Friends of Hermann Park, you (inaudible) maybe acted as a liaison between all the multiple (?) that ring the park, you know, a theatre and Museum of Natural Science and the zoo and the Rose Garden…
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MAP: Japanese Garden.
DT: I’m curious if you looked back and kind of discover the tangible legacies that came out of your tenure while you were there, what would you point to? A lot of seems to be the negotiating among all these (inaudible). What do you see when you go back there and say ah, that happened because…?
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MAP: Well, I guess from my perspective, there were a couple things. One, we—we put a lot more money into the park. I think the park had been neglected for a long time and suddenly people recognized its value. The city put in a—thirteen million dollars when it was on my watch. We got the private sector to put in, so that when I left, I think—and it wasn’t—this is—I don’t mean this was all me, but, oh, I think we had about twenty million dollars that we’d infused back into the park or gotten commitments to do. But interestingly enou—enough—I—I’m going to tell you about a—about a—both a positive and a—and a—and a probably a failure. One of the things that I was actually the most excited that I did was not make it prettier, which we certainly did. But the east side of the park along Almeda had long been
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neglected. There was a—a—a—what do you call it, a maintenance facility. The Parks Department decided well, it’s only Almeda, we can—we can put it on that side of the park. There was a beautiful stand of—of post oak savannas that was there that were dying. People lived in them. There were—it—it was—there were tons of homeless people, but not just homeless people. Most of these people took—had services at the Veteran’s Administration so they were trained in guerilla warfare. And when you’d go in there and we were trying to clean it up, they had all kinds of booby traps. It was—it was actually kind of amusing after awhile. But I think one of
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the things that I did is I got a grant from the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund and it was one of the first big grants that K.P.—that the Friends of Hermann Park got that didn’t just look at the physical aspects of it, but it looked at trying to program the whole east side of the park as a wilder, more natural place. And it looked at the importance of not mowing the grass along Bray’s Bayou all the time, but actually letting wildflowers grow. And we convinced the Harris County Flood Control Division, which took care of the banks, and other things. We trained their personnel to make sure that when they looked at—they said those are weeds. Cut them down. No, they’re wildflowers growing. We convinced our neighbors that they were really beautiful. We—we cleaned up the post oak savanna. We had trails going through it. We
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identified why things were important. Poison ivy may be awful to dogs and to humans, but did you know that it serves as food and—for like a hundred and fifty-five—I’m going to say this wrong, but it was an incredible—I think fifty-five different species that aren’t allergic to its wax. It—just amazing kinds of things. We brought school groups through all them time. We did wallet—water quality morning—monitoring in Bray’s Bayou and I think that nobody had paid much attention to that side of the park and it began to bring people back to the park that felt disenfranchised. And I think if I said anything about my legacy, I think the master plan is beautiful and I’ll—I’ll tell you in a minute about some failures. But I think that one of the things that I made people realize is that everybody had a voice. There was a huge African American population that used that park who felt they had
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no voice in it and they were—they were runners, they were users of Miller Theatre. There’s a huge Hispanic population that used to cruise the park in their low riders, have a wonderful time and they didn’t feel welcome in the park. And I think we brought back a sense that Hermann Park is really, truly every man’s park and that it ought to be used by every man. So yeah, I think the plan was wonderful and I think it was great, but I think that I would tell you my real legacy is that I—I helped make sure that lots of people reclaimed it as their park and that it wasn’t just little fiefdoms but everybody saw Hermann Park is mine. Even if I only use the golf course, even if I only use that trail, I love it all, I want to protect it all. Failures—I think there were failures from that and that was that it was really hard to get some of the big institutions to recognize that their own self interest had to be sublimated.
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It had to be, you know, less important than—than Hermann Park as a whole. And you know, I think probably there are, you know, Hermann Park today is very different than I was there, a lot more projects were finished and—and that’s wonderful and I think that, though, people still think that it’s their park and that’s pretty terrific. And I don’t think it’s just my legacy, it’s—it’s everybody’s. But I think that Friends of Hermann Park, and now the Hermann Park Conservancy, has tried to do a good job at—at marketing it to—to everyone and—and that’s important because if everybody doesn’t love it, then no one will save it.
DT: I guess one of the things that I understand about the park as being always a challenge and you touched on this before, all these multiple users and institutions of—and the golf course has always been problematic in my view in that you’ve got, you know, a special use. It’s somewhat exclusive on public land, but it’s controlled by a concessionaire and I think some of these problems came to a head when you were there. Can you talk about that?
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MAP: Probably is the reason that I left. Well, you know, we actually looked at the golf course in a positive sense is that at least it kept things green for a while. We looked at it, though, really for its potential to be put to other uses and there was an amazing but small core of people—African American and Anglo—who came out and said you got to keep it. It’s important to keep it, but it shouldn’t be so shabby, it shouldn’t be so awful and it was hard to argue with them. I think that we had hoped that what would happen is that the city would actually buy a new facility for them. And at the time, when I was there, I was very interested in expanding the park and there was land to be had. The—the hospital that—Saint Anthony’s—the hos—retirement home across Almeda. There were places that were available that had the
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city been aggressive, had Friends of Hermann Park been aggressive, we could’ve bought them. And I s—I so wanted them to move the golf course because Hermann Park is landlocked in some ways and it—it doesn’t have enough for all the activities that it needs there or that people want. And it gets crowded and it, you know, at some point, they’re probably going to have to ban driving in it totally and just have some sort of system where you can park at the edges and just go in. But you know, hindsight’s perfect. People then thought no, let’s—let’s make the park better. Let’s expend our time and our energy and our money on making the park beautiful and what we should have been doing is land banking so that even if the golf course wasn’t removed then, it could be removed later because there’d be land for it. And it was just—there were powerful forces. But you know, I’ve—I’ve found—and—and this
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is the case, you sort of learn something late in life. But I found that, you know, it’s amazing what a few influential people can do if they don’t want something done. And I think that’s kind of what happened. There were a lot of forces to play. Economically, the golf course was not particularly good for the city. The—I think the new deal is better, but we had—we had actually brought in economic real es—what—what is it? There was an economic group, an analysis group, ERM was their name and I—I can’t remember what their—what it really stood for now, and they were going to do an economic analysis of moving the golf course, keeping it there, privatizing it, having the city run it and do that thing. And I think when I left, they just decided not—I mean, I—you know, in retrospect, and you—you do what you believe in, but you know, I was probably a lot more aggressive than I think some people would’ve liked. And that’s because, you know, I had a vision that I think was more people oriented and I think other people had visions, even including my own board members, that was just—it was a nice, pretty place and that’s all they wanted
00:45:58 – 2414
it to be. And frankly, if it didn’t have too many people, even better. And mine was that it ought to be a Central Park, it ought to be for everybody. And Central Park isn’t just for rich people, there are certainly some neighborhoods that are rich that ring it, but there are very poor communities that take advantage of it and Hermann Park, in many ways, is the sort of the—the—the most accessible park for much of what were traditionally disenfranchised communities. And I—I really like that. You know, I’m sort of a, you know, kind of a—probably at—at heart, I told you I wanted to be a social worker, so there’s sort of that bleeding heart and it was—it was a wonderful opportunity to do some things. But ultimately, you know, you had people who were, you know, friends of friends and they felt that, you know, having the—the golf course was fair. The one thing they did do and I think that was good
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is, you know, move the clubhouse and they built a new one on Almeda and they spiffed it up and they put more resources into the golf course. I think they continue to have a good base among African American golfers and the clubhouse itself is now more historic and used for, I think still, Hermann Park Conservancy.
DT: This sounds like a good chance to shift gears and talk to you about your next phase, this chapter in your life that took you from a large, but urban park, you know, five hundred and forty-five acres, whatever Hermann Park is, to the Katy Prairie Conservancy, which maybe a thousand square miles. Shrinking, but still very, very large. And I’d be interested in hearing about your work for the Katy Prairie Conservancy, which began I guess almost ten years ago now.
00:47:53 – 2414
MAP: Well, actually it’s fifteen years old. It started in 1992 so I guess this—we’re in our sixteenth year, but I wasn’t involved with it. But I came in 1999 and before me, in 1997, Carter Smith started it, who’s now our new Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Director, fabulous person. And truthfully, sad to say, and I think we’ve—we’ve been extraordinarily successful in what we’ve accomplished, but probably we should’ve started in the seventies and we would’ve benefited greatly from the bust years in the eighties to buying land on the Katy Prairie because at that time, land was plentiful. It was cheap, it was still a lot of sort of agriculture was going on. There’s a lot of floodplain, floodway out there. But—and—and—and tons of geese, tons of ducks, lots of wildlife and there were a lot of hunters and conservationists who really cared about it. But they never thought that it was
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imminent, that it was going to be lost. They—they—they were worried about some wetland loss and they knew that maybe, you know, eventually something would happen. But you know, because of the eighties, a lot of people weren’t buying land. They were actually fore—you know, defaulting on land and loans, so they—they didn’t get started till 1992 and they didn’t buy their first property until 1997. When I came on board, they owned about thirteen hundred acres and they had about six hundred acres of land that had been donated to them. So there was about, you know, two thousand acres. Today, we actually control thirteen thousand acres and we have easements and public ownership of about another forty-five hundred. Our goal, which is seeming harder and harder to reach, is fifty thousand acres and the
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reason we have that goal is that biologists say that you need anywhere between thirty and fif—sixty thousand acres to sustain the wildlife that are found on the Katy Prairie. And most people would say to you, oh, the geese are going away. Why are you trying to save it? And the geese actually are kind of Johnny-Come-Lately’s to the Katy Prairie. All of us think it’s the geese that they are—that are important, but if you should happen to meet an old rice farmer, he would tell you that there were ducks on the Katy Prairie when they moved there. It’s only with the advent of rice farming, and especially when it was mechanized in the, you know, seventies, that we had the skies blackened with snow geese, Ross goose, White Fronted goose and Blue—the young Blue goose. No not the—Canada goose, excuse me. And so—so
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you have four species of geese and in our heyday, we had probably one of the densest concentrations of migratory water foul in North America because we’re on the central flyway and that’s kind of like highway for, you know, birds. Goes all the way from way up north down through Central America and the geese came down from their, you know, summer home to winter on the Katy Prairie and some moved farther south, but a lot of them stayed. And at one point, there were so many geese, there were, you know, traditionally they really felt like there should be something like two hundred and fifty to three hundred thousand geese and, at one point, there were eight hundred thousand geese and it was way too much. Not for us, Katy Prairie could handle it, the problem was when they went back to their summer home, they were destroying the Tundra, which takes forever to replace
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itself. So—but—but the geese now, there are fewer of them. There’s still a lot of them, but it’s the—one of the reasons that there are fewer of them because there’s so much more habitat for them. Everybody up and down this central flyway has developed wetlands and they’re farming corn and they’re doing all kinds of stuff and the geese, you know, hey, they’re smart. They’ll stop the first place they can to get food and to get cover and to just rest. And as long as it’s—if it’s really cold, they move down to us. If it stays mild and temperate, say, in the north, they’re going to stay up there because they’ve got water, they’ve got food, they don’t need us. But anyway, when I started, it’s just—it’s sort of amusing to me that they actually hired me because I’m not a birdwatcher. As—as I told you earlier, my children think of me as a city girl and they kept going why are you going way out there? Mom, do you
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realize that it’s thirty miles from downtown Houston? Why are you doing this? But they didn’t care that I wasn’t a birdwatcher, that wasn’t what they were hiring me for. But I’ll also tell you that one of the most wonderful things about the Katy Prairie is the amazing solitude out there, the quiet. You don’t—I—I have a board member who every time we have a tour out there, he’ll say okay, everybody stop talking—and that’s really hard for me, as you can tell—and everybody’ll stop for a minute and then he’ll raise his hand and he’ll say okay, what did you hear? And invariably a little kid’ll pipe up and say well, I don’t know what I heard but what I didn’t hear is traffic. And you can’t imagine how much traffic bears down on you after a while,
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what a—what a burden it is to hear it all the time and how terrific it is to have that quiet. But then you start to—we have little exercises where we ask people to cup their ears and they—they start to hear a frog croak or they hear a whippoorwill or they hear a killdeer and it’s so wonderful to see their little eyes light up or even grownups to see it. And it’s amazing to be able to do that. And—and in this particular case, you know, people have often asked me, well, what are you going to do if it’s—are you going to consider yourself—consider it—that KPC failed, the Katy Prairie Conservancy failed if you don’t get eighteen thou—you know, your fifty thousand acres? I said well, I’ll be sad but you know what? Probably twenty years from now, even if we only have eighteen thousand acres, somebody’s going to be flying over the Katy Prairie and they’re going to go wow. What is that green space
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down there? How come there’s this huge swath of green and nothing’s developed around it? Maybe there’ll be twenty-five thousand acres and maybe fifty years from now, someone’s going to say thank you. I don’t know who was smart enough to do that but I sure am grateful. And I kind think of us as—as maybe the rural pioneers, like the people who helped found Memorial Park and—and buy it from the city—buy it from the Hogg brothers to—to give it to the city. And I—I kind of think of us as—as maybe the people who ultimately—and—and not me, personally, but all the—the volunteers and the—the founders of this who—who worked against, I think, almost unreasonable odds because they didn’t have any money and nobody was going to give it to them. It’s not like it’s Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where people think oh, this
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is so beautiful. Of course, I must conserve it and I’m really rich. I want to put an easement on it. I’m happy to do it. Or there are ninety-seven percent of the—the lands in Jackson Hole are public. In Texas, ninety-four percent of them are private. And so I’m grateful that we’ve even done as much as we have. But I’m also grateful that in the last few years, what we’ve recognized is that certainly we want to ensure that sensitive habitat is maintained, that areas that are degraded are improved and that we make sure that invasive species don’t take over and—and we do the best we can to help the three hundred species that currently live or winter on the Katy Prairie. But ultimately we will not have done a very good job if what we don’t do is to make sure that parts of the Katy Prairie are accessible to the public. And—and one of the things that we’re working on desperately and—and probably more slowly
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than we should’ve is to—to look at all of our lands that we have right now, and—and we have plans to—to get bigger and—and we’re still working on that, but is to—to recognize that okay, let’s—let’s determine where’s the sensitive habitat? We know where it is but let’s map it. Let’s find out where we can put a path, where people might be able to see some things but they won’t really, you know, force the—the—the wildlife to move away from that area but that they’ll actually come back. And I—I think a perfect example is we’ve got this wonderful woods that is a—a stand of pine trees. It was planted, really, for a moneymaking venture. But we had Barn owls in it and birdwatchers named it Barn Owl Woods because they always saw them there.
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Well, in the beginning when we were first there, we would have tours come in and then we realized we shouldn’t be having people come in here because if we do, the barn owls are going to be gone. And sure enough, the Barn owls went. But now we have Barn owls, we have Screech owls, we have Great Horned owls and one of the things we’ve realized that it’s okay to be a mile away or half a mile away and set up scopes and it’s okay to hear them, but you can’t be on top of them and still have it. So we’re finding—you know, and I talked to you before about balance. You know, you know, how much is too much and, you know, and—and I think one of the things that we’re finding right now is balance and how can we have people recognize that this could be a wonderful anchor park for all of, not just Houstonians, but for Texans. It could be a destination and yet it also needs to maintain its capacity to house
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these—these wildlife. And we’re working, you know, with a lot of people to do that and what I bring to it is maybe I’m not a biologist, but I have this sense that—that—that land use can help you divide up those uses. And so now that’s, you know, we’re working with different groups to try to do that now.
[End of Reel 2414]
DT: Mary Anne, when we left off on the last tape, we were talking about your tenure at Katy Prairie Conservancy and I was hoping that you could give some background to what you’re discussing for those of us who aren’t really familiar with the situation out on the Katy Prairie. Maybe you could talk first about prairies at large and what’s happening to native prairies across the state and then, maybe more particularly, what’s happening to the Katy Prairie.
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MAP: Right. Well, actually a—around the world—of—I think there’s about less than one half of one percent of the prairie ecosystem. It is really being destroyed wholesale, I mean, it’s very difficult to—and—and there are some—some beautiful prairies that are, you know, trying—they’re trying to be maintained, like the Blacklands Prairie. But there’s actually a huge project that the Native Prairie’s Association is doing to map all the extant prairies in Texas and then to try to find ways to protect them. And they’re doing a great job, but again, a lot of them get plowed under, a lot of them have been developed, a lot of them even have been destroyed, you know, with agriculture. And if you look at the Katy Prairie, which
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again, historically, nobody’s quite sure how bi—big it was because they didn’t have surveying marks back then, but people think it was about a thousand square miles and it was just a part of a larger prairie system that went all the way from the Gulf Coast up through and into Canada. And our Katy Prairie as we know it, we think, started at about Loop 610 and went to the Brazos Wiv—River, all the way west, north up to a little bit beyond 290 and down below to 1093, which is Westheimer. So below I-10. And if you had gone there in—before Europeans had settled in this area, the Native Americans had grasses that often were five, six, seven feet tall and
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probably about seventy percent of the area was covered with these grasslands and about thirty percent was these small—well, I shouldn’t say small—anywhere from a half an acre to twenty acre wetlands. And they could be just as—about eighteen inches high. They were not very deep and they weren’t wet all the time. They were, you know, wet seasonally or when wet periods came, kind of about four months out of every year. Then when the European—and—and the—and the Native Americans actually managed the grasses through fire, some of it was—they actually lit and others when lightning would strike and those kinds of things. And one of the importance—reasons why fire was so critical to the management of the prairies is we’re in what’s called an ecotone and we’re kind of in the middle of the country, where the—you have the—the forests on the east and the plains on the west and
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we’re kind of a hybrid. When it’s really wet, the trees move closer west. When it’s really dry, the plains move farther east and so we’re kind of a hybrid in a way. And so when we—people think, oh, it’s always just grasses but it isn’t. There are, you know, forbs and there are scrub and there are trees, but it depends on the season. And—and one of the reasons that the Native Americans used fire is that there’s an incredible substructure for trees and one of Katy Prairie Conversancy’s staff people always likens it to a—the rainforest, but flipped hundred and eighty degrees. So when you’re in a rainforest, you look up and you see these beautiful trees and they’re—the growth is way, way up and there’s all kinds of things on the understory. Well, for us, yes, it’s about six or seven feet high, but you might have eighteen feet underground and what that does is it holds water. So when you have a fire, you destroy the trees that are there and the shrubs and the bushes and the forbs. It’s
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the grasses that grow up first and now you might say well, why would they bother to do that? Well, of course, the Native Americans were doing it because they needed the wildlife, their food, to come closer to them because they didn’t have guns. They didn’t have bows and arrows. They had to find a way to get the—the deer and the bison close enough to them so that they could kill them so that they could have food. When the Europeans came, they did a couple of things. Early on, they did not settle out in these wilder, swampy areas because they just thought they were mosquito infested and they dipped and they weren’t flat and they didn’t think they were suitable for anything. But they were intrigued with the bison that were out there and so they—a lot of them came and they would bring their rifles and they would come
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on hunting parties to the point where, as you know, I mean, really, we no longer have bison on the Katy Prairie. I mean, they really—they just—they left them to rot. They didn’t use them for food the way that the Native Americans used them. They didn’t use them for clothing. I mean, they used—I don’t think they left one part of a bison or most of the other animals unused. I mean, very much like Alaskans in that way, that they felt like this was their sacred trust. They—if they were going to kill it, they had to use it all. But when the European settlers came and visitors came and especially when the railroad started in—in the late 1800s, early 1900s, they had shooting parties. And they would just shoot indiscriminately. Also it became, you
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know, harder and harder for the Native Americans to kind of put fires there and some of the European settlers began to see it as actually someplace they could tame and they could actually grow rice because there was so much water and it was relatively flat. And so you found that in the—the early 1900s, they started—the rice farmers started coming in and started plowing up great areas. And then, again, it wasn’t destroying the wetlands, but it was certainly, you know, reducing large swaths of, you know, native plant materials and tall grass prairies. It was further degraded when they began to be able to level it with machines, so that instead of having these wonderful little bumps, you could level a rice field and you could get the water exactly right where you wanted, which is great for growing rice, not so much—not so great for the kind of system that you’d had there before. And—and a
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lot of it was plowed under. I mean, at the heyday of rice farming, there was probably seventy thousand acres on the Katy Prairie that was in rice. And we look at the Katy Prairie, you know, you talked about a thousand square miles, anywhere from five hundred thousand to seven hundred and fifty thousand acres, you know, of the prairie. And so if two thirds of that, a lot of which was plowed under, made it hard to grow that back. Now there still are some wonderful native patches of prairie and one of the things that’s really important about that is a lot of people are talking about, you know, planting native materials, whether it’s because they want them to be drought resistant, which they are. They want them to be low maintenance, which they are. Or they just—they like the way they look. You really want seed from about fifty mile radius. Well, if we don’t work really hard to save the few remaining
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patches of prairie that are there, we’re not going to be able to restore this. And our long-term goal is—and I don’t know if it’ll be that seventy-thirty split. You know, it—it’s hard to know that, but we hope that if we get—let’s say we stay at eight—eighteen or twenty thousand acres. You know, we’d like, you know, a few thousand acres to be back to tall grass prairie. We’d like, you know, maybe one or two—well, we’ve already got twenty-five hundred acres of wetlands that we’ve helped enhance or re-create or restore. And so if we want to do that sort of, you know, two to one kind of thing, you know, that means at least we’ve got to put five thousand acres into tall grass prairie and maybe more. But we need the seed. So one of the things that we’re doing is we’re identifying where are those nice patches of prairie and how
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can we enhance them? One—we’ve got this little ten acre patch called William’s Prairie. Never been mowed at all. I mean, not mowed, I should—never been in agriculture. Been hayed. But it’s—it’s beautiful. It’s got some incredible seed that we’re collecting, that we are using then to produce a coastal prairie nursery. And that if we can grow Big Bluestem and Little Bluestem and Rattlesnake Master and Indian grass and Switch grass and those kinds of things, then we can provide the seed to perhaps have it come back, not to look like a garden, but actually maybe to look like the old native prairies that were there. We also just recently purchased a property that we did with a—we—we turned it over to a conservation buyer and we
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had a biological survey that we did on it in inventory. And we had probably two-thirds of the property is pretty darn good prairie. Ten acres are the most beautiful patch of Big Blue Stem that you could ever imagine, just phenomenal. And we had Fred Smeins from Texas A & M come out and he’s kind of jaded now. He doesn’t think there’s much good prairie left. He was practically jumping up with glee when he saw this and said what are you going to do? How are you going to do this? Now because we don’t have a lot of cash for acquisition right now, we actually did sell it to a conservation buyer. But he’s agreed to let us collect seed. He’s let us keep it in it; he’s not going to plow it under and those kinds of things. But, you know, it’s—it’s very difficult and one of the—one of the other reasons that it’s difficult to protect prairie is that it’s a subtle beauty. Walt Whitman said that, you know, if—if—when
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people think about America’s most compelling landscapes, they think about the, you know, Yellowstone or they think about the Rockies or they think about the jagged coast. But truly, he said the plains and the prairies are America’s most characteristic landscape. But a lot of people, when they come out there—especially if you’re not in the middle of a tall grass prairie and you’re just kind of looking at it and you have to really look for it at this point, they look at it and they don’t get it because it’s not like the—when the snow geese come in and they blacken the sky and you can hear them with their characteristic s—calls. It’s not like a—a bald eagle swooping in and you think wow, America’s national bird. It—you have to really look carefully and—and a lot of people will talk to me and they go why do you want save a bunch of brown
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grass? And I go well; you haven’t been to the prairie in its four different seasons because it’s not brown. I mean, you—you have green grass, you got purple grass, you have rose colored grass, you got blue grass. I mean, you have—you have amazing colors. You have wildflowers and they’re not just, you know, the—the bluebonnets and these little itty bitty ones. Wh—I mean, sure, we have those. We have—we have the largest population of the endangered species Hy—Hymenoxys Texana or Texas prairie dawn in Texas today. And it’s a—it’s a flower that’s about this big and you can only see it la—for about three weeks. But it’s amazing because it’s indicative of other kinds of things that are there, kind of a saline substructure, you know, of—of earth and a salt dome kinds of things. And we look
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at harvester ants, which when they’re coming back and they’d been destroyed almost, we thought, by fire ants. When you see harvester ants come back, which are, I think, the Houston toad and I’m not the best person in the world on animals, but the Houston toad, that’s their food source. You know that things are starting to get healthier and I think that’s—that’s one of the—the most compelling reasons why you want to save some of the last great places, as The Nature Conservancy would call it, but for us, saving the Katy Prairie is—is that it speaks to a health of a region and you want that. I mean, if you have absolutely no wildlife except for fire ants, can’t be a very healthy place for you. And—and our prairie does so many things. I
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mean, it’s not just that it’s wonderful for the sort of the—the beauty of it when it’s—it’s in its flowering seasons, but it also provides food and cover for three hundred species of wildlife. It’s not just the migratory wire—water fowl. We have lots of—of neotropical migrants that come through to us. We have a lot of resident things. We have a lot of mammals. We’ve already—I think one of our staff people has already come up with twenty-six different types of reptiles that we found there. And, you know, we’re—we’re beginning to develop these incredible lists and, you know, you look at Texas as a whole. It’s far more diverse in terms of its wildlife than any other state in the country. And people say oh, no, can’t be more than California and it isn’t. Has more species than anybody else in the country. And we can’t lose that
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and with a state that has so few public lands, you know, we have to depend on the kindness of the private landowner. But we also need to work harder on making those lands accessible. You know, we—we talked a little bit earlier about, you know, my experience when I was young. My parents didn’t have—I mean, they took us to the ocean, they took us to lakes. That was their—their idea of the out of doors and how wonderful it was. But they—you know, they were working class people. They, you know, routinely worked long hours and so we didn’t, you know, go on hikes and they didn’t know about camping and that kind of thing, so I didn’t grow up with that. And there are so many people who will come out to the prairie with a school group and they’re scared to death. They don’t know what to expect and—you have people
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that even go to the arboretum and they go ooh, this is scary. What am I going to see? Well, we have got to teach our children and—and I’m a—I’m a perfect example. I mean, my kids are severely allergic, they don’t really love being out of doors and yet, I think they’ve begun to learn the value of conservation, whether it’s—it’s not using plastic bottles or it’s yes, you can walk places as opposed to driving. And even if they don’t go to Big Bend, Big Bend ought to exist and the Davis Mountains ought to exist. And so I think they appreciate the fact that the Katy Prairie is there. And—and I think one of the other things that’s important about the—the Katy Prairie or any of these natural areas is for us, because of the wetlands and because of the grasses, we help both water quality and air quality because
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wetlands are nature’s kidneys. So the—the water that goes there, when it comes out of those wetlands is much reduced in terms of its sediment and pollutant offloads and the grasses themselves are great for sequestering carbon. Better than trees because if you say that trees are good for carbon sequestration and saplings are better, guess what? Grasses are great at it. So you know, there’s so many reasons to save it.
DT: I guess you mentioned some of the reasons, everything from the open space and to the educational value for your kids to the water quality features to the air quality and carbon sequestration you said. But I guess it’d be another aspect of it would be simply that it’s rare and it’s getting rarer and I think you brought us through some of the land use changes that we’ve seen out there from the, I guess, departure of the Indians and the end of that sort of fire regime to the construction of the railroads and the hunting parties and then into the deplaning of the prairies and use for rice production. I guess the next step would be some of the residential construction that’s happened out there, road construction and some of the airport proposals. Can you talk about those three; maybe just give us a few examples that could help us understand the kinds of forces that are starting to impinge on the prairie?
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MAP: Right. Well, actually, interestingly enough, they started in 1984 when the City of Houston bought what they affectionately called West Side Airport and it was in Waller County and it was right in the middle of the Katy Prairie. And there was an expectation that that airport would become the next hobby, the hobby for the west side so that people on the west side didn’t have to drive all the way to the southeast side. And there was a great sense among the environmental community that that was just not a good idea. But land was cheap, the—I think there were a lot of people who felt that it was the right place for it to be. There was a confluence of influential people, a lot of money and good land prices and willing sellers and so they said the airport was going to be there. In 1999, I think that—or maybe 2000, the environmental community actually teamed up with lots of people—conservationists,
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hunters, ranchers, farmers, other airport people, pilots—and said this is not a good idea. It’s not only a good idea because we don’t need it out here, but you’re going to endanger pilots who are coming in and out of here because there are so many geese in the air. If one gets sucked—sucked into a jet engine, it can take the engine down or it can break the windshield, it can destabilize the plane and it—it’s really not a good idea. And there was a lot of work done. I think ultimately the reason that the airport didn’t happen was because there was a sense by the City of Houston and the—I—I don’t know if there were lessees or—or the major tenants at Intercontinental and Hobby that there wasn’t a real need for an additional airport. That they still had so much hangar capacity and terminal capacity that you ought to
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fill those up first. Make—make traffic easy to them, but fill those up first. And so that airport went away, we thought. And it became a sight in which Intercontinental could do its mitigation for the expansion of the Bush International Airport and so six hundred acres of the fourteen hundred acre proposed West Side Airport became a mitigation project. A few years ago—and—and remember that that was going to be done with federal funds. So they had to meet federal environmental impact sta—state standards, but really, truthfully, it was probably political influence of people like the—the tenants of the different airports and—and the fact that there wasn’t a population out there. It was probably not going to make money. A few years later, I think in probably 2005, a gentleman who has lots of money decided that he wanted
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an airport, pretty much just south of the old West Side Airport. And while there was a lot of hew and cry against it and he had some public hearings about it, the truth is is that he didn’t depend on public funding—now. He will eventually—he says he won’t, but—but everybody knows how much it costs to produce an airport and even though he’s incredibly rich, it’s probably the case that he will get some federal funding, he’s built an airport there. And right now it’s a corporate jetport. Eventually—I think he is already negotiating for contracts with UPS and FedEx and different groups. There’s railway that’s proposed there. It will be a major hub and it probably will become the new Hobby Airport. So that threat is there and we already see—hear more, which you know, of course, as—as long as they’re not buzzing the wetlands, it’s—it’s not going to, you know, stop the—the wildlife from roosting and
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resting there, but it’s definitely bringing a lot more activity. I think the thing that’s—well, there—there are two things that I think have really brought the most change to the prairie. One is the anticipation of roadways, whatever they are, whether they’re the Grand Parkway or the expansion of I-10 because, as J.B. Jackson, as I told you earlier, you know, that he says that he thinks that they—the thing that most fuels growth is the location of a roadway. It’s not the growth itself, it’s not the anticipated need, it’s where you place the roadway and the roadway is often placed far in anticipation of the need for it. And there might not even be need; it actually develops the need for it. And so, you know, you had this sense that there was going to be a grand parkway there and there was a lot of opposition to it. But—but there was still clearly a sense that that was it. Also with the expansion of I-10,
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people thought I can move farther west and I can still work downtown because now it’s going to be an easier commute. Well, that’s not true and it’ll probably never be true because I think the—the roadways that—the—the—the use of the roadways expand as quickly as the roadways are developed and then they’re clogged again and they need more room. But that has put a—amazing pressure on it, but the real pressure, I think there’re two pieces. One is that there aren’t a lot of controls in the county so people think, ah, they build in the floodplain, can build in the floodway. I’ll just mitigate for it. I’ll build up or I’ll—I’ll raise the—the land four feet so it won’t flood and they get away with it. And the second thing is is the relatively inexpensive cost of land and the availability to assemble large tracts of land. And a perfect example is there was a wonderful estate on the Katy Prairie called the Longenbaugh
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Estate. It was about sixty-three hundred acres and it was in an estate. For the longest time, the value—the—the guidelines that the donors who had put it in, it was their estate, had been—it was to support medical research. And I think that the gentleman who was the lawyer, who was the executor of the estate—because they had no children—felt like eventually real estate was not the best avenue for him to be in. He wasn’t really making enough money with real estate and he wanted it in stocks and bonds and index funds, et cetera. And so he put it on the market and he wanted to sell it for thirty-three hundred an acre. And we felt like oh, it’s to the east
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of us, it’s thirty hun—three hundred dollars an acre. We’ve never spent more than about twelve hundred and fifty. Certainly, nobody’s going to buy it. Just not going to happen. Well, we were wrong. It sold for thirty-three hundred an acre and the gentleman who bought it also got mineral interest. And about, mmm, two years after he bought it, he was about ready to put it into foreclosure. He was—he was really—could not afford this large tract. And along came the Rouse Company. Great master plan, you know, great corporation who does master planned communities on the east coast and they bought it from him at ten thousand dollars an acre, knowing full well that the preferred route of the Grand Parkway was right straight through the middle of this tract. And they assembled about ten thousand acres and they planned twenty thousand—seventeen to twenty thousand homes, about nine hundred acres
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of commercial development, the roadway through it and it is literally about, mmm, a mile from our eastern boundary. And what it did is—a—and they’re—they’re a great development company. Don’t get me wrong, they—they really know what they’re doing. It’s now owned by General Growth Properties, actually, that—they were—Rouse was absorbed by General Growth and they do a lot of development in—in Nevada. And they—they’re—they’re good planners, they o—own the majority interest in the woodlands. But what it made people realize is whoa, if they’re out there, I could be out there. And so there’s been a lot of speculation and now land probably costs twenty thousand dollars an acre and it’s far more difficult for us to buy land or convince a farmer or a rancher that they want to sell it to us when the land might be their retirement package. It might be the only thing they have to
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leave to their children and maybe their children don’t care about the conservation values of it. Maybe the landowner doesn’t care about it. And even if they do, they can’t really give up—twenty thousand dollars? Three thousand dollars. Guess who’s going to win. These guys.
DT: Mary Anne, when we left off, we were talking about the development of the prairie and the impact of having a road that has frontage on the property that you might own and what it does to land values. Can you talk about one particular road that I think you mentioned, just the Grand Parkway, a loop road that would circle Houston and maybe some of the ways it’s being planned, the ways the environmental reviews have gone and what sort of impact that has on land protection?
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MAP: Right. Well, the Grand Parkway would be the fourth loop around the City of Houston, more than any other metropolitan area in the United States today because we have 610, we have six and we have eight—or I guess, it’s eight, then six. And so the Grand Parkway was originally ss—proposed because it was an evacuation route and we have no feeder streets or, no, what do you call them?
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MAP: No, they have ramps, but it—it wouldn’t have feeder roads and it would be really used to get people out of town. And so they decided to do it in segments and there are different segments that go across different parts of the region. And ours is Segment E that goes through the Katy Prairie and o—one of the things that’s really hard to do is that there have to be these environmental reviews for them because there are a lot of federal funds that are involved in this. And so they’re looking at the impacts just of those segments. They’re not looking at the broader picture of what does this do to the whole area? Does it increase the chances of flooding? Does it cause no wildlife corridors because there are no passages through? Does it
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destroy sensitive vegetation? Does it destroy wetlands? And so one of the things that, of course, the groups that are looking at the Grand Parkway must do is to decide, I mean, that—that are proponents of it, must decide okay, it does this, this and this. But they never put all the segments together to say this is the culminating impact of it, if you consider it as a whole because I think many people in the environmental community really are looking at two issues. They’re looking at the need because, you know, truthfully none of us in the—I don’t think—in the environmental community want to stop growth. What we want to do is manage growth and we believe that there ought to be ways to find a bail—balance between the things that people think are wonderful about a region and the things that get you where you need to go and—and help you do your work, get to play, do all the things
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that you need to do. And so sometimes people will say to me, oh, if you run the Katy Prairie Conservancy, you must be against growth. And I say no, we’re not against growth, but you know, the truth is is that I love living in the neighborhood I live in because there was a sense that they wanted to have green space near it. There was a sense that the features that were important, whether it was the trees or the water, were critical to the nature of that area, to the—to the—the sensibilities of its community, the people that wanted to live there. And I said I think we have to recognize that as more and more people move to the region, we have to get smarter about the way we grow. And that may mean that not everybody gets to have a typical suburb—suburban house. Some people will but some people, if given an option, would choose something else. I w—I was in a meeting today about transportation and one of the things that they were saying is that the Department of
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Transportation, our TxDOT, is really not just about highways. It ought to be about transportation and it ought to look at what are the other opportunities for transportation. Now you might decide you really want to drive a car or I might say I never want to drive a car again. I love to be able to sit on a train, read my book, listen to my iPod, sleep, drink a cup of coffee, do whatever I want—or Diet Coke—Diet Coke, in my case, and—and just relax to get to where I want to go. And I might be willing to take a little bit of an extra pain that, you know, it might take longer to get there or it might take a little more trouble, but it’s an option that I have. If you
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don’t give people that option, of course, they have to go to their car and—and I look at Houston and I think the kind of saddest thing that we had—and you have to remember that, you know, with my, you know, urban and regional background, I care about more than just, say, conservation. I can remember the 1990 mayoral election in which, you know, Bob Lanier voted—I mean, campaigned on making our roadways great but getting rid of rail. And I think that was probably one of the saddest days we had in this area because, again, I don’t care how many people want to ride in their car and want to drive and be protected. There are a lot of people who would much prefer to take light rail or, you know, take a train and there are a lot of
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people who only have that option. Don’t have the ability to have a car. And I just—I think it’s kind of sad that we’d all voted to, you know, tax ourselves and then all of a sudden it was okay, we got to have another vote. We have to have another vote. We have another vote. And you know, you sit there and you think Houston could be probably a much different place if you had options. And it’s the same thing with growth. Do—does everyone have to live on half an acre of land, a quarter of an acre of land, have a cookie cutter house, have—I just, you know, as I told you, I—I live in a neighborhood I love, and they’re going to build right next to me. And sad to say, though we have deed restrictions, we have no zoning, they’re going to put a house that they’re going to probably fill three feet to lot line all the way around. And you know, the quality of life isn’t going to be quite so good then. So—so one of the things that I hope all of us in—when we—when we think about the work that
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conservationists do, environmentalists, even more (?) do or people who develop parks or people who plan streets is that you think about the impact it’s going to have, not just on you, but on the next generation and the generation after that. I certainly hope that if somebody sees what we’ve done in—whether it’s in Hermann Park or it’s in Katy Pra—Katy Prairie is that eventually they’re going to say wow, thank you. You—you really did understand that, yes, I want to live here. Yes, I want to have good schools and a nice house and—but I also might want to walk. And—and you know, another reason that it’s so important when you look at this whole region, we’re pretty flat area and so it’s hard to control flooding and one of the things that—that we do with holding large acreage, not as pavement, not as developed building, not as roadways, is that the water can sit there for a while. And if we ever get to our dream and our vision of creating tall grass prairies, it’s going to
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hold water longer. Well, people downstream should be paying us to do that because it’s going to help them not flood because where do the waters come from? They come from the upper watershed, Cypress Creek, from Waller and Hempstead. Places far above the City of Houston. But the City of Houston ultimately will flood if those waters remain unchecked. And so there are so many reasons why you wish that people who are in positions of power and influence recognize that what they do tomorrow and what they do today really affec—affects so many future generations and, again, I—I just—I look at certain neighborhoods and I think, wow, people were really smart that developed those. How come they were so smart and how come
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we’re not as smart? And part of, I think, is—is—is it’s not just vision, it—it’s harder and harder to realize when you’re in a—a growing city like Houston that in order to make money, you may have to give up something. And maybe giving up something is that little extra space. I—I look at West University, which is a little city surrounded by the City of Houston and there are people who built their houses to the lot lines and then they bought the lot next door to them so they could have a yard. It’s unfathomable to me that people do that. And so I think one of the things we ought to do is say let’s save you from yourself. Let’s save you from your stupidity. But let’s also save you—save future people from your, you know, your stupidity. I don’t mean to be on a soapbox, but I think we have to think about those things and—and one of the things that we have to think about is smarter ways to grow.
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And, you know, I—I work a lot with—with a lot of different groups and a lot of the groups are looking at smart growth movement, they’re looking at garden cities. And that may not be for everybody, but it may be for enough people that the people that want strictly suburban development can have it, the people that want to be in a high-rise—who would’ve thought that there’d be a number of high rises in Houston where there’s so much land. Want to live in a loft? You want to live in a highly walk-able area? You know, let’s give everybody options. Let’s not just do kind of cookie cutter development.
DT: Before some of these lands are developed and developed as lofts or single family or multi family or towers, you know, fortunately there’s some open land that’s still left, that hasn’t been affected by the Grand Parkway or by the airport or other pressures. I’m curious what options a group like yours has to protect those lands, especially when they start getting very costly and, you know, there’s fee simple, which I guess works when things are relatively inexpensive. But as they get more expensive, it seems like you get into managing things for multiple purposes, for multiple owners. You know, you got conservation easements and I was hoping that you could talk about the Freeman Ranch or the Warren Ranch or other purchases and arrangements you’ve made to protect lands.
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MAP: Well, you know, interestingly enough, there are probably about forty land trusts in Texas and it’s a pretty new movement in Texas. Much older on the East Coast, where I think Boston had the first land trust ever and even on the West Coast. And so we’re kind of young, we’re kind of feeling our way. Most land trusts do not—other than The Nature Conservancy—don’t really hold land. They use all those other techniques. The Conservancy has—Katy Prairie Conservancy has gone the fee simple route simply because it’s not just that the land was cheap, it’s that’s what the landowners wanted to do. They didn’t want to stay on that land; they really wanted to cash out. But there were a few people that didn’t want to do that and the—the most wonderful one was a gentleman by the name of Merle D. Freeman
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and Merle had a property that we really wanted. It was right across from our Nelson Farms, our first acquisition and it was—it was just, you know, it was productive soils. It was a—a ranch and it had been a rice farm and it was a great piece of property. It was about nine hundred acres. But Merle D., he didn’t want to sell it because he loved that land. And all of a sudden, I—I knew he couldn’t afford to donate an easement, which is basically a legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust or a qualifying nonprofit that restricts certain kinds of activities, m—most principally, development. But you can still build a house on it, you might even be able to subdivide it, but you can’t—you can’t really develop it the way that a subdivision would be. And so I knew he couldn’t do that and all of a sudden, I learned about something called a PDR, which is a purchase of development rights.
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It’s essentially, just like a conservation easement, there’s a bundle of rights that a landowner gives up, there’s a bundle of rights that a landowner keeps. But in exchange for giving up those rights, the landowner gets paid the difference between what he could sell the land for if there were no restrictions and what he could sell the land for if there were restrictions. And in the case of the Freeman’s, they got about sixty-five percent of the value of the ranch as a payment. And the wonderful thing about it was is that their sons—and Merle D, unfortunately, didn’t live to actually execute the agreement and to enjoy the fruits of his efforts. In other words, he wanted to go motorcycling off into the horizon. He was about eighty years old, but he loved motorcycles. He was pretty much a wild man, our own Marlon Brando of
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the Katy Prairie. And he—but his sons, especially one of his sons, just adored the ranch and he really was trying to make a go of it and he couldn’t. And this allowed him to recapitalize his ranch and his mom continued to live there. Derek manages it as a cattle ranch, but he’s also started a pretty active horse stabling business and—and then his brother Dicky, who had a pretty hand—I would say a small but semi okay little auto mechanic shop, was able to get some of the equipment to kind of move to the next level. And they—they were able to keep the two houses that were on there and build another house. Now yes, they—they give up some things. They can’t have a commercial feedlot on there. They can’t destroy the productive soil, so there’s certain things they have to do. That means that they can’t probably have cattle and overgraze it. So they can have a certain number of cattle, but they’re
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under a plan that we worked out with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s natural resources conservation service. But in exchange for that, they got a lump sum payment and they got the knowledge that their—their land would be protected. The other thing they got is that the value of the land through the estate was reduced because when you strip those rights off of it and they passed it down—they will pass it down from the parents to the children, it will be at a lower value, the value with the easement on it. So it worked in many different ways for them. We’ve had other people who’ve donated conservation easements, both for the immediate benefit that they get for the tax deduction. And under the most recent pension act, there was a increase in those benefits over the last two years. They’re trying to make that permanent or at least extend it for another year until they can make it permanent
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from something like thirty percent of your adjusted gross income up to the value of the duc—deduction to fifty percent of your adjusted gross income. And no longer was it just a initial year plus five years, it was an initial year plus fifteen. So if it was a large deduction, you had a longer period to take that benefit. And if you were a farmer or a rancher making fifty-one percent of your income from agriculture, you got to take a hundred percent of your adjusted gross income until it was diminished. Oh—so if it took you fifty years, you got fifty years. If it took you two, you got two. And we actually did get two easements donated that were very wonderful properties and both of them are contiguous to—to our lands that we control. So it again expanded our habitat and our control. The Warren Ranch was an interesting exercise and one that we’re still trying to play out to see how successful we are. The
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Warren Ranch has been a continuous—a—a cattle ranch that’s been in continuous operation since the mid-1800s and there were two parts of the family when Mister Warren—I think it was the second one—married Lenore Jordan. Became a farming and a ranching family and the Jordans were always interested in rice farming and the Warrens were always interested in cattle. And as the families got more and more dispersed and more and more grandchildren, then children were born, the—part of the family wanted to stay on the ranch, part of the family wanted to leave and sell it for—to the highest bidder. The Warrens wanted to stay, most of the Jordans and the Kruffs wanted to leave. And we tried to work with the family to identify ways that they can actually make income on the ranch and they would be
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able to see it as more profitable to keep it than to sell it. We did not succeed. We thought about wetlands mitigation, we thought about organic farming. We thought about grassland restoration, lots of ways. But it became clear that there really was different values that the two sides of family had. But in 2003, one member of the family, who was direct descendant of the Warren’s, decided she’d had it. She really felt that it was a very fractious, family dynamic and she wanted out and she wanted to sell. But the Warrens couldn’t buy her out and she didn’t want to sell it to the Jordans and the Kruffs. So her cousins, the Warren’s, came to the Conservancy and they’d been working with us, they’d been trying to work with Fish and Wildlife, Nature Conservancy and stuff, and they’d asked us if we would buy her out. Now
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the interesting thing about buying her out is that all she had was an undivided interest. And most people thought we were crazy to buy an undivided interest because you don’t really have control over your own destiny when you buy an undivided interest. You’re a member of the family. So we became a member of the family and in 2003, the Jordans and Warrens wrestled control from not only their own thirty-seven percent ownership, they controlled two of the trusts. One trust that was the woman that we had bought from, but she was just a beneficiary of the trust, she wasn’t in control of the trust, and another gentleman, who again, wanted to keep the ranch but was only a beneficiary and a lifetime beneficiary at that. So they had a fifty-one percent ownership and what that meant was that if they wanted
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to, they could sue for partition and anybody who bought it from them could sue for partition. And the importance of that was that it could split up the ranch so that it could be developed and it also meant that someone might like to buy it. So the Conservancy decided to put in a bid and we were just about ready to put in a bid for twenty-five hundred dollars an acre to buy the fifty-one percent. So remember, if we were buying it all, that would be at the new ungodly amount of five thousand an acre for us, maybe even more because there’s some discount for undivided interest, when a developer made a bid and put in a serious offer at thirty-three hundred dollars an acre. And a unique aspect of our being a member of the family is that there was a surface ownership agreement. That’s probably way more information than you need, but the cool thing about it is—is it meant any member of the family
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could match an outsider’s offer. So we matched it. We could not raise that kind of money, it was ten point eight million dollars because the thirty-three hundred dollars bought the ownership of the ranch and it bought them a twenty-five percent mineral own it—interest. It did not buy the ranching operations, which we had gotten at—as—in our previous sale. And so we got a mortgage on it. And the thing that’s been very interesting about it and we’re learning as we go forward, as—as we were successful. We do have a mortgage; we could pay it out over twenty years. We’re going to hit the fourth payment in June first and it’s always a struggle because we don’t have a lot of earned income and—and foundations do not like to fund debt. But we’re working on releasing acreage for every one point five million dollars we raise and that’s helping a little bit. But the—the m—the most interesting thing about
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it is is that it’s a working cattle ranch and the gentleman who’s the ranch manager is also a co-owner. And we’re finding that it’s not possible for us to just step back and let him be a ranch manager, that—that we have to be on an oversight committee and we have to kind of divide up the ranch in a sense. And one of the things that we’re trying to do right now—and again, everything’s a little late with us sometimes—but it’s to look at the different functions of the ranch and find out where should cattle graze? Where can cattle be kept out because there’s beautiful tall grass prairie and then we just go in and we hammer it because we maybe can’t do a fire. Or where should there be a fire and want to be away from the houses? And to manage it more intensively in three ways, which may be, in a sense, incompatible. The first is that it—it’d be a very—m—maybe intense is not the word, but at least, a fairly profitable ranch with haying and cattle operations. That we enhance it for its
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habitat, both vegetative and animal and try to do all the things that we can to spend money, to make it a better place which might ultimately help us with the third issue and that is that we have non-consumptive and consumptive users of the ranch that ultimately become probably the best thing we can do to save the ranch. And that might mean someone who’s coming out and hiking on it. It might be a hunter who is hunting quail. It might be someone who’s fishing in our lake. It might be someone who wants to bike through the prairie or take a boat—a—a horse ride. It might eventually be having a bed and breakfast there and—and I think the King Ranch and
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other ranches around Texas have been very successful at managing all those different things. But we’re kind of babies in that area and so we’re trying very gingerly to step out and do different things. And right now, there’s a section of the ranch that’s kind of split by a road, it’s kind of the north section and it’s got a lake on it that once was probably beautiful. And one of the things we want to do is to bring that lake back to its former glory. Cost a lot of money to do that, so one of the things we’re looking at, I mentioned before, well, how great we are for flood control. Well, there are a lot of developments upstream of us that would love us to help detain some of their water. If we could maintain our own conservation ethic and our conservation values, but we can get money to restore that lake or make it even better and maybe even money to help maintain it and operate it and provide visitor
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facilities around it, like a trail and a visitor’s center and platforms and piers and maybe even make enough money to help pay off our mortgage, then we’re going to do that. Now that, you could say, well, how is that incompatible? Well, it’s incompatible if you’ve got a—a—a ranch manager who wants to have a thousand head of cattle. Where does he put them? Does he have to use that north pasture? And—and we’re going slowly but gingerly, moving to explore all of those kinds of things and, for me, what’s been so wonderful about this is that I don’t think I ever realized when I got, you know, my—my master’s degree that what I really like is being a deal maker. And what I really love is doing the land deals, but it’s making the deals with the flood control, it’s maybe making d—deals with the developers and getting them to do something that fits our ethos and does it better than maybe
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they’d do it by themselves, but ultimately helps everybody. And I—I hear some developers say wow, having an eighteen thousand acre preserve system that has public access next to our development can only be good for our development. It can only allow us to raise our prices up here. Well, if it does, so be it. We’re—we’re not trying to stop them. I mean, I could wish that they weren’t there, but they are there. So if we can use them, so much the better. But it’s also mean—meant that we’ve had to change our strategy. If truly we’re going to get to fifty thousand acres, one of the things we’re now doing is identifying some of the larger landowners in the—on the Katy Prairie and trying to work with them to say we know you love your land. We know your children love your land. What are you thinking about doing? Have you done estate planning? Do you want to save it for your children? Do you want to maybe sell it and make some money, but sell it to a conservation buyer?
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And somebody who will give them cash, but who values that land, who might even pay ten thousand dollars an acre because they want a place where their kids can run and play without worrying about getting hit by a car because they, you know, they ran out in the street. Or worrying about not letting them—I mean, I know I always was worried about watching my kids every minute because we lived in a very urban environment and I—you know, you have to do that. So—so I think we’ve become smarter as we’ve matured as an organization. The question is have we gotten smart enough, fast enough and will we be able to save it?
DT: Mary Anne, you’ve worked for a very urban land trust, park proponent, the Friends of Hermann Park. You’ve also worked for this exurban, rural, in many cases, land trust, the Katy Prairie Conservancy. And you’ve brought these talents and experiences together as a founder and a past chair of a group called the Texas Land Trust Council, sort of a partnership, a federation of more than thirty land trusts across the state. I was wondering if you could tell me what you see reflected in these other land trust experiences and what you tried to cobble together there.
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MAP: Right. Well, I wish I could say I were a founder. My predecessor was one of the find—founding members, but I was definitely an early member and I was on the board for a long time and a past chair. I think what’s been so interesting about the land trust council, which is basically a service organization for land trusts in Texas, is the membership of the land trust community; the—the land trusts themselves bring community values to the front. The reason that they do what they do is because something about their community has value and they found enough people who want to save it. So you might have the Pines and Prairies Land Trust, which is saving pines and prairies. Or you have the Native Prairies Association, which is just statewide and really, really cares about finding every last piece of prairie they can and figuring out a way to save it. But you also have people that are looking at—I’m never going to say this right—but it’s the rock formations. The (?)
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MAP: Yes. And they are—they are—they’re—they care about sort of ideological and historical treasures. And they bring together groups of people to try to work together to preserve what they believe is important in their community. And what’s so interesting when you’re in a small town, and I—I sometimes forget this because, you know, our office is in—we’ve got a Houston office and a Waller office and I sometimes think that we haven’t done a good enough job of—of sort of—what’s the word—kind of embracing that small town thing, being out there because so much gets done there. But the—the smaller land trusts, they bemoan the fact that they don’t have Brown Foundations and Houston Endowments and Exxons and Mobil and—and Conoco Phillips to fund them. On the other hand, they’ve got a wealth of—of expertise in their community and they’ve got lots of hands who want to work on it
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and they’ve got the ability to plant a small enough venue that they really can wrap their arms around it. But often they have the same problems that the big ones have. It’s—it is, you know, finding money. It’s—it’s timing. You know, when an opportunity comes up, can they put together the package fast enough to save that particular property? It’s cultivating people and that takes a long time. There’s a lot of, I think, mistrust sometimes, especially when I come in with my sort of New England accent and I’m talking to farmers and ranchers who are out in Katy and who probably, you know, are standing there, thinking who is she? What does she want?
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And that happens all over this state. You know, why are you talking to me about my land? What do you know about my land? And I think that sometimes we all have to step back a little and realize that most of those people have been on the land for many, many years and they have a passion about it and they’re knowledgeable about it. And you have to—you have to really find out what’s important to them, whether or not, you know, it’s the money, whether or not it’s the culture, whether or not it—it is conservation of their land, passing it down to their children. In all of the land trust community, we have that same thing and we sometimes get so focused on ooh, we’re saving this, we’re doing this, that we forget that we need partners. We need a lot of partners. You know, it’s the Rotary Clubs, it’s the
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Chambers of Commerce, it’s the—it’s the—the engineer down the street. And it’s harder when you’re in an urban one because even though you have more people like that, they’ve all got a lot of interests, whereas in—in a smaller community, sometimes you can find a lot of people. I think a land trust community itself has a lot of issues right now. We’re—there’ve been some parts of the country in which, because people have embraced this conservation ethic and gotten benefit from it financially, maybe some corners were cut, maybe some things were done that maybe, probably weren’t done as carefully as they would. Not done wrong, just done maybe too quickly and not enough documentation. And so now we’re all with land trusts, looking back and saying should we be having better standards and
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practices? Should we be having better records? That’s good. We’re growing up. We’re maturing as organizations. And the Texas Land Trust Council is helping us do that by bringing in the Excellence Program for these guided assessments to say where are we lacking? Where are we doing good? Or where are we doing well, excuse me. Those kinds of things.
[End of Tape 2415]
DT: Mary Anne, we talked a little bit about your work with two land trusts, the Friends of Hermann Park and then the Katy Prairie Conservancy and then for this federation of land trust service group, the Texas Land Trust Council. You also have been on the advisory council for a group called the Texas Coalition for Conservation, which advocated for better funding for Texas Parks and Wildlife. And I was wondering if you could talk about this tension that often exists between trying to be a neutral, market oriented land protector, by buying land on the market from willing sellers and then the other role that sometimes you have to play where you’re an advocate in the political realm and how you reconcile those two?
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MAP: Right. Well, in lots of cases, I think a lot of us view it as educating people. Certainly we are, you know, advocates for things that we think are important to us and in the case for the Coalition—Texas Coalition for Conservation, I think all of us recognized that our parks were in a dismal state. There were parks that were being closed, parks that couldn’t be maintained. There were—there was equipment that was so old that you had to actually steal parts from other things to try to put back together the tractor. And I’m always amazed when I hear things like that because Texas, and you know, you’ll recall I’m from New England, but Texas—when I came down here, I was told it’s the biggest and it’s the best. And you’d think you’d want its parks system to be the biggest and the best. And while it’s true that a lot of the land in Texas is privately owned, a lot of people’s only ability to have access to
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land is on public lands, whether it’s the teeny tiny neighborhood park to the great regional parks we have or to Big Bend, to places like that or far afield to go to Yellowstone and National Parks. And so I think all of us in the community recognized that if we didn’t have a good state park system and wildlife management areas and places where our wildlife and our people could coexist that we were going to be in a state that a lot of people weren’t going to want to stay in. I mean, you—you talk about young people wanting to stay in your area and a lot of times, they are far more outdoorsy than perhaps their parents are. And they like to hike and they like to bike and they like to climb mountains and they—they like to be outdoors and canoe and kayak and if they go to a state park and things are maintained or taken care of or they can only go there an hour a day, that’s—that’s going to make them
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want to go someplace else. And one of the things I’m finding out—whenever I look for an employee, I—I look and I see they—they’ve worked here two years, they worked here two years, they worked here two years, I used to think ooh, they can’t keep a job. Well, now they understand, they’re a young person and young people have lots of opportunities to go different places. Well, it also means they can go to different states. And so one of the things I think all of us banded together to say is we know that if we tell our legislators that this is important and that surely they will understand why it’s important and that if their dollars can be used to effectively manage these parks and to bring them back up to the standard that we would all want our public to see, that they’re going to do that. And you have to do that and you have to recognize that, unfortunately, that’s the way things get done now, is
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that it’s not always that your representative or your—your senator is going to know what’s best for a community. They’re listening to what their community wants and who talks the loudest or who says, you know, the most of what this needs to be done and I think one of the brilliance of what George Bristol and the board of directors and all the people—and there were many, many people who worked over this, all over the state—recognized is that we can probably only get one shot at this to do this well. And they—they did something that I think was really important. The Sporting Goods Tax had been dedicated to Parks and Wildlife and little by little, it was—it was capped. And so all of a sudden, the tax, which grew and grew and grew was not all used for Parks and Wildlife. It was used for other things. And so we all
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recognized, let’s go back and say you know, look at the sad state of affairs. Our public wants it. We’ve got a growing population, they need access to this and the money’s there and they are the users—the end users of it. The people that buy the running shoes to hike, the people that buy the licenses and the—and the sporting goods equipment; let’s get some of that money back. And fortunately for all of us, enough of those legislators thought the argument was a good one. But I think what it does say to us is all of us need to be really smart about preparing a good case and finding the right people to present that case and then having enough of the people who care about that. And I think that, you know, I was a very small part of it. Yes, my board took part in it and—and you know, it’s okay for people to educate. It’s even okay to lobby. Under the Internal Revenue Service rules, you certainly have to
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limit how much you do of that, but it’s okay to do that. You just, I think, have to use a judicious use of it and I’m so thrilled that the Texas Coalition for Conservation was successful because my hope is that they’re going to go back and get more and that they’re going to also try to see if they can get even more money for conservation in this state.
DT: Let me ask you, I guess, a more personal question. You’ve been talking about educating your political representatives. Let me put you in the position of trying to advocate for all this conservation work that you’ve done, but maybe towards a younger generation, towards your kids. How would you make the case to them about why this is important to you and why it ought to matter to them?
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MAP: Right. Well, I—I guess I’d personalize it and, for example, to my youngest, who loves to ride bikes. He used to go bike riding with a family friend and one of the scariest rides that they ever did was that they went thirty-five miles from Bray’s Bayou all the way to the Katy Prairie. And eventually, I think that there will be a trail system that al—would allow him to not have to go on any roadways. He was ten years old at the time that he did this, and fortunately, I—I trusted this friend a lot and so I did it. But one of the things I’d like to say to him is imagine a network that goes along our bayous that can get you from—all the way from the Gulf Coast all the way out to the Brazos River and you’d never have to cross a highway. You might have to go over a bridge, you might have to go through an underpass, but
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wouldn’t that be an amazing ride? And for him, I think it would be fabulous. For my middle child, I think what I’d say to her is I know that you think that we’re all going crazy, using up everything that we have and you—you want to recycle this and you want to recycle this and I try to do that as much as you can. But imagine if you could’ve recis—recycled a landscape. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to keep that, to be able to do what I told you earlier—the air quality, the water quality, the flood reduction? For her, even if she never went there, never saw the Katy Prairie, it would be important to have it because of what it would do to help, maybe, climate change, to help, you know, reducing pollutants and sediment offloads from roadways
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and farms. Also, you know, the—the carbon sequestration. For her, it would be wonderful and she—she would really like that. For my oldest child, he’s a runner and he—he sees big pictures really well and I think one of the things he thinks about a lot are legacies. And I think he thinks it’s absolutely spectacular that a population today can kind of see into the future. He—he’s very much the historian and I think what he wants to say is wouldn’t it be great if fifty years from now, my kids—if I have any—could say you know, my grandmother worked on that or my great-grandmother worked on that. And a group of, you know, committed citizens did this and Margaret Mead has this wonderful quote and it says “never underestimate what a small group of committed individuals can do”. And I think for him, he’s going to say I want to know that, historically, this is going to matter. And so for them, y—
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you know, I think the appeal is sometimes we suffer from—especially on the Katy Prairie—there’s so many reasons why it should be saved, whether it’s flood reduction or it’s greenspace or it’s the bayous or it’s the grasses or it’s, you know, the access to the lands, the hunting, the—the—the farming, the agriculture, locally grown produce. But the truth is—is that, I guess for all of them, the most important and most compelling way to tell them is to get them out there and have them experience it because anybody who’s gone out there and comes away from it, I think, has a different sense about what it is. And it’s—it’s personal and that is what’s going to make them want to go back and maybe—maybe they don’t save the Katy Prairie. Maybe they don’t—that it doesn’t—it doesn’t speak to them, but maybe they go to their neighborhood and they say, you know, I’d like to do an urban garden—a
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garden, an urban har—harvest garden. Or I’m going to—I’m going to r—get rid of all the Saint Augustine and I’m going to put in ground cover that doesn’t take much water. And I think if we can touch a person in a—and in—in their own way, then it’ll make a difference for them and maybe they’ll save something. I hope it’ll be the Katy Prairie, but maybe it’ll be making Hermann Park better or Memorial Park, but whatever it is, it—it’s going to be, I think, ultimately better for all of us. And—and—and in that sense, I think that sometimes we get in bubbles. I used to—I don’t know if you remember Maxwell Smart. They had the Cone of Silence and it was always so amusing because, you know, it wasn’t silent. But yes, exactly, he took his shoe off and he listened. But the truth is—is that if we s—if we live in that little bubble and
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we don’t realize that we have an impact on a larger community, it will be a pretty awful place and—and for me, that’s the way I think I try to appeal to them and I try to we—reach them is you have a responsibility. But even more than a responsibility, if you help do this, it benefits you, it benefits your family, it benefits the future and I—I hope that resonates with them.
DT: Well, you can’t say it better than that. Is there anything you’d like to add?
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MAP: No, except I—I—you know—as you know, I went to this Land Trust conference and I got to hear about this project and I just think it’s phenomenal. I wish everybody, even if they aren’t a conservationist, would kind of record their family and just talk about their histories, about why—I mean, I’m a first generation American on my dad’s side. He was born in Tivoli, Italy and it’s just so amazing to see all the different landscapes that you have here and, you know, I’ve—I’ve lived in Italy and the—the different things there and I just—I’m—I’m kind of sad that people, when they have the ability to capture these stories, don’t. And I think it’s terrific that you’re doing it and I’m sure you’ve got lots of really, far more wonderful people than me that you’ve done this to, but I do—I do think it’s great that you’re doing it.
DT: Well, thank you. Thanks for your time today.
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MAP: You’re welcome. It was fun. I’m sorry, I’m a motor mouth.
DT: Not at all.
[End of Reel 2416]
[End of Interview with Mary Anne Piacentini]